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John Landis

Few movie genres date with as much fluctuating unpredictably as comedy. What is hilarious to one person is humourless to the next. What is daring and boundary-breaking to one will just be in poor taste to the other. Some comedies are so reliant on contemporary social mores that the laughs are whittled away over time. Does anyone really still think that Will Hay’s comedies are hilarious, or Abbott & Costello’s, say?

The maturation process whereby movies pass through opprobrium, obscurity, rediscovery and reassessment is especially tortuous for comedies. A joke has to be pretty strong to withstand thirty or forty years of scrutiny, and the film must withstand repeated viewings and still retain the ability to amuse. I can’t imagine anyone, not even the people who made it, will remember Epic Movie or Meet The Spartans in 2044.

It’s one of the great touchstones of maturity when you discover that what you thought was the funniest film ever made as a ten year old – The Cannonball Run in my case – is actually a mirthless and appallingly lazy spectacle of waning talents taking the corporate dollar to drive cars and shout at each other (though Jack Elam’s mad doctor with the long finger is still pretty funny). It is far more satisfying to discover that your juvenile tastes were occasionally right on the money, à la Trading Places, which is even funnier now that when I was 12 years old.

Trading Places was directed by John Landis, whose best work was released in the late 1970s and 80s. A bit like Mel Brooks, who made three of the funniest films ever made in a row then struggled to find form again, Landis lost his strike-rate after 1989. By that point, he’d been the subject of seemingly endless court actions, from Art Buchwald’s successful plagiarism claim against Coming To America, to a royalty dispute with the makers of his highly innovative Thriller video and, most seriously, the negligence claims about the tragic deaths of Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children on the set of Landis’ segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (Landis was acquitted). Maybe after all that, things just didn’t seem that funny anymore?

For a while though, everything Landis touched turned to gold. His movies have endured and many of them are now rightly considered classics. His love of mayhem and in-jokes – the cameos from fellow directors and the Where’s Wally-style use of the line, ‘See You Next Wednesday’ – belied an intelligent, informed reshaper of classic formats.

In recent years, Landis has become a respected authority on the horror and fantasy movies he adored in his youth and in 2011 he wrote a brilliantly researched and entertaining book on the subject, Monsters in The Movies. He remains one of the most joyously ebullient and candid interviewees on the planet. And he is not dead.

KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE

1. KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1978)

”The popcorn you are eating has been pissed on.”

Kentucky Fried Movie is not a great film; like a lot of sketch-movies, some scenes work better than others and some don’t work at all. However, it vibrates with the punkish, anti-establishment instinct that its collaborators would all soon perfect with massive commercial success. As well as being Landis’ first hit – his first film Schlock disappeared pretty quickly and has yet to be truly rediscovered – Kentucky Fried Movie was written by Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker who would take film spoofery to its zenith two years later with Airplane!

With a budget that wouldn’t cover the mineral water allocation on most movie sets, there is a scrappy, juvenile quality to the whole endeavour which seems entirely apt. The movie-brat generation (Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin et al) had spent the 1970s making great movies for themselves and their cine-literate peers. Now, it was their cheeky younger brothers’ turn and they made – fairly uniquely – silly comedies purely for themselves and their silly friends. The movie-brats had grown up loving Buñuel, Renoir and Welles. Landis and his cronies, while indulging similar high-brow tastes, also adored the B-movies and cheap-ass Drive-in films of the 1950s, and KFM reflects that high appreciation of low art.

Highlights include the William Castle-mocking “Feel-A-Round” sketch, where a cinema usher personally re-enacts the on-screen action into the face of a paying customer; the extended kung-fu parody A Fistful of Yen, and a rare chance to see George Lazenby in anything other than a James Bond film. Given all that would follow in its wake, KFM feels a little like the first Rolling Stones album. It’s not great, but on the evidence presented, you can tell that Exile on Main St isn’t too far away.

See You Next Wednesday? The movie playing in the Feel-A-Round sketch, narrated by one Leslie Nielsen.

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