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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Schlock’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, word of mouth can be very effective, if you find the right ear…

Schlock (1973)
Distributed by: Jack H. Harris Enterprises
Directed by: John Landis

Hey, we all got to start somewhere…

Roger Corman directed Five Guns West after producing two other moneymakers for Sam Arkoff. Francis Ford Coppola got to direct Dimentia 13 after being Corman’s assistant for a year. George Lucas turned his film school project into THX 1138 after he formed American Zoetrope with Coppola.

Marty Scorsese took two years to do Who’s That Knocking at My Door as funding came in in dribs and drabs after he left film school. At the different parties Scorsese would go to around New York looking for funds, his friend Robert De Nero got in touch with Brian De Palma, with whom he made Greetings.

George Romero put together Night of the Living Dead while working on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. And Steven Spielberg networked with an exec at Universal after taking the studio tour there and got gigs for TV episodes and made-for-TV films before doing The Sugarland Express.

Which when you look at all that, puts how John Landis’ first film came about in perspective…

We open cold with a string of battle footage scenes from other films before an announcer narrates about the following films referenced on screen:

A few quick cuts and three iterations of the title later, we open as the credits roll on a scene of carnage. (During the credits, the star of the pic is billed as “THE SCHLOCKTHROPUS” which, well…) We’re seeing what was left behind after the latest of the “Banana Murders” at Koblonski State Park, where the entire Canyon Valley Metaphysical Boling Society, all 239 or so of them, met their end, each victim having banana peels located on or around their corpses.

The case is in the hands of Detective Sargent Wino (Saul Kahan), assisted by patrolman Ivan (Joseph Piantadosi in his only listed credit). Unfortunately, neither of them have the skills basic competencies required for this case police work in general, which seem to go unnoticed by on-the-scene TV reporter Joe Putzman (Eric Sinclair, under the credit “Eric Allson”), who himself comes up short in his professionalism basic ability to function as a human being.

The case is soon cracked as four kids wander into a cave and discover what’s responsible for this: A kind of gorilla, possibly a ‘missing link’, going by the name Schlock (Landis himself in a gorilla suit). The two survivors bring Wino up to speed, at which point he leaps bumbles into action to deal with the menace.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that no, this doesn’t go well…

After Wino fails to stop the creature, Schlock doesn’t so much rampage as bumble through a few set-ups for brief sketches that would have found a home on Laugh-In. After seven minutes of this, the film decides to find a plot again, and brings in Mindy (Eliza Roberts in her first feature, under the credit “Eliza Garret”), a beautiful blind girl who Schlock encounters during his walkabouts. She assumes as she runs her hands over him that he’s a dog, which he goes along with out of an “ah-what-the-hell” directionless motivation before he abandons her and goes to the movies.

After an extended stay at the theater to watch bits of The Blob and Dinosaurus!, the movie decides to head in some direction, though not without a few more diversions for random shtick to occur:

It makes sense that Landis’ film should feel so random, considering his CV. Before writing this screenplay and then directing it, he’d done everything else from working in the mailroom at 20th Century Fox to being an assistant director in Europe, along with stints as an actor, stuntman, dialog coach, and production assistant.

Schlock would also be the first time Landis had to secure financing for a film. Landis put up half of the $60,000 budget (about $472,000 in today’s currency) out of his own savings, and did some old school GoFundMe by hitting up friends and relatives, ending up with a budget that necessitated using as many shortcuts as possible.

Rick Baker applying Schlock’s makeup to John Landis

One of the positives that came out of these constraints was turning to a young Rick Baker for the star’s effects make-up. With even cheap-ass gorilla suits that could be rented well over the entire film’s budget, Landis had the good fortune to find Baker, who at the time was still living at home with his parents. Every hard piece of the costume, such as the face and chest, were baked in Baker’s mom’s oven. Yet this was one of the better aspects of the film, as the makeup allowed Landis to convey a wide range of emotions as the creature shambles and shuffles through the film.

“Shambling and shuffling” also best describes the flow of the film itself.

Had Landis not been wedded to having a coherent linear story for the movie, it could have remained a stretch of gags with only minimal connections between them, which Landis would ultimately do in The Kentucky Fried Movie. The potential for this was there, though, in that this is the first time the running gag, “See You Next Wednesday,” gets rolled out. We get mention of the film title four times, three of which are accompanied by descriptions of the plot and stars that are totally different from each other.

For whatever reason, though, we got the film we did. All the acting is horrible, which actually makes it all the more charming as it works well in a comedy send-up. The script manages to hit the right beats, with the slow spots waiting for the story to resume filled with plenty of gags, some of which were outstanding. Whatever you can say about the directing, much of that can be forgiven under the circumstances, considering that Landis was in makeup as Schlock the entire time.

The movie’s a curio that’s embraceable when given half a chance. People looking for mindless comedies or send-ups of monster movies from that point in time backwards are more likely to ‘get it’ and appreciate the film’s intent, which was the basis for the film becoming a cult classic.

Unfortunately, when Landis finished the film, the studios didn’t warm up to it the way its intended audience did. At the end of the shoot, the movie had no distribution, and no chance of ever getting a release.

Until someone brought the movie to Johnny Carson’s attention…*

*Not from the episode referred to below

Carson, the most popular talk show host of his time, got a chance to see Schlock, and was impressed enough with it that he booked Landis for an appearance on November 2, 1972. During the program, which for an average episode would have had nine million viewers, clips of the movie were run in between Carson talking to Landis, which landed the film it’s distributor. And based on the film’s success when it finally got to theaters, Landis’ career took off.

Hey, we all got to start somewhere…

 

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