John Landis Essay - Critical Essays

Landis, John


John Landis 1950–

American film director and screenwriter.

Landis is noted for zany comedies that poke fun at contemporary culture. Containing a combination of slapstick, sight gags, and satire, Landis's films effectively convey his sense of the absurd. Landis first gained critical attention as a director for The Kentucky Fried Movie. This film, similar to Ken Shapiro's The Groove Tube, consists of fast-paced vignettes that parody commercial television, sex education courses, and such film genres as the martial arts and the Blaxploitation movies produced during the early 1970s.

National Lampoon's Animal House was an enormously popular film that greatly advanced Landis's career. Primarily a satire on collegiate life, Animal House is a direct assault on authority and self-imposed stratification of social fraternities. Landis's next film, The Blues Brothers, which he wrote with comedian Dan Aykroyd, is a rhythm-and-blues musical whose epic structure has been compared to the MGM musicals of the Depression era. An American Werewolf in London is a spoof of the werewolf films popular during the 1930s and 1940s. Although this film contains many of the same comic elements used in Landis's earlier work, it is noted also for its realistic special effects.

Because of the tone of his films, Landis's work is considered buffoonery by some critics. However, Landis insists that his work contains serious social commentary, claiming that "all movies are political, no matter how silly they are."

Lawrence Van Gelder

Anyone interested in the condition of humor and wit in the United States stands likely to come away depressed from "The Kentucky Fried Movie."… "The Kentucky Fried Movie" is in the tradition of "The Groove Tube" and "Tunnelvision." The range of its satire and comedy, as displayed in 22 segments running from a minute or two up to 30 minutes, is fairly narrow.

Television is both an inspiration and a preoccupation, with commercials, news shows, early morning talk-news shows, talk shows and 50's-style courtroom dramas all serving as targets.

Movies come next. "Cleopatra Schwartz," dealing with the love of a black superwoman and a Hasidic rabbi, is this movie's comment on black exploitation films.

Disaster movies, soft-core pornographic movies and martial-arts films are also the focus of a mordancy that gives the impression—particularly in the 30-minute martial-arts segment—of being undercut by the maker's affection for the original genre. Sex records and charity appeals are also inspirations for efforts at humor in this 86-minute film, which seems at least twice as long….

Television is at once this movie's nourishment and onus. The caliber of television wit and humor has never been uniformly high, and comedy derived from it is likely to have difficulty surmounting such humble origins. It is little wonder, then, that "The Kentucky Fried Movie," being freed from the restraints of television, though not from its inherent defects, occasionally descends into juvenile tastelessness (a dignified woman using four-letter words; a board game built around the assassination of President Kennedy; a charity appeal involving a child's corpse)….

Lots of people will probably like "The Kentucky Fried Movie," just as they like Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's hamburgers. But popularity is still no reason for deifying mediocrity.

Lawrence Van Gelder, "'Kentucky Fried' a Yolky Film," in The New York Times (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 11, 1977, p. C14.

Richard Schickel

The Kentucky Fried Movie is a sort of National Lampoon that talks and moves. It offers a compilation of very broad show-business parodies aimed at sophomoric sensibilities (and those permanently arrested in those realms). The picture is indelicate, obvious, often less funny than it thinks it is, but lively and sufficiently on-target to reward casual attention.

Most of the film satirizes television commercials and movie trailers. Since such bits and pieces cannot, in the nature of things, exceed the length of the material being sent up, the misfires do not detain, and are quickly forgotten. Among those most likely to be remembered—at least for a day or two—are a beer commercial in which those seeking gusto from the suds are a group of Hare Krishna sect members coming in after a hard day's chanting and leaflet peddling, and an institutional plug from an oil company experimentally reclaiming oil from greasy containers cast off by fast-food restaurants.

There is also a public service message … informing the world of death's danger signals and advising what to do when the end arrives (don't attempt to operate heavy machinery). Finally there are previews of coming attractions, the products of the fevered imagination of a mythical movie producer, Samuel L. Bronkowitz, offering foretastes of epics like That's Armageddon.

Bronkowitz is also producer of record of the movie's longest,...

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David Denby

Fraternity-house pranks, which depend on humiliating your rivals and yourself at the same time, may be the lowest of all forms of humor, but they have a necessity that anyone can see: They are probably the only form of rebellion available to square college boys. (Hip kids tend not to join fraternities, i.e., they get laid off campus.) In a few years those boys will be doctors, lawyers, businessmen, but at nineteen they can make outrageously cruel and infantile jokes and no one will give them too hard a time. At college I halfheartedly admired the guys who tore themselves apart on Saturday night, but I never wanted to join their revels. National Lampoon's Animal House, which is a genial, uneven, occasionally hilarious celebration of frathouse anarchy, doesn't give you the chance to stand back: The movie says that anyone who won't join the fun is a prig….

Animal House was written by three National Lampoon contributors (Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney, and Chris Miller) as a continuation of that magazine's nonstop guerrilla war against respectful attitudes toward culture, women, blacks, animals, etc. The year is 1962 at Faber College, one of the less rigorous West Coast institutions. The place is in a state of war. On the one side is Delta House, a sorry collection of fatties, geeks, near-criminal misfits, and outrageous make-out artists (our heroes). On the other side are the embattled dean … and his obsequious...

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Penelope Gilliatt

"National Lampoon's Animal House," directed by John Landis, is set in a college called Faber in 1962. But it is not by backdating comedy that one gets away with bad comedy. This comic-book frat-house farce goes WHAM! EECH!! at the expense of a system that self-evidently fosters invaluable intelligences. The picture gives us much facetiousness about a fat undergraduate who steals food (ZOWIE!!) and a professor who apologizes because "Paradise Lost" is a long read (SPLAT!!!!)…. One's ribs are nudged until they ache. The witty hard truths about American college education in the early sixties scarcely inhere in guffaws about beer-drinking and about rather Germanic pranks and about the taking of "diet pills" during exams. Some of us—a lot of us—were there at the time, and the pith of any good lampooning would surely lie in showing the straits of a privileged class of young people with a feeling of thwarted morality. A point could be made of the fact that there are virtually no blacks in the student cast, but the film ignores it. Nor does the picture, in its roll call of stereotypes, give any attention to the intellectually underendowed. The status of being intentionally funny is awarded exclusively to the good-looking and the successfully flirtatious. If one didn't know something about education here, one would think it hermetic from the rest of the world to the point of hygienic refrigeration; if one didn't know the unique rapidity and self-criticism of humor here, one would think wit an absent ingredient. The film tells social untruths that go beyond the excuse of presenting the sort of humor called "undergraduate." "Animal House" depicts a university life that is deeply antiacademic, an undergraduate life that is as blind as a pit pony, and an almost criminally false idea of the national sense of the comedic. The inhabitants of this country, including its undergraduates, surely proffered in the sixties some of the bravest jokes in its history. (pp. 53-4)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Glazed," in The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LIV. No. 26, August 14, 1978, pp. 53-4.∗

Vincent Canby

"Animal House" is cinematically sloppy—I've now seen the film twice and I still can't separate some of the people. There always seem to be two characters who look much alike to represent a single type. It's full of supposedly comic scenes that have no adequate punch lines to end them, and some of the cross-cutting seems to have been done during a blackout. Yet the movie's fondness for sloth, mess, vulgarity, non-conformism (circa 1962, of course), as demonstrated by the members of an epically disorganized college fraternity, is frequently very, very funny.

The targets of its humor (gung-ho fraternities, neatness, Nixon, chastity, sobriety, Vietnam, patriotism, ceramics) are not exactly sacred at this point, but the gusto of the movie is undeniably appealing. So too are the performers….

The success of "Animal House" … is rather easier understood after the fact than before. Among other things, "Animal House" calls attention to a sentimentality not previously acknowledged in a movie like "American Graffitti." I suspect too that some portion of the movie-going public is a lot more bored with orderliness—with the formulas—of conventional comedies and dramas in theaters and on television than has been recognized heretofore. ["Animal House" manages] to suggest the sublime, if sometimes infantile, joys of chaos and disorder without seriously questioning the system that contains them.

Vincent Canby, "What's So Funny about Potheads and Toga Parties?" in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1978, p. 17.∗

Ian Hamilton

[There are many laughs] in the National Lampoon's Animal House: the decor, the uniforms, and many of the attitudes come to us straight from early Presley campus idylls, or even from Rebel Without a Cause, and at least some of the chirpy delinquencies derive from Sergeant Bilko, but the film's animating spirit is blisteringly up to date. More than just a comic fantasy about going back to school to punch some loathed teacher in the mouth, it's essentially a mean-eyed dream of vengeance against what Teacher, in that bygone epoch, used to get away with teaching.

The setting is an Ivy-Leagueish American college in the early days of the Vietnam conscription, and the characters are sliced into...

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Eric Braun

[Landis] shows firm control of the satirical content of [Animal House] so that every jab strikes home and very few gags go on too long, unlike his Kentucky Fried Movie where almost every sequence lingers until the initial laugh turns to a yawn. His bad-taste buds have been tightened, too, so that the killing of the bully-boy officer's adored horse by the idiot freshmen trying to prove themselves as 'mad, bad and dangerous' as their peers, stops short of actually wanting to make one throw up and produces instead a smile of relief—but only just….

This is a painfully funny movie, which may offend as many as it amuses, but, to quote Gloria Swanson: 'It's not the fault of films today...

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Martyn Auty

The self-conscious irony of equating a junk movie with junk food suggests exactly what is wrong with The Kentucky Fried Movie: its knowing comedy is so disposable as to be almost non-existent. Parody follows parody, each one half-baked and then half-digested. Here and there a trace of humour suggests an idea that might profitably have been developed (the trailer for CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE, or the straight black comedy that follows Henry Gibson's lugubrious "United Appeal for the Dead"), but the problem is essentially the same one that defeated The Groove Tube (an inauspicious antecedent). Parody has no existence beyond its object, leads nowhere, is not sharp enough to amount to satire nor...

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Janet Maslin

There isn't a moment of "The Blues Brothers" that wouldn't have been more enjoyable if it had been mounted on a simpler scale. This essentially modest movie is reported to have cost about $30 million, and what did all that money buy? Scores of car crashes. Too many extras. Overstaged dance numbers. And a hollowness that certainly didn't come cheap. A film that moved faster and called less attention to its indulgences might never convey, as "The Blues Brothers" does in all but its jolliest moments, such unqualified despair….

["The Blues Brothers" features] two very deadpan white men whose love of black culture forms the story's main, perhaps only thread. This aspect of the movie, potentially its...

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Lawrence O'Toole

There's no denying that certain scenes in The Blues Brothers have a wild, off-the-hip humor, and that the great Aretha Franklin sings a sizzling Think and that the stunt work is spectacular. But this cop-chase-car-crash-let's-be-as-crass-as-we-can farce, where everything in sight is smashed with infantile pleasure, has a rankling edge of desperation to it. That desperation reflects the sorry state of movie comedy right now, which began with the anarchic Animal House and left a trail of forced funnies—Meatballs, 1941, Where the Buffalo Roam, Roadie, Wholly Moses et al. Crude comedy used to release us from our complacencies; now the vulgarity has lost its charm—it has become, ironically,...

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David Denby

The Blues Brothers is a monstrous $30 million expansion of a ramshackle old Hollywood musical revue (like The Big Broadcast of 1938)—the kind of movie that used to be made for a few hundred thousand dollars. Those vaudeville musicals, their unrelated musical numbers stitched together with comedy routines, often featured jazz musicians, or black singers and dancers who would never get the chance to star in a movie of their own. Racism was built into the form. Well, things haven't changed all that much in 45 years…. Hectic, exhausting, often gross and stupid, The Blues Brothers nonetheless makes a tiny purchase on immortality when Aretha Franklin opens her mouth to sing.


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Pauline Kael

It has taken all these years for Aretha Franklin to reach the screen—and then she's on for only one number! Getting her into "The Blues Brothers" was the smartest thing that the director, John Landis, did; letting her get away after that number was the dumbest. (p. 95)

This musical slapstick farce, set in Chicago, is good-natured, in a sentimental, folk-bop way, but its big joke is how over-scaled everything in it is, and that one sequence that's really alive is relatively small-scale. John Landis has a lot of comic invention and isn't afraid of silliness, but in terms of slapstick craft he's still an amateur. This showed in "Animal House," but it didn't seem to matter as much there: the sloppiness...

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Andrew Sarris

Like so many other contemporary movies, including the anticlimactic The Empire Strikes Back, the overproduced The Blues Brothers could have been better rendered as an animated cartoon. The uncomically surreal car smashes belong in a Roadrunner series, and Belushi and Aykroyd are infinitely more effective in motion than in conversation. As for the great black musical performers—Aretha Franklin, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and James Brown—they might just as well be featured in vaudeville shorts for all the dramatic or narrative impact they have. For example, Aretha Franklin literally stops the show with her soulfully feminist rendition of "Think" when her man is tempted to leave the kitchen of...

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Janet Maslin

Imagine a college boy from Great Neck, L. I., carrying a knapsack and wearing a down parka, wandering very, very incongruously across the English moors. Now imagine two such innocents abroad, to the musical accompaniment of "Blue Moon." As the song suggests, the sun will be going down soon, and the moon will be coming up, and those deserted moors will prove to be not so empty after all. "An American Werewolf in London" begins on a note that's equally balanced between comedy and horror, and that also has a fine touch of restraint. It gets off to a wonderful start.

John Landis, who also directed "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers," has the makings here of a much better movie than either of those....

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Jack Kroll

John Landis ("National Lampoon's Animal House," "The Blues Brothers") is a member of the wise-guy generation of movie directors. The wise guys include major talents like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and lesser talents like Landis and others. What they have in common is their neo-hip attitude. "I am a movie camera," the wise guys might say, and what they see through that camera is not so much the real world as other movies, which they parody, put on, take off and otherwise play with like the brilliant kids they are. Landis has now come up with An American Werewolf in London, a nearly perfect specimen of the wise-guy movie.

This film is a spoof of the old wolfman horror classics starring...

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John Pym

Sophomore humour appeals, if at all, simply because it is sophomoric; thus, there was no dickering with 'sophistication' in the John Landis team's Animal House. [In An American Werewolf in London], however, the material calls for a much lighter tread, so often has the ground been covered by film-makers in hobnail boots. Landis ends An American Werewolf in London with a title card congratulating the Prince and Princess of Wales on their marriage; and hovering above the preceding action is a feeling that it is taking place in a cinematic country of the imagination not far removed from tourist Britain. Trafalgar Square, Tower Bridge, the Zoo and Piccadilly Circus are all used, and all perceptibly...

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