Second Union

Second Union

“The Six Degrees of John Landis”

David Bowie has a knife to Michelle Pfeiffer’s throat. He locks eyes with Jeff Goldblum. “Let’s not do anything rash, Ed,” he tells Jeff’s character. Carl Perkins shrieks and rises from his bloody repose. He pulls a knife out of his chest and rushes Bowie. The two struggle as Jeff and Michelle run away. Perkins and Bowie crash through a balcony window as Jeff and Michelle race down a corridor. They press the elevator button. The doors open and they are greeted by a loudly barking German Shepherd. They flee. The dog’s owner, Jack Arnold, shouts after them, “It’s all right, he’s a nice dog!” The movie is 1985’s Into the Night. Who is Jack Arnold, you might ask? With over a hundred credits to his name, Arnold rose to prominence directing low-to-medium budget horror movies for Universal Studios between 1953 and 1959, including It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Why is Jack Arnold in this movie?

“Let’s not do anything rash, Ed.”

Later, after all the smoke has cleared, Jeff and Michelle are taken to a Ramada Inn by the FBI. The agents are played by Clu Gulager, Carl Gottlieb, and Jonathan Demme. Gulager we’ve seen in many movies, namely Return of the Living Dead, The Last Picture Show, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and, more recently, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Carl Gottlieb wrote or co-wrote Jaws, Jaws 2, Which Way Is Up?, The Jerk, and Doctor Detroit. Jonathan Demme directed Melvin & Howard, Married to the Mob, Something Wild, and Silence of the Lambs. What are Carl Gottlieb and Jonathan Demme doing in this movie? Earlier, Detective Lawrence Kasdan took Jeff and Michelle’s statements after her friend was murdered and her home was ransacked by Middle Eastern hitmen (among them director John Landis). Kasdan is the director of Body Heat and The Big Chill as well as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Into the Night is a California movie. A Los Angeles movie. It is a summation of the cultural idiosyncrasies of a strange parallax: the Los Angeles skyline and its denizens. Objects may appear more intense than they actually are. The city is alive with the threat of death at any time. The movie didn’t make stars of Jeff Goldblum or Michelle Pfeiffer. That wouldn’t happen until the following year. The movie did make stars of the people behind the cameras who appeared in cameos throughout the movie. Director John Landis was one of the very few mainstream filmmakers of the time to not attend film school, and as such, there was a certain amount of resentment within the Industry for the blustery, well-spoken auto-didact who directed four hit movies one after the other with The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf In London. Landis’ career existed in strict defiance to Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and Spielberg, the wunderkind of contemporary cinema, the elite.

John Landis

The University establishment (and Hollywood) would have you believe that in order to become a successful working director, you must go to film school. Landis and the elder generation proved this wasn’t true. The older generation of filmmakers never had a film school from which to learn. They, like Landis, had to learn on-the-job. Landis’ education was within the Industry, serving as “go-fer,” production assistant, stuntman, page, and mail clerk. Because of this, he developed an affinity and respect for the film director at a time when directors were not lauded or identified closely with their works. Six years after making his first film, the ultra-low-budget Schlock, Landis was having lunch with Alfred Hitchcock at the Universal Studios commissary. He never got Hitchcock to do a cameo in one of his films, but he did manage to put Steven Spielberg in the final scene from The Blues Brothers as the Cook County Tax Assessor. Returning the favor, Spielberg cast Landis as a soldier in 1941.

Steven Spielberg in The Blues Brothers

Into the Night represented Landis’ crowning achievement in film director cameos, although he did come close with movies like Spies Like Us, Innocent Blood, and Beverly Hills Cop III. There are 14 director cameos in Into the Night; some just walking through shots without dialogue, and some with more substantial exposure. While David Cronenberg, Paul Mazursky, and Roger Vadim are firmly integrated into the action, Paul Bartel will play a curious doorman and Jim Henson will be having a quick telephone conversation. In a bit of symmetry to Landis’ The Kentucky Fried Movie (featuring Donald Sutherland as “the clumsy waiter”), Amy Heckerling plays “the clumsy waitress.” She has one line, “Sorry,” which recalls John Belushi’s apology to Stephen Bishop after smashing his guitar in Animal House. Bishop had cameoed before in The Kentucky Fried Movie, and would go on to cameo in The Blues Brothers as a cop (“They broke my watch.”), An American Werewolf in London and Twilight Zone: The Movie, usually credited as “Charming Guy.”

In his review, Roger Ebert called Into the Night “cinematic auto-eroticism” that distracted from the story-telling with celebrity cameos. Ebert should have known that this had become a Landis trademark, and there are only so many ways a filmmaker can distinguish himself. With Landis, it was the occasional See You Next Wednesday reference or an off-hand filmmaker cameo. If nearly everything about the movie is forgotten to time, Into the Night will always be remembered for the cameos and bit parts. Eight months later, Spies Like Us, starring Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, was released by Warner Brothers. An affectionate tribute to the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby (with a quick cameo by Hope) movies that were released between 1940 and 1962, Spies Like Us features cameos from Michael Apted, Terry Gilliam, Larry Cohen, Joel Coen, and Martin Brest. Innocent Blood from 1992 would continue the tradition with appearances by Dario Argento, Michael Ritchie, Tom Savini, and Sam Raimi. Landis had appeared in Raimi’s Darkman. Landis and Raimi would appear together in Mick Garris’ 1994 television adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand.

The Muppets Take Manhattan

More a working actor than a cameo player, Frank Oz appeared in six movies for John Landis, usually playing authority figures such as corrections or police officers or a government representative. Oz would enlist Landis as a “muppeteer” operating Grover for the final song in The Muppet Movie and as Broadway producer Leonard Winesop in The Muppets Take Manhattan. There’s a game movie buffs like to play called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” based on the theory of separation “that any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances.” The premise of which is that actor Kevin Bacon has appeared in so many movies with so many other actors, there is a way to connect him with any actor who ever lived and died since the start of the motion picture industry. It’s a nice way to pass the time; long car trip, waiting for the biopsy report, standing in line at the DMV. Kevin Bacon’s first role was in Animal House.

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