With as much monkeying-around as his movies frequently display, it should come as no surprise to John Landis fans that one of his earliest inspirations as a filmmaker was the original 1933 version of King Kong. The man behind such carefree comedies as Animal House, Landis has also helped to blur the lines between comedy and horror with such efforts as An American Werewolf in London and Innocent Blood, in addition to crafting such fine-tined social satire as Trading Places.
Born in Chicago in August of 1950, Landis originally worked in the mailroom at Fox and later as a stuntman before making a name for himself as a director. Landis was in his early twenties when he decided it was time to make a feature, and after a brief flirtation with the idea of crafting an underground porn film, the aspiring director raised the funding needed for his directorial debut from family and friends. The result of his tireless efforts was the relentlessly juvenile but infectiously silly Schlock (aka The Banana Monster ). Featuring the director himself dressed in a cheap monkey costume (designed by frequent collaborator Rick Baker) and terrorizing a California town, the film opened a door for Landis when David Zucker spotted him discussing the film on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Mentioning to friend Robert Weiss that he was impressed with the young filmmaker's energy, Weiss remarked that he was friends with Landis, and the result was The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977).
A dream collaboration in anarchic humor, the wildly irreverent, non sequitur humor of The Kentucky Fried Movie struck a chord with audiences fueled on Saturday Night Live, and natural progression lead to the breakthrough comedy Animal House the following year. Based on the writer's college exploits and shot in a mere 28 days, Animal House proved an unmitigated smash hit at the box office despite nearly unanimous critical denouncement. Though critical evisceration would become a trademark of Landis films, the following decade found the now-established director in his prime. Given free reign over his next film by Universal, rumors still persist that The Blues Brothers was the first film in cinematic history to begin production without a finalized budget. A loud and spectacular collage of driving blues music and eye-popping car crashes, the film not only made the world record for the number of cars crashed in a movie, but proved an even bigger hit than Animal House.
For his next film, Landis utilized a script he had penned while in Yugoslavia working as a gofer on Kelly's Heroes in 1969. Though An American Werewolf in London may not have been the first horror film to utilize comedy, its truly terrifying scenes contrasted by an ample dose of dark humor proved the spark that would ignite the horror comedy genre later expanded on by the likes of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. Yet another runaway hit at the box office, An American Werewolf in London's shockingly frightful visuals earned makeup artist Baker the first ever Academy Award to be bestowed upon a special effects artist.
As successful as Landis' career had been to date, trouble was on the way when filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie was ground to a halt following the accidental on-set death of star Vic Morrow and two juvenile actors. When special effects caused a helicopter to crash, killing all three passengers instantly, the director, as well as three other technicians who were working on the film, were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Though all would eventually be found not guilty in the case, the trial would drag on for a decade. Despite the tragedy that beset the production of Twilight Zone, Landis would score a massive hit that same year by wolfing it up with pop-superstar Michael Jackson as the director of Thriller.
The remainder of the 1980s found Landis scoring mild box-office hits with such efforts as Spies Like Us (1985) and Three Amigios! (1986), though it wasn't until Coming to America (1988) that he would score another direct hit. An ideal vehicle for Eddie Murphy, the film brought the gifted comic actor back into the realm of straight laughs following the one-two action punch of The Golden Child and Beverly Hills Cop II. Though Landis would once again team with Murphy for the third installment of the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, audiences had tired of the comic's wisecracking cop by the mid-'90s, and following on the lackluster performance of Oscar (1991) and Innocent Blood (1992), the director's career went into a bit of a slump. Landis did, however, find moderate success at this point in his career as the catalyst and sometimes director of the popular HBO series Dream On.
When it was announced in the late '90s that Landis was set to helm a sequel to The Blues Brothers, fans were left scratching their heads in wonder as to how the film could recapture the chemistry between John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd that had played such an integral part in the success of the original. A rare instance in Landis' career in which critics and audiences agreed, Blues Brothers 2000 immediately tanked at the box office as mournful fans of the original struggled to comprehend how and why this could have happened. Released straight to video that same year, Susan's Plan offered an equally abysmal attempt at comedy that went largely unseen.
As willing to jump in front of the camera as behind, Landis has frequently displayed his healthy sense of humor by appearing in such films as The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984), Darkman (1990), Vampirella (1996), and 2001 Maniacs (2003). In addition to the frequent use of the phrase "See you next Tuesday" in his films, in-jokes abound and fans can always count on the director to break out the old monkey suit for a laugh if all else fails.