The Horror Movie Magazine You Can
Really Sink Your Teeth Into
Issue #8

Schlock: John Landis and Rick Baker Reminisce Buy now from Movies Unlimited! 

David Christenson

Schlock, DVD released 2001 by Anchor Bay Entertainment; rated PG, 79 minutes, color, widescreen (1.85:1 aspect ratio) enhanced for 16x9 TVs, Dolby digital mono, includes theatrical trailer and four radio commercials, optional audio commentary by writer/director John Landis and make-up artist Rick Baker, stills gallery, text talent biographies. Suggested retail price: $19.98.

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DVD coverViewing Schlock set me to thinking about that brief era of genre parody movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Schlock came early in that cycle, in 1972, and has since been overshadowed by better known (if not better) pastiches: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1980), Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) and a few others. These are comedies targeted at fans of 1950s science fiction flicks, created by filmmakers who spent their youth going to drive-in movies and trying out makeup ideas from the back pages of Famous Monsters. My personal favorite is It Came From Somewhere Else (1988), for my money the funniest of the lot, today out of print and generally forgotten—but that’s another article.

Schlock is the first film directed by John Landis, who later brought horror fans An American Werewolf in London (1980), Innocent Blood (1992), and segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). He’s also a pioneer of the dumb high-concept comedy, from National Lampoon’s Animal House (1979) and The Blues Brothers (1980) to Three Amigos! (1986), plus some of Eddie Murphy’s biggest hits. All of Landis’s movies—even the ultra-low-budget Schlock—show a talent for brisk pacing and slapstick editing, an occasional moment of visual bravado, and an awareness of genre movie history.

This is also one of the early films of makeup maestro Rick Baker, who later collaborated with Landis on the groundbreaking American Werewolf, winner of the first make-up Oscar, and contributed convincing ape suits for serious fare such as Gorillas in the Mist (1988) and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984). Baker also turned Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi for Ed Wood (1994).

I suppose I’m writing about the pedigree of the moviemakers, rather than the movie, because the movie itself is an insufficient reason to buy this DVD. However, Anchor Bay knew exactly what this disk needed to make it worthwhile: an honest and insightful audio commentary by Landis and Baker.

They say that Schlock was “inspired” by Joan Crawford’s unfortunate swan song, Trog (1970). Trog is so bad that a parody is redundant, but Landis is really just using the plot framework of a missing link on a rampage to display a number of sight gags and movie buffs’ in-jokes.

The movie gets off to a slow start with a somewhat strained sequence, a broadly parodied television newscast from a mass murder scene littered with banana peels. The vaguely familiar Saul Kahan carries the load early on as a clueless police detective. But things pick up when the apelike “Schlock” (short for Schlockthropus) takes over the screen. Landis himself is inside Baker’s nicely realized ape makeup, and does a fine job in the role. The movie references come thick and fast; Landis sends up scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Frankenstein (1981), invokes the property destruction comedy of Laurel & Hardy, and of course quotes from King Kong (1933). In the latter sequences, Schlock falls for the pleasant looking Eliza Garrett, who plays a temporarily blind woman who mistakes the ape-man for a dog.

One of the best sequences was added after the movie found a distributor, Jack Harris, who loaned Landis $10,000 and some footage from the drive-in classics The Blob (1958) and Dinosaurus! (1960). To use this material, Landis has Schlock wander into a movie theater, where we have the bizarre effect of a movie within a movie within a movie, as the characters in Schlock watch the characters in The Blob watch a scene from Daughter of Horror. Incidentally, this scene features one of the best bit performances of Forrest J Ackerman, who is perfectly deadpan while the missing link takes the theater seat next to him and insists on sharing his popcorn.

So much for the high points of the movie. The high points of the commentary are more interesting. Low-budget films, especially by first-time filmmakers, usually have some wacky stories behind them, and Schlock is no exception. There are the usual tales of recruiting family members and friends as extras, and doing location shooting on the fly. For the climactic shootout, they “borrowed” weapons from the local National Guard armory; at one point they rented a car and smashed it into a tree. Baker and Landis are forthcoming about their own early histories, and they’re witty scholars of genre film history. At one point they get into a discussion of ape suits in film history, and these guys are obviously connoisseurs of the subject, to the degree that they can recognize ape suits and their owners without reference to the credits.

On most DVDs, behind-the-scenes information is pretty boring, because most films are boring studio products, and most documentaries and commentaries are thinly disguised public relations junk. In this case, Landis owns the rights to the movie and can say whatever he wants. The director sums up the value of this movie nicely: “I think Schlock [the character] is pretty good, but the film embarrasses me.” Think of this DVD as a showcase for Baker’s early work, or an interesting audio commentary with a movie attached to it, and it’s worthwhile. There are a lot of bad commentaries for good films on DVDs these days; an informative and amusing commentary on a mediocre film is refreshing.

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David Christenson is a journalist, photographer, dealer in used and rare books, ex-beekeeper and movie buff who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2002 by the author. All rights reserved.