“I can always make something work, if I have a camera.” – John Landis
There are two John Landises. There’s the director equally at home with comedy as he is with horror, and renowned for mixing the two. There’s the classicist filmmaker of Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988), and the sketch-comedy anarchist who, with Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams, co-created The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977). There’s the self-proclaimed liberal Jew whose reverence for Civil Rights and soul music contributed to the revitalization of careers from Cab Calloway to Michael Jackson, and the filmmaker who once cut from a character’s comment on studying “primitive cultures” to a shot of a Crazy Black R&B singer; an originator of gross-out comedy and the critic of the morals of Knocked Up; the guilt-ridden overseer of the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and the scriptwriter of Dying to Get Rich (Susan’s Plan; 1998) whose character goofs on how easy it is to kill people. Finally, there’s the “compassionate, caring and moral soul” painted by Abrahams in Giulia D’Agnolo Varran’s book on the subject, and the monster he’s been portrayed as in the media for such antics as making a pistol gesture at one witness for the prosecution, and attempting to trip another, at his involuntary-manslaughter trial.
Not surprisingly, there are two types of characters in a Landis movie, too, struggling for dominance in society as well as the personality. There’s the heartless upper- and heart-of-gold underclass of Animal House (1978), Trading Places and Burke & Hare (2010); the inept military and police forces of The Stupids (1996) and The Blues Brothers (1980; not to mention the geopolitical and criminal underworlds of Into the Night , Innocent Blood  and Oscar ) and the “average people” whose lives they disrupt. Similarly, there are divided individuals the likes of the missing link amok in the civilized world of Schlock (1973) and the protagonists of the horror-comedies An American Werewolf in London (1981), Blood, Burke & Hare and the Masters of Horror episode “Family” (2006), not to mention the morphing/transforming Michael Jackson of the groundbreaking “Thriller” (1983) and “Black or White” (1991) music videos. Add to this the simple pairing of characters, from the two London travelers, Spies Like Us (1985) “decoys,” Jake and Elwood Blues, Places‘ brothers Duke as well as brothers-from-different-mothers Louis Winthorpe III and Billy Ray Valentine, on up to the title resurrectionists of, again, B&H.
Not dissimilarly, there are two phases to Landis’s career: before The Twilight Zone and after – meaning, mostly, after the trial. In the four years between the accident and his acquittal for the series of grave miscalculations and brash lapses in judgment that led to the three actors’ deaths, he produced some of the most classically structured and controlled features Hollywood was turning out at the time, his streak broken only after a second legal battle, over Art Buchwald’s origination of the story for Coming to America. It was as though, by then, all the money he had made for the studios was no longer worth the bother of litigating on his behalf, and his drift toward series television, documentaries and commercials had begun. The man for whom Trading Places actor Ralph Bellamy’s ’40s career trafficking between A and C pictures had been a revelation was soon to find himself unable to accommodate such an oscillation himself anymore. His later career became a mishmash it would be tempting to criticize for lack of focus but for one thing: its astonishingly consistent high standard of quality. On film, at least, the man could do no wrong.
Watching his work Before the Accident, there’s a temptation to read into it all manner of portents – the aftermath of carnage, including the bodies of children, that opens his first film, Schlock; the avenging consciences of Blues Brothers‘s female nemesis and American Werewolf in London‘s dead buddy, and that film’s title character, whose pleas to be locked up for his erratic actions affirm an early and keen, though at times keenly avoided, self-knowledge. After the tragedy, so many moments that might have been amusing in a macabre Buñuelian sense – the Innocent Blood character kicking away a severed head (Morrow and one of the child actors were decapitated in a helicopter’s mortar-driven crash); The Stupids‘ children, again depicted in the middle of pyrotechnic mayhem; the torturing-their-daughter’s-murderer comeuppance finale of “Family” – are instead cringe-inducing, as you recognize that this is a man whose personal censor doesn’t work like other people’s. (In interview, you often wonder if he hears himself talking.) This Tourette’s tendency may endear him to his friends and may once have made him a terror on the set, but for the critical viewer (as well as one with his or her own less-than-spotless conscience) it can make the films themselves a fascinating and often confounding exercise – though seldom less than an experience.
What makes Landis the artist tolerable is the sense that on some level Landis the moralist sees what he has done and will not let himself off the hook, even if the world (and Landis the survivalist) have managed to do just that. Just as it’s difficult imagining the reaction of the families of any of the actors killed on his set to some of the scenes of mayhem in his pictures or indeed his gleeful and at times confrontational attitude toward such action before and after the accident – many scenes playing out as if he were saying, to himself and the world, “See? I can control chaos” – it’s almost unfathomable how he must have felt while filming them. How in fact do you devise, orchestrate, set up and execute the comic removal of a character’s head after witnessing the real beheading of a lead actor and small child not thirty feet from you? Is it callousness, as many assume, defiance, or something more akin to self-revulsion that makes it possible – even compulsory?
If some have been waiting for a mea culpa from the man, the closest thing they may get is the last of his theatrical features to date, Burke & Hare.
A film of contrasts and parallels, like most Landis, Burke & Hare pits upper-class Edinburgh society against lower, commerce against art, power against progress, id against superego, humor against horror and horror against hero, and personal interest against conscience and morality. The third film under the revived Ealing imprint, a studio recognized for its often coal-black comic style, it invites the viewer to empathize with its title 16-time murderers and be entertained by their activities, then has one admit “We’ve done terrible things” and be hanged for the admission. Given Landis’s history, it’s hard not to take the film as an engagement with those behaviors he had defended in court and alternately shied from and exulted in on film, and a coming to terms with them the only way he knows: by treating the whole thing as a joke. It’s a horrible way to admit wrongdoing of such magnitude, made possibly more horrific by the fact that for some members of the audience, it works.
In a speech from the scaffold that after several years and no more cinema from the director may seem like a valedictory, the penitent William Burke confesses his crimes of murder with the stipulation that he “did it for love” – meaning, to earn the money to finance his celibate sweetheart’s all-hooker Macbeth – and it’s clear what Landis is getting at. The irrepressible youth with an encyclopedic knowledge of film who quit high school to hitchhike across Europe to act as stuntman and gofer on a series of mostly forgotten first and second features, who wrote, directed and starred in his own first film at 21 then toiled away on the sidelines five more years until getting his next break on Kentucky Fried Movie, was driven by movie love to act against his own conscience on a hapless spree now cut short, and after getting away with it for so long was now ready to take the fall – on his own terms.
Landis, who likes to hint at deeper meanings to his work – the political subtext of the car-crash pageant at the end of Animal House; the portent behind the naming of the American Werewolf pub The Slaughtered Lamb – may acknowledge the blurring between film life and real life in that work. He enjoys filling bit roles with other directors he’s familiar with, like guest musicians sitting in on a session, and has named his own children after the brother and sister in Werewolf; his habit of having actors break the fourth wall is a way of connecting the two worlds while at the same time saying “I’m one of you.” It was this impulse to make as real as possible the fictitious realm of The Twilight Zone that led to his insistence on placing his actors in real jeopardy during the Vietnam rescue scene that was to climax his segment of the anthology. (The segment was to end in redemption for its racist character. The accident ensured that it did not.) So he must be aware on some level what he’s saying about himself and his experiences in these stories, and how they will come across to those who don’t share his view of that person and the facts behind those events. Which is why viewers need to take him more seriously possibly than he takes himself.
He has more than once touted the influence of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie on his approach to film, and though the more slapstick and gonzo aspects of his style make comparison to the arthouse sophistication of a Buñuel difficult to feature, it does help explain quirks like his characters’ frequent lapses into dream (and even dream-within-dreams) without clear connection to the overall contour of his narratives. What it certainly does do, at any rate, is betray his prankster’s affinity for disruption; even of his own work. When The Marcels’ BOM-BA-BOM-BA-DANGADANGDANG comes in at the end of American Werewolf in London to hail the finish to what Landis has proclaimed is not a comedy, the viewer may feel insulted for having had any emotional investment at all in his tragic characters, until working through these feelings to realize the director himself might not see the interruption as funny at all. Or tragic. Or anything other than a movie. (David Cronenberg has said that his friend “is a genre filmmaker, but it’s hard to decide what genre it is.” Which is not to say his work is anything new; everything Landis has done, with the possible exception of Animal House, has been done to formula; it’s just that it’s not always one formula, and seldom a hybrid. His films are neither here nor there. That may be a compliment.) In the end, the comedy emerges as another horrific aspect of life, as Landis the Jew who modeled Werewolf on his own travels across the continent that shortly before his birth had been home to the fiercest genocide the world had ever seen would well understand. So the context one must bring to any of his films is that the comedy may not necessarily be a laughing-off of the tragedy even of one’s own actions, but as the only way someone in his position may have of addressing a situation so mortifying to behold. The point is not that he’s sloughing anything, but that he’s at least not turning away.
So, again, there are two main characters in Burke & Hare (a sort of Blues Brothers 1828), both first-named William and so easy to read as two facets of the same personality, both based on real figures. The carnal, conscience-free Hare, possibly so named here for his and the missus’s mating habits, often proves the devil on the shoulder of the more modest and philosophical Burke. A couple of army veterans from Ireland now in Edinburgh, like the backpacking Americans in Werewolf and other fish-out-of-water characters throughout Landis, they’re first found in a marketplace hawking a miracle cure while at the same time another pair of healers ply their trade in the rival medical colleges, à la Animal House‘s dueling frats, that are the city’s main industry. The latters’ careers are fueled by the cadavers that permit them to advance their science through dissection – commodities soon supplied one of them by the out-of-work Irishmen.
The doctors are loose parallels for the title hucksters: Robert Knox, of the Berkeley School of Anatomy, whose introductory scene preparing to remove the top of a cranium and next inquiring into “the mind of God” equate him with the more cerebral Burke; and his scientific and political nemesis Professor Alexander Monro of the Royal College of Surgeons, whose first-scene amputation of a leg establishes the running gag of the foot fetish placing him at the other end of the physical and metaphysical hierarchy and associating him with the similarly earthy Hare. Knox gets the greater share of screen time, his opening-out of the human body suggesting the film itself as an autopsy on the director’s moribund film career, this his first theatrical release in over ten years.
The men are complemented by Hare’s wife Lucky (“not a forgiving woman,” Burke notes), who, surprisingly, supports her husband in his murderous trade, and Burke’s prostitute of a girlfriend, Ginny, who uses his naïveté to get him to bankroll her theatrical ambitions in exchange for perpetual sexual frustration. Landis is hardly the first filmmaker to project his own ambition onto the object of desire in his work, and it’s telling that here she is so unremitting; such figures oftentimes conflate with the muse, as well, with whom Landis may also have become recently disenchanted. After her theatrical triumph, Ginny again puts off consummating her relationship with Burke, and both talk of moving on, she to the West End, he avowing how Edinburgh (read: Hollywood) had “changed – I’ve changed.” By this time the director had already heavily involved himself in series television and documentaries and would next produce his first coffee-table book, Monsters in the Movies, possibly never again to essay the role of film director.
Burke wins Ginny’s heart through his analysis of Macbeth’s character, with whom Landis has established sympathies. His initial “He did it for love,” later owned outright on the gibbet, is quickly qualified “and power.” Take that as an admission on the part of a high school dropout made good (though certainly allowed inklings of inferiority among his film school colleagues) that the prestige sought by a Ginny meant something to him as well, and may be part of what drove him to act beyond his own sense of what was right. “Macbeth isn’t wholly evil,” Burke asserts: “There are traces of goodness and regret within him. That’s what makes him such a great tragic hero. The whole play is about his inner struggle between good and evil. Right and wrong.”
If this is Landis reaching out, through his character, to articulate what for reasons of ego or legality he cannot express any other way, is there tragedy in that? Or is it more like atrocity? (Any who try to reconstruct the Zone incident without having been there are in effect fashioning their own Twilight Zone, with their own reasons for assigning guilt or responsibility. None who attempt such is entirely innocent, either.)
Hare senses Burke’s naïveté in pursuing Ginny and uses her as Mephistopheles did Helen of Troy to lure Faustus to his destruction. In a parallel construction, Dr. Knox is seduced by the new technology of “héliography,” now known as photography, in helping him realize his goal of mapping the human body inside and out. (This is part of a competition for medical advancement instigated by the King in his legislative seat of Holyreuth, whose pronunciation by Landis’s characters leaves no doubt but that it’s a double for that other company town, Hollywood.) The equation of film and death is a serious one, which the director of course plays for laughs, although queasy ones: the product of the doctor’s photographic collaboration with innocent cameraman Nicéphore is presented in graphic and unsettling detail, the dissections reminding of nothing so much as concentration-camp-experiment documentation. (Or, perhaps, exhibits in the Twilight Zone trial.) Much is made as well of the coining of the term photography, as it is of protection money and Burking, suggesting the film as a form of etymology – a taxonomy of guilt.
One of the film’s bravura montage sequences (heralded within the action as “a multiple dissection!”) contrasts Ginny’s opening night with the constabulary’s seizing of the photographic evidence of Knox’s collusion with the murderers. This second conflating of theater, or film, and death suggests not only the Zone catastrophe (Burke & Hare produced around the time the accident footage hit the Internet) but of the director’s attitude toward the cinema in general as being over and done for him; the subsequent machinations of the investigation and arrest deepen this sense of a gruesome party being over. The contrast also between fiction and documentary reality amplifies the play between Shakespeare’s dialogue and Landis’s action: Macbeth’s oration beginning “Blood hath been shed ‘ere now, i’ th’ olden time” is a clear analogy to Twilight Zone, the concluding “but now they rise again” an expression of the prince’s guilt not easily lost on the director.
Still, there’s an effort at self-exoneration in the ironic arrest of Nicéphore, the man behind the camera, rather than Knox, the one responsible for the spectacles the Frenchman had merely documented. The engine behind this raid is the recognition of a ruthless entrepreneur, or pimp, Danny MacTavish, on the dissection table. Introducing the cadaver as “our final subject” proves prophetic, but also metaphoric: the ultimate subject under examination, we understand, is what organic functions lay within a seemingly conscienceless being to whom other people were chattel in the attainment of his own aims. It is as clear a self-indictment on the part of its not-conscienceless director as we are likely to receive, in the only arena he may have felt safe to do so. When word of MacTavish’s fate reaches the ear of “Wee” Tom McClintock, head of police on his own campaign for political advancement, it’s not only a burlesque on the petty foolishness of the law during the Landis trial, particularly that of showboating prosecutor Lea D’Agostino, but a larger recognition of one’s actions by the enforcer-Superego in what the film’s opening narrator had established was a period of Enlightenment.
The two couples’ term in jail – Lucky and Ginny also having been incarcerated for complicity – provides a space for soul-searching by turns confessional and rebellious. For Burke, the separation from Ginny allows for a taking-to-accounts we might imagine Landis found during his ten-year filmmaking hiatus. At the same time, a comic feud between Lucky and McClintock turning on her religious bigotry leads to his peculiar declaration of being half-Jewish, suggesting the director’s partial owning of his own persecution. Landis’s wife, Oscar-nominated costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, has herself noted the outsider nature of Jewish identity, and this resonates in the various oddballs, foreigners, itinerants and otherwise displaced persons in so many of her husband’s works, and the proliferation of unwelcoming bar scenes they find themselves stumbling into. If the subtext of much of one such feature, An American Werewolf in London, was the transformative experience of traveling the homeland of Nazi appeasement, what could it have meant to return there 27 years later to stage one’s own Nuremberg?
Some of Landis’s insurgency is well placed. The scene of Solicitor-General Lord Harrington’s jockeying with the righteous, aspiring McClintock to give up his portfolio on Knox presents an easily imaginable scenario of what goes on in Hollywood in such situations and what may indeed have backdropped Landis’s own experience while dealing with the Twilight Zone debacle. (Quoth the Lord, “We’re rightfully proud of our status and of our traditions. It would be a pity to sully them with a scandal such as a high-profile murder trial.”) If Michael Cimino and Brian De Palma could be thrown under a bus by memoir-writing producers and headline-seeking chroniclers for merely losing the studios money on Heaven’s Gate and Bonfire of the Vanities, you can guess what discussions must have been like following a triple homicide.
The deal now-Colonel McClintock offers Burke & Hare to effect the Lord’s plan carries with it a whiff of Sophie’s Choice: Should one of them take the onus and meet their fate, everyone else would walk. Burke’s self-sacrifice, predicated on his finally getting to sleep with Ginny, in this light reads like Landis’s deal with his own devil: he’ll admit his misdeeds once and for all on the film’s first-and-final stage of the scaffold if he can just commune with his angel-muse in the prison of that studio he turns into a bridal suite for the occasion. The result was his last magnificently mounted spectacle in the grand tradition, which the public largely ignored – barely, if at all, released in his home country. Ginny is last seen disappearing into the crowd; Burke & Hare was to be the first and so far only Landis film to not include his running gag of the hopeful-sounding mañana found on movie posters and theater marquees throughout his work, See You Next Wednesday.
The last shot in the feature is of the real William Burke’s skeleton on display even today in the University of Edinburgh Anatomy Museum following his corpse’s offering up to Monro for dissection, as Landis his corpus for his critics. The final cameo then in a Landis picture appears to be the director himself, baring his bones, if not his soul. It’s as arresting a conclusion as that end to American Werewolf, and for the same reason. Go ahead and laugh, Landis seems to be saying; it’s not funny.