Of all the 1980s superstar genre directors, John Landis had the most interesting back story. While his peers like Lucas, Spielberg, Carpenter and Reitman were studying film at college, Landis took the classic route of dropping out of high school at 16 and getting a job in a studio mailroom (in Landis’s case, 20th Century Fox). From there he became a gofer on the shoot of Kelly’s Heroes and spent a few years working around the film sets of Europe as everything from a stunt man to a script doctor. By 1971 he was back in California, a 21-year-old filmmaking veteran with $30,000 in savings and a plan to direct a film of his own. Inspired by a late-night screening of Joan Crawford’s terrible last feature Trog, he made Schlock, a broad parody of monster movies featuring a rampaging missing-link killer apeman. Landis not only directed but wrote the script and played the monster, having raised the other half of his final $61,000 budget from friends and family.
Viewed today, Schlock plays very much as what it is: a self-taught student film. There are some amusing scenes and clever ideas, but the tone, quality and pacing veer wildly. In both the commentary and the accompanying interview, Landis claims he learnt far more during the editing process than he did during the shoot; it was while putting the film together that he realised all the things he should have shot and no longer had the time or money to go back and get. Without sufficient coverage or alternative angles, he couldn’t cut into scenes to fix them. At less than one hour twenty minutes it feels long.
And yet for fans of Landis and monster movies in general, it is definitely worth a watch for two reasons: firstly, however raw he was, Landis already had a clear filmmaking voice. He knew what he wanted to achieve, even if he didn’t yet know how to achieve it. All the excess, film references and rule breaking that made his later films so much fun are already present and correct (including the first appearances of Landis’s recurring movie-within-a-movie See You Next Wednesday). And while the comic timing of the film as a whole is often out, Landis’s timing as a performer is consistently excellent. Despite being hidden under an ape costume, he entertains with a succession of double takes, eye rolls and other bits of comic business he wouldn’t get to repeat in front of the camera until his mute hitman turn in 1985’s Into the Night.
The second reason to watch Schlock is that ape costume, which was the first credited work of legendary makeup effects artist Rick Baker. Positioned somewhere between 2001 and Planet of the Apes, it is a work of art: instantly recognisable, slightly cartoonish yet legitimately menacing, while remaining sufficiently expressive that Landis was able to give a real performance. (It is also worth noting that because it took so long to get Landis into the suit, he also had to be able to direct in it.)
For both Landis and Baker, Schlock was ultimately a success in that it furthered their careers: Baker was soon working, albeit uncredited, on a much bigger ape, 1976’s King Kong, and while promoting Schlock, Landis came to the attention of the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, which led to Kentucky Fried Movie. By the time Landis and Baker worked together again, on An American Werewolf in London, they were both at the top of their professions. Schlock is not even close to being in the same league, but as an origin story it does have its charms.
Beyond praise for Baker’s work and a couple of sight gags, during his commentary Landis has very little good to say about Schlock. Yet he obviously thinks enough of it to have maintained a print in absolutely pristine condition. Unusually for a tiny-budget debut, Landis elected to shoot in 35mm, and the results are leagues ahead of comparable 16mm productions. The image is bright and clear with a fine consistent grain. The sound is also better than you might expect, especially in its presentation of loud, brash music cues.
Opening the extras, Arrow have included the commentary from Schlock’s 2001 DVD release featuring Landis and Baker recorded together. The two are obviously still friends, and Landis wheels out a few of his showpiece anecdotes, but the track is oddly stilted. Almost all the best stuff appears again in the excellent 40-minute interview with Landis also on the disc. He goes into detail about his early European adventures, the Schlock shoot, and the amusing sequence of events that eventually resulted in him getting Kentucky Fried Movie. A short video interview with the cinematographer Bob Collins offers a nice alternative take on what it was like to make a movie with a 21-year-old kid in a gorilla costume during a blazing hot summer. Especially for this release, Arrow have interviewed critic Kim Newman, and he is well-worth listening to, putting Schlock into context with other low-budget productions of the era, like Equinox and Carpenter’s Dark Star. Finally, a good selection of promotional material is included.
Schlock is out on Blu-Ray now, released by Arrow Video.