|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 02 October 2001|
John Landis likes to describe his great struggle to break into movies. There was his uncle, see, playing golf with his best friend, Darryl F. Zanuck; Landis' uncle says, "I got this crazy nephew wants to get a job in the movies...." And soon Landis was working in the 20th Century-Fox mail room.
But his ambitions knew no such bounds. He worked as a stunt man both in the U.S. and in Europe -- if you watch closely, you might be able to pick him out in "Kelly's Heroes" and at least one of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood Westerns. Using the money he earned in Europe, borrowing more from friends and relatives, the ferociously enthusiastic Landis managed to assemble enough to make "Schlock."
It's exactly the kind of goofball movie you might expect from a 21-year-old kid with an intense, if unusual, sense of humor and a love for science fiction, horror and action-adventure movies. As he reveals on the commentary track, Landis was mostly inspired by the truly dreadful "Trog," Joan Crawford's last movie, in which she tried to tame a revived ape-man.
"Schlock" begins with the aftermath of a gory, if comic, slaughter: bodies litter a playground, and banana peels litter the bodies. A George Putnam-like announcer (Eric Allison, just right) reveals that there have been 789 deaths in three weeks, with banana peels the mark of the killer. (In fact, at one point, "Schlock" was released as "The Banana Monster.")
A passing scientist claims to be convinced that the killings are the work of a Schlockthropus, or Schlock, the missing link. One day, he says, Schlock was bopping along through a prehistoric jungle and fell into a river. All of a sudden, the Ice Age came along and froze him solid. Now he's thawed out and killing people.
One of the onlookers is Schlock himself (Landis himself), and he is indeed some kind of ape man. The suit and makeup are the work of Rick Baker; it wasn't his first professional job -- that was for the dreadful "Octaman" -- but it put him on the makeup map. Schlock is a wonderfully ratty costume, and yet, with the excellent facial appliances, it's strangely convincing as well.
Landis is actually nothing short of great as the apeman; highly expressive, constantly inventive, he adds to Schlock's characterization with every scene. In view of the style of the movie, this is especially unusual, since the movie itself wasn't remotely intended to be convincing. It's a wacko comedy, the kind of film in which cops always weave madly down the highway, where when bombs go off they leave bystanders unharmed, but covered in soot. There aren't many wisecracks -- it's not that kind of comedy -- but there are scenes of blind people walking into walls. Sometimes, the gags are so arcane, come from so deeply inside Landis, that they're inexplicable: two different women pull bundles of walnuts out of microwaves. After unbandaging the eyes of a blind girl, a doctor walks into a closet, never to be seen again. The only possible reaction is wha--?
Schlock falls in love with Mindy Binerman (Eliza Garrett, now working as Eliza Roberts), the temporarily blind girl. She thinks he's a big friendly doggy, he thinks Me Schlock, You Jane. There are, of course, complications and a climax based on "King Kong." But before the end, the movie, and Schlock, kind of wander about aimlessly; the best sequence is in a movie theater, where Schlock learns that pushing a button won't necessarily get you an ice cream bar, but also that, if you're a threatening-looking apeman, pointing at a candy bar will get you plenty of candy. Overall, the more we see of Schlock, the funnier, and better, the movie is.
Landis and Rick Baker provide the relaxed, funny commentary track; they're long-time friends, and both hard-core movie geeks, bright and full of jokes, which is great. But they're also full of information; Landis tells a wonderful tale of how he first met Baker (who had very supportive parents), and Baker of how awed he was to meet, not just a moviemaker, but a JEWISH moviemaker. Landis reveals that the woman playing Mindy's mother may be billed as Enrica Blankey, but she's actually Helen Medin, an American who starred in many Italian films, including some of Mario Bava's horror classics. And that cop in the background is director Laszlo Benedek ("The Wild One"), and the loud-mouthed National Guard Captain is makeup expert John Chambers ("Planet of the Apes"). It's one of the most entertaining commentary tracks for a movie of this nature, rivalling that on "Piranha." The print used for the DVD is in good shape, letterboxed and 16X9 enhanced. The color looks rather washed out much of the time, but then again, that's how it looked in theaters, too. The trailer is included; in fact, part of the trailer is actually the opening of the film. There are also radio spots, talent biographies (too limited), and that excellent commentary track. (Personal note: it used to be common in Los Angeles for theaters to announce, in discreet little boxes, "major studio sneak preview tonight." I loved to go to those, because you never knew what you were going to get. I was very puzzled when one of these little boxes announced "minor studio sneak preview tonight." The movie turned out to be "Schlock." Truth in advertising.)
"Schlock" is one of those rare movies where it doesn't really matter all that much if it's "good" or "bad." It's so wacky, so unusual, so much itself that it's definitely worth a watch -- especially if you check out the commentary track, too.