Summer 2008

John Landis
(MPress, 250 pages, $29.95)
By Giulia D'Agnolo Vallan

John Landis Book CoverFalling somewhere between Festschrift and Friars' roast, this oddly assembled, yet highly entertaining mess of a book may be the perfect approach to the work of John Landis, one of the great American comedy directors of the last 30 years. Vallan has eschewed a traditional biographical approach in favor of a more collage-like compilation of Landis' own writings (on Disney, Laurel and Hardy, etc.), interviews with almost all of his collaborators and people who influenced him (Landis himself interviews Jack Arnold), and those he influenced including Guillermo del Toro and Sam Raimi.

It turns out that the director of Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and Michael Jackson's Thriller has some surprising friends, as one can tell by a picture of Constantin Costa-Gavras and Gillo Pontecorvo in his backyard. The former is one of the many directors who have had cameos in Landis' movies, and both of these imposingly political European filmmakers are big fans of The Kentucky Fried Movie. Costa-Gavras notes that Landis has seen everything and that, if you meet him, he'll know all your movies, "not just your movies, but all the sequences, too, and shot for shot." Other friends include such diverse figures as David Cronenberg, Frank Oz, Joe Dante, Amy Heckerling and Gurinder Chadha-and because they are artists and comedians in their own right, their contributions are intelligent and often very funny. Del Toro says, "Landis is rooted in the classics, but he offers us the rock 'n' roll version."

Inevitably, the tragic, accidental death of Vic Morrow on the set of The Twilight Zone is a significant part of the book, with several friends noting that Landis was abandoned by pretty much everybody in Hollywood at the time of his trial. But there is also room for a critic like Dave Kehr to offer a defense of lost Landis films like Into the Night (a great L.A.-plays-itself movie), and writer Sir Christopher Frayling to offer a fascinating reappraisal of Three Amigos in the context of the early Hollywood "Mexican" movies that inspired it.

Despite its loose and freewheeling scrapbook style, Vallan's book does one thing very well: it drives you out to rent every last one of Landis' movies-and they stand up very well indeed.

Review written by John Patterson.


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