Q: When is a horror movie not a movie? A: When it’s a 14-minute music video masquerading as a movie. MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER is just that, and remains one of the most innovative and enjoyable music videos of all time.
This video was made in 1983, for the title track of Michael Jackson’s THRILLER album. The latter is said to be the best-selling pop album of all time, and this video was a large part of its success, iconic enough that it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most popular music video of all time. A 30-minute long making-of VHS was later released to great success.
Directed by John Landis, MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER featured dialogue and an honest-to-goodness story (however nonsensical) to go with the song, as well as added music by Elmer Bernstein, special effects by the legendary Rick Baker, and a lengthy end credits sequence. Even more unheard-of, it split the song into parts, with Jackson singing all the verses early on and the choral portions during the famous zombie dance.
Michael Jackson followed up this triumph with a similarly innovative 18-minute mini-movie video for “Bad,” directed in gritty fashion by Martin Scorsese in 1987. Jackson also worked with Landis again on the celebrated 1991 “Black and White” video. Many other accomplishments followed, of course, and not a few setbacks, before Jackson’s untimely death at age 50 on June 25, 2009.
Out for a drive one night, a young man named Michael and his girlfriend run out of gas. Obliged to walk through a dark forest, Michael asks the gal if she’d like to go steady, but cautions that he’s “not like the other boys.” He proves this when the clouds overhead part, revealing a full moon—and he transforms into a were-thing.
Turns out the above is part of a horror movie being viewed in a crowded theater, where Michael, dressed in a red jumpsuit, is enjoying himself. His date, who happens to be the same girl in the movie, is not. She leaves and Michael reluctantly follows her out.
Walking down a nighttime street, Michael entertains the girl by singing to her. In the meantime corpses rise from their graves in a local cemetery as Vincent Price’s famed Thriller Rap plays on the soundtrack. The living dead converge on Michael and the girl; Michael, apparently deciding that if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, becomes a zombie and leads an undead dance-a-thon.
The girl is chased by Michael and his zombie chums to an abandoned house, where they converge on her…and then she wakes up in her bedroom. Michael enters and asks “What’s the Problem?” It would seem that the preceding events were all a bad dream, but then Michael turns to the camera flashing cat-eyes while Vincent Price’s evil laughter sounds.
John Landis shot this mini-film between TRADING PLACES and INTO THE NIGHT, both comedies. A distinctly comedic tone is evident in THRILLER, which gently parodies werewolf (by having Michael Jackson transform into a were-cat in the opening scene) and zombie cinema. Landis fans will also recognize the dialogue “See you Next Wednesday” in the film-within-a-film, a signature line that turns up in all Landis’s movies.
Beyond that THRILLER is a lighthearted bit of fluff. It’s not the slightest bit scary or extreme, but for those of us who lived through the eighties it’s a deeply nostalgic 14 minutes, especially since its star performer is no longer with us.
Many people claim Michael Jackson’s fruity, robotic dance moves represent the nadir of the form. I’ll take their word for it. The tune at least is irresistibly catchy, and will very likely be the one thing above all else that Michael Jackson is remembered for. As far as legacies go, one could certainly do far worse.
MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER
Columbia Pictures/Epic Records Productions
Director: John Landis
Producer: George Folsey Jr.
Screenplay: John Landis, Michael Jackson
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Editing: Malcolm Campbell, George Folsey Jr.
Cast: Michael Jackson, Ola Ray, Vincent Price