Ask any horror fan what their first “monster” memory is and you will get a response based on two parameters: both the person’s age and their nostalgic selective memory. You would get responses ranging from people cowering behind the couch as their local TV station replayed one of the monster greats of yore (perhaps Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster or the mighty King Kong). From a younger fan you may get Jason, Chucky or Freddy. But if you were to ask me, in all honesty, you would get “Michael Jackson” as my answer.
The news of Jackson’s sudden passing made me realize this today. It would be hyperbolic to say that I would not have my current taste for the horror genre if it were not for Jon Landis’ 15 minute “mini-movie” Thriller, I probably still would. It is no exaggeration to say that it was this film above any other that I fondly remember as my first good scare.
Landis isn’t the only horror royalty associated with the film.* Rick Baker, who pioneered the special effects makeup field in Landis’ An American Werewolf In London, created Jackson’s “cat monster” and zombie makeups. The famous spoken word portion of the film is read by the legendary Vincent Price (keen-eyed viewers will also spot poster’s for Price’s House of Wax and Landis’ Schlock in the scene where Ola Ray and Jackson are leaving the movie theater).
The VHS of Thriller also came with a half-hour featurette on the making of the film. The existence of this documentary may only have been to pad the run-time and add “value” to the tape, but to a 5 or 6 year old this material was as fascinating and, I am not ashamed to admit, frightening as the movie itself. The images of Jackson donning the phosphorescent and painful cat contact-lenses still sticks in my mind as one of those formative moments of “oh boy, that’s scary” movie magic.
Jackson’s music was a big part of my early childhood, but it is Thriller that will continue to be most important to me, and I hope one day in the future, to my own little monsters. Oh, and don’t even mention the Ben theme song to me…I’d probably start bawling.
* It is also worth pointing out that Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman also makes a brief appearance (he is siting behind Ray and Jackson at the movie). Ackerman also sadly passed away recently.