John Landis’ shoe string budget directorial debut, Schlock comes spruced up to Blu Ray from Arrow Films. In many ways it anticipates a lot of cinematic trends of the 1970s. It is a plotless, anarchic, film referencing, counter-culture, yet innocent movie that is not very good but is competently made and weirdly sweet natured and is recommended for two reasons: John Landis’ wonderful performance and Rick Baker’s far better than should be expected make-up.
The Production: 3/5
Rhymes with “clock.” Schlock is both an adjective and a noun. From German: Schlag: a “blow”; perhaps the Yiddish means merchandise that has been “knocked around.”
- A shoddy, cheaply made article. “It’s a piece of schlock.” “Where did you buy that? In a schlock-house?”
- A defective or fake article; an object one was cheated over. “That watch will never keep time. It’s schlock merchandise.”
- A disagreeable, peevish person.
- A shrew, a whining wife, a yenta – and a slob to boot. “His beloved? There’s a schlock of a girl.”
Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish
I think we can say that 1 and 2 above pertain to John Landis’ 1971 movie. Maybe 3 if we consider that the Schlockthropus is pretty irritable. There are shmos, shnooks, shaygets but no yentas, and thankfully no schmaltz (or very little) in this movie.
Schlock opens strangely with what seems to be a teaser for the very movie you are about to watch. It also closes with a teaser for an unmade sequel. As the credits appear on the screen we see Schlock’s path of human destruction in a playground littered with corpses and banana peels. At the scene, a Ted Baxter like newsman reports that the Banana Killer is responsible for this mass murder and he then invites the viewers to participate in a contest guessing the exact number of bodies in a group of trash bags. The winner will receive a chicken dinner for six. He ends his report with a plug for the six o’clock movie. There are gags going on in the background as police and emergency workers remove the bodies. In some ways this material – the mixture of news and entertainment – is ahead of its time. It isn’t exactly Chayevsky, more like a clever high school imitator.
There is no plot in Schlock; just a series of hit and miss scenes of various people encountering the lonely Sclockthropus. The only thing resembling a plot has to do with Schlock falling in love with a blind high school girl. Along the way are lots of allusions or homages to other movies including the obvious ones, King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Trog. Others include Frankenstein, Elvira Madigan (?!), The Blob, and even Laurel and Hardy’s Big Business. There are even flashes of Groucho Marx in Schlock. The best bits include a scene a scene in a movie theater and a surprisingly charming musical number with Schlock playing a Boogie Woogie duet with a blind pianist.
There are few professional actors in the movie and the best performance is from John Landis himself as Schlock. Thanks to Rick Baker’s impressive no-budget make-up Landis is able to communicate a great deal of facial nuance. His scenes with children, particularly the scene of Schlock eating ice cream with two little girls, come off as sweet and it looks like the girls are having a blast. These scenes are impressive considering Landis was barely an adult when he made the movie and inexperienced directing adults, let alone children.
Landis’ chief inspiration is the silly Freddie Francis 1970 movie Trog. In a supplemental interview Landis talks about seeing Trog on a triple bill in a Hollywood Boulevard grindhouse. It is a strange starting point because other than it being Joan Crawford’s last movie, it is pretty forgettable – unless you happen to be a Monster Kid of a certain generation. God knows I have a soft spot for Trog as a result of multiple viewings in the early 70s.
Schlock is worth noting as it is one of the earliest theatrical features made by a Monster Kid (Spielberg, Dante, Zemeckis) and in some ways it could be described as the kind of movie that a horror movie host would make if they weren’t making fun of this type of movie. I could very well imagine Cleveland’s (where I grew up) The Ghoul directing a movie like Schlock. The result would have been far less polished of course because of John Landis’ talent and movie knowledge. Landis was wise enough to hire an experienced DP because with the exception of a couple of out of focus shots it is well photographed by Robert Collins.
The title Schlock operates on a couple levels because of the creature’s name, and because movie obsessed John Landis knew that even as a 21 year-old he was producing a piece of schlock, it could also have been titled chutzpa because he took a chance and was talented enough to make it sufficiently polished within its limited resources to get distribution, thereby becoming, as he points out in the supplements, a movie director. Also, by titling the film Schlock it is as if the young Landis was defensively disarming would be critics by beating them to the punch, almost announcing that the film is “a piece of schlock – what did you expect?”
After kicking around in various jobs in and around film productions for nearly five years, young high school drop-out John Landis decided to take most of his life savings, along with money raised through friends and family, and direct a movie. Landis was also able to recruit friends he had made while working around the industry such as directors Lazlo Benedict and Andrew Marton as well as Planet of the Apes make-up creator John Chambers (who is funny in his small role). And of course, there’s Monster Kid patron saint Forrest J. Ackerman in the amusing theater scene.
Landis would interestingly not direct another feature for around five years when he directed Kentucky Fried Movie for the team of writers and performers that would later make Airplane. Both of those movies (and you could throw in The Grove Tube and Tunnel Vision) are clear descendants of Schlock. The biggest problem with Schlock is also its greatest asset in that it was made by an inexperienced filmmaker. He admits himself that the film is poorly edited and blames his inexperience as a director for not getting the proper coverage. That is true, but the film is poorly paced and that might also have to do with his inexperience as a writer as a more structured script would have helped. While Landis was talented he didn’t yet have the skill to produce a movie like An American Werewolf in London, produced ten years later where he combines many of the elements of Schlock with much greater success.
3D Rating: NA
Schlock is presented in 1.85:1 from a 4K scan done by Turbine Media Group. I was surprised at how good this transfer looked. Colors, blacks, and grain look good, in fact, far better than what one would expect from this title. Cinematographer Robert Collins deserves almost as much credit as Landis and Baker for Schlock being as watchable as it is – according to Landis it was shot in 11 days.
The audio too is very good for a movie of this type. It is the original lossless mono soundtrack. It used to be that one of the sure ways to spot a student or amateur production was the audio recording and mix. Again, Schlock is professionally done and better than one would expect from an independent low budget feature from the early 70s.
Special Features: 4/5
Arrow’s extras for this film are not as extensive as some of their other discs. There are two new features:
Birth of Schlock – an interview done last year with Landis where he discusses his early career and the production of Schlock. Landis is always funny, so it is an entertaining interview. It’s too bad the people conducting the interview were not too knowledgeable about the films Landis references as Landis always has to explain what and who he is talking about.
A new video with film historian Kim Newman who does a good job of giving the film context as he goes over the inspirations such as magazines like Famous Monsters of Film Land and Mad. He also discusses The Shock Theater film packages that young boys like Landis watched on late night TV while growing up.
There are a few older supplements included:
A short interview with cinematographer Robert Collins.
A series of trailers including a re-release under the title, Banana Monster. It’s too bad they didn’t use Landis’ commentary for Banana Monster from Trailers From Hell.
But best of all, is a 2003 commentary with John Landis and Rick Baker. It’s wonderful because it’s just two old friends discussing a project that has no real artistic or cultural significance, but none-the-less catapulted their long careers. It’s fun to hear them kid one another and give updates about people who worked both in front and behind the camera. Their reminiscences capture the innocence of the whole project and I found it infectious. You don’t hear two adults discuss their love of and history of man-in-gorilla suits too often. I can’t get enough of that kind of stuff. I may never watch it without the commentary again.
The film does contain subtitles.
Again, Schlock is no masterpiece, it is messy and mostly a shaggy ape story, but it is worthwhile because it was made with passion and love by a movie-loving young crew desperate to break into the film industry. And fortunately, a good number of them did. Schlock is no shonda.