Shock-O-Rama: Thriller (Mania.com)

By:Chuck Francisco
Date: Saturday, October 27, 2012
Source: Mania.com

As All Hallows Eve draws near, and you've been soaking your brain in the pickling juices of all things monstrous and wicked, I thought it might be time to pay homage to the most influential thirteen minutes and forty seconds of horror content ever crafted. You may be prepping to go to NERD-CON 1, launching nuclear missiles of Internet anger at me. I understand. After all, how could a music video possibly top the ending of Jaws; Lugosi's entry on the stairs of castle Dracula; the shower scene from Psycho; the biker/zombie fight scene from Dawn of the Dead; or any other number of famous horror moments? Consider this though: all of those moments require the 70 to 120 minutes of surrounding context in delivering their complex unforgettability. What Thriller did in 1983 was of a brilliance equalling the classics of horror, but it did so with a running time of less than fifteen minutes. That blink of an eye length was key; it allowed emerging channel MTV to run it once an hour for over a year. This exposed millions of children to a sub-genre which they would usually not be able to see until they were older. And it set the repeat viewing meter to "full speed ahead", giving us the full A Clockwork Orange treatment.
 
Thriller did more than mint millions of life long zombie aficionados, and blaze cultural inroads for shows like The Walking Dead. If those were its only contributions, it wouldn't be the only music video in history to be selected by the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically or aesthetically" significant enough to warrant inclusion for preservation there (an honor received in 2009). When it was released in the home market on VHS, it became the biggest selling product in that medium's history (over 9 million units sold). The home video also contained an hour long making of feature, which was also in heavy rotation on MTV. An entire generation of children rushed out to purchase a matching red leather jacket, and/or wanted to be zombies for Halloween. More than that, the behind the scenes feature encouraged an interest in special effects makeup, in dance choreography, and in horror films in general.
 
This big top showcase was supported by four luminary talents, who came together in a perfect storm of creativity, and love of the horror genre. Obviously, the music and choreography were a product of Jackson, who (no matter what was to follow) was the master. The 80's where his decade and in the time, he was The Man. Brought on to direct and cowrite the story with Jackson was John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), a man who's become almost as famous in recent years for his encyclopedic knowledge of the horror genre, as he is for his film direction. Landis' wit for blending humor into horror is ever present, as is his director trade mark, "See you next Wednesday..." (which is itself a line from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). Rick Baker was brought on to craft the amazing make up effects, which include a good number of zombies that scared the hell out of me as a child, and a werecat transformation sequence, reminiscent of the werewolf transformation sequence that won him the inaugural Outstanding Achievement in Makeup Oscar for An American Werewolf in London. As if this maelstrom of talent was not sufficient, horror icon Vincent Price was brought on to perform his now famous spoken rap during the zombie rising scenes. He's like a fist full of cherry on top of a ziggy-piggy of spectacular (go watch Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure again if you don't get it, heathen!).
 
At it's core, Thriller is truly a three ring circus, providing just enough entertainment in one area then moving on to another before any segment could come close to wearing out it's welcome. We're greeted with a 50's monster movie, part of the movie within a movie; Vincent Price's Thriller. Telling the tale of a poodle skirt clad Ola Ray and a letter jacketed MJ, who run out of gas on a date. As they're walking through the woods on the night of a full moon, Michael makes the horrible (and fascinating) transformation into a werecat creature. He chases down his love, then just as he's about to tear into her, we cut away to an audience in the then contemporary 80's. Among the crowd are Michael and Ola (and director John Landis in a cameo. Front row, right side). In another moment that would shape my soon to be horror fueled adolescence, Michael's scarfing away on popcorn, huge grin on his face, while Ola is petrified. It may seem silly, but his obvious gleeful enjoyment of the schlock on screen unlocked a secret for me: horror films didn't always have to be terrifying; they could be campy good fun too. Long standing readers of Shock-O-Rama can probably see that come through in my writing and topic choices.

 

 
As our youthful duo depart the midnight movie (with referential posters visible for Price's The Red Mask of Death and House of Wax, as well as Landis' Schlock), Thriller takes a short turn down romantic comedy street, with Michael singing the lyrics in a teasing manner. For those who absolutely dislike the song, this is probably your least favorite part of the video, though it is the shortest portion. We transition into a perfectly 80's zombie film, as the happy couple skips along past a grave yard. Price narrates the mandatory "rise from their grave" sequence, as a pack of walkers surrounds the pair. Just as the panicking music crescendos, Michael's zombie transformation is complete, leading to perhaps the most famous dance number of all time. Wedding parties and prison inmates alike have jammed to it in YouTube fueled seconds of fame. His passion for group choreography exhausted, zombie Michael and his cohorts chase poor Ola into an abandoned house. The overwhelming mass of rotting flesh surrounds her, as in so many zombie movies, and then....cut to Michael. He's normal (for MJ), and she's safe; waking from a nightmare.   And of course, there's the haunting laugh. Perhaps the most famous maniacal laugh in all of horror history, cackled by Price with enough gleeful menace that it oozes by the bucketful.
 
So many pieces are expertly connects together in Thriller. Not only do I watch it every day in the week leading up to Halloween, but I find that I have to watch it in its entirety whenever it's on. There are so many other unexplored factoids about this music video/horror short, but I'm taking time away from your next viewing of it (embedded below). Before you go, however, be sure to keep an eye out for Vincent Price in a completely uncredited cameo. He's the very last thing you see on screen (after the post credits dancing zombies).
 
Happy Halloween. Let's enjoy a Chiller, Thriller together.

 

Saturday Shock-O-Rama Streaming Suggestions
Want to watch something schlocky right now? Try on a few of these suggestions, available right now from the listed service (most of which are FREE!).

Netflix -  Elvira, Mistress of the Dark - Horror/Dark Comedy (1988)
Crackle - Death Tunnel - Horror (2006)
Hulu - Halloween - Sci-Fi (1978)

And if you simply can't get enough horror happenings here on Mania, might I humbly suggest checking out Tuesday Terrors? It's got all the shocking news to keep you current (and possibly help you survive until the credits roll).

 

Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a horror co-host of two monthly film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA (home of 1958's 'The Blob'): First Friday Fright Nights andColonial Cult Cinema. You can hear him on awesome podcast You've Got Geek or follow him out onTwitter.



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