In 1973, the horror landscape in America was in a very strange place while also being on the cusp of a big change. On the verge of turning into a lost decade for the genre, the ‘70s still hadn’t solidified an identity when it came to horror, despite seeing a wide spectrum of offerings as well as huge strides forward starting with Black Christmas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in ’74 and then Halloween and Dawn of the Dead in ’78 (just to name a few).
Like its contemporaries, John Landis’ debut, Schlock, was dancing to the beat of its own chest. It wisely pays homage to the likes of 1958’s The Blob and 1933’s King Kong more than it does showcase any influences from the groundbreaking pictures from a few years prior (Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary’s Baby) or stand as prescient for what was to come. Tonally, the movie is closer to Scooby-Doo than anything that had come out at the time. Yet, as far as horror-comedies go, it’s quite unique.
It features a sketch comedy pretense about a giant, man-killing ape named Schlock who’s killed some 700 people in just a matter of weeks. His main mode of murder? He tosses his victims about 30 yards to their deaths. The murders themselves are typically comedic, but as we continue throughout our story, it’s as though Landis actually wants us to feel for this ape.
Schlock begins as a savage beast, but his curiosity for human behavior and culture, as we see, spurs his own rapid evolution. Eventually, the ape is feedings ducks and sharing chocolate cake with children. In a superbly meta sequence, he attends a packed movie screening of The Blob. He watches the scene where the gelatinous monster slowly takes over the theater in the film. The ape reacts to the movie, jumping, covering his eyes, and even responding to members in the crowd. At one point he accompanies a young boy to the restroom.
As Schlock becomes our protagonist, the idiocy of society that we observed earlier feels more out of place by comparison. The reporters are idiots, the people are oblivious, and the cops are incompetent, driving like maniacs all over town for no reason, whether they’re in pursuit or not. We soon realize that it’s Schlock who makes the most sense. This construct would go on to inform the layered stupidity in the worlds that Landis would create throughout his career, where seemingly imbecilic characters are viewed through a unique lens by being surrounded by veiled foolishness. He will continue to use this as a device to confront the expectations of an audience while also holding an embellished mirror up to society.
A large portion of the movie features almost no dialogue, and yet Landis’ talents for storytelling are on full display. The strange, absurdist humor turns into an observational comedy where an ape becomes our main character. And not only do we become invested, but we become fully engrossed.
There’s also a subplot where the ape falls in love with a Fay Wray stand-in, Mindy (Eliza Garrett), who recently got her sight restored. While blind, Mindy believes Schlock to be a puppy dog and plays a strange game of fetch with him. Once Schlock realizes that Mindy has a boyfriend, Cal, he becomes angry and jealous, yet his newly found conscience is noted, preventing him from ever really attempting to harm the teenager.
The themes don’t get too deep here, and never stray even close to King Kong territory. However, Schlock is funny and a lot of fun, if not able to spark our own curiosity just as the world stimulates its title character.