William Bibbiani noted in the Great Music Videos #1 post that music videos are effectively commercials. They’re produced to sell copies of albums, to “sell” a musician to the public, or at the very least to boost (paid) MP3 downloads. Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller” straddles the line between marketing campaign and film for film’s sake—which makes it a curious addition. It wasn’t as if Jackson was a blossoming presence on the music scene; in 1983, he’d already been at the forefront of it for fifteen years. The director, makeup artist, composer, and producer of An American Werewolf in London agreed to work with Jackson on “Thriller,” and frankly I get the feeling they just wanted to have some fun. It paid off.
Music videos can be anything from mesmerizing performance art to boring concert footage. In researching music videos for this category of The Fourth Wall, I’ve watched others that are quite frankly masterpieces (stay tuned!). “Thriller” isn’t deep or meaningful, but it’s a well made homage to horror cinema with the background of one of the catchiest pop songs in history. Throw in a touch of self-awareness, play with the cinematic Gaze, break the fourth wall (heh heh), and you’ve got a really fun viewing experience. I’m pretty sure “Thriller” was my first experience with horror film, and tame as it was, I was enthralled from then on.
It’s common knowledge that Michael Jackson led a troubled existence. His life was one of the most closely scrutinized of any celebrity in the history of, well, celebrity. In the spotlight since age ten, his antics made the news for forty years: the scandalous child molestation trial, the baby-dangling, the skin-bleaching, the nasal surgeries that left him wearing a mask in public for years, and every tidbit of notorious eccentricity made national news. His death in 2009 was the end of an era—he’s one of few musicians to have stayed completely relevant for over 20 years. Whether or not you believe he molested kids or had sex with men, the guy certainly made some incredible music videos.
Jackson’s “Thriller,” aside from being arguably the most famous music video ever made, was also one of the first mainstream extended, filmic music videos. Without “Thriller” I don’t think there would be Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” Released in December 1983, the “Thriller” video is fourteen minutes long, an unprecedented length for a music video at the time. Directed by John Landis, with makeup by Rick Baker and classic horror veteran Vincent Price “rapping,” the video is a tribute to B-horror’s heyday in the 1950s.
At the time of the video’s release, Jackson was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, and the opening shot is a disclaimer that “this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” From here, the film segues into Jackson and a female companion (Ola Ray), first driving in a big, winged convertible, then sidling down a dark country road. Jackson’s clad in a letter jacket, his girlfriend in a poodle skirt and beribboned ponytail—visual cues that place the audience straight into the innocence of the ‘50s. Both Jackson and Ray are African American (this is of course before Jackson effectively made himself white), which is a bit of a neat jolt since in that era of film, not a lot of black actors played suburban high schoolers. Just as the Jackson character puts his ring on his ladyfriend, the full moon rises. “I’m not like other guys,” he tells her, “I mean I’m different.” Something tells me this is tongue-in-cheek on all parts: Jackson never was like other guys. One could even go so far as to call the video prescient, comparing his radical transformations in “Thriller” to the way he transformed himself in real life.
Director Landis, makeup artist Baker, producer George Folsey, Jr., and composer Elmer Bernstein had collaborated previously on An American Werewolf in London, which is perhaps the best werewolf movie ever made (and definitely one of the best horror comedies in cinematic history). The wolf transformation in “Thriller” is not quite as nuanced and gut-wrenching as David Kessler’s in An American Werewolf in London, but the same genius is present. Jackson’s face expands, his fingers contort as claws poke through the nails, his ears lengthen, and his eyes take on a wild yellow tinge as coarse hairs sprout from his face and a gray mane grows from his head. Since we’re now living in the era of computer animation, this transformation is all the more incredible for its simplicity: fantastic monster makeup from Baker and artful editing are all it takes to create an extraordinary transformation. The letter jacket-clad wolf (a clever reference to I was a Teenage Werewolf, a B-horror flick that floated in and out of theaters in 1957) chases his prey, and Elmer Bernstein’s score, heavy on violins and reminiscent of classic thrillers, picks up. Just as the wolf leans in to devour the cringing girlfriend, the camera switches perspectives.
In a rowdy, packed theater, a grinning 1980s version of Jackson tosses popcorn into his mouth while his girlfriend cringes against his shoulder. The transition is pretty ingenious; you thought you were watching a vintage werewolf flick, but we gotcha! All film is artifice, it seems to say, and celebrity a kind of sham. Jackson follows his disgruntled girl out of the theater (enough with the girls-are-scared-of-horror-movies trope, though, okay?) and cue music. Howls punctuate the beat of the bass, and Jackson serenades his lady as they dance lightly down a dark alley. If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it is that Jackson could dance. Frankly it’s hard not to grin while you’re watching his feet and hips move in ways no one else has yet replicated.
An organ picks up the tune and corpses free themselves from dozens of hideouts surrounding a misty graveyard full of crooked headstones. “The darkness crawls across the land/The midnight hour is close at hand/Creatures crawl in search of blood/To terrorize your neighborhood!” Vincent Price intones. Price’s career was attached closely to classic horror; he starred in the original The Fly, House on Haunted Hill, and House of Wax, among many others (damn you, Hollywood, for making me write “original” before all of those). His gaunt features, so familiar to those who watched spook-show television and B-horror in the 50s and 60s, have been used cleverly before (notably in Edward Scissorhands), but here he’s never onscreen; his ominous voice is plenty to remind the audience that this mini-movie is more than your typical concert video.
Suddenly Jackson and Ray find themselves surrounded by the walking dead—and then, uh oh! Jackson himself turns out to be a zombie. Why this is no one knows, but it cues one of the best and most memorable dance sequences in pop history. A bunch of zombies with green-tinged skin, sunken eye sockets, and seeping sores should by all horror movie rules be shambling around moaning, but not here. Here they’re professional dancers. It’s so incongruous it’s hard not to smile. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t at least know part of the “Thriller” dance—it is so ubiquitous that for at least two generations, everyone has seen this video.
When the girlfriend escapes into an abandoned house, the classic movie plot picks up again: zombies crash through the walls after her and Bernstein’s scary movie music reappears. Just as they surround her and reach out to chomp her flesh (mirroring the earlier scene in the werewolf movie), she awakens. It was all a dream! A smiling, cute-as-a-button Jackson puts a protective arm around her to walk her home, but then he turns around to grin at the camera, revealing yellow eyes and sunken cheekbones–breaking the fourth wall, letting the viewer in on a little secret: it’s not a dream after all, perhaps.
The video was fraught with drama after its release. According to the all-knowing Wikipedia (I kid, just so we’re clear), Landis and Ray both sued Jackson for royalties—Ray in May, 2009, a mere two months before Jackson died. More exciting, though, is the news that “Thriller” is coming to Broadway in the near future.
Whether you’re a fan of Jackson or of horror film doesn’t really matter. “Thriller” is a masterful demonstration of the way music and film can meld to create something entirely new, enjoyable, and enduring. While it’s not the most profound nor weirdest (ahem, Gaga) long-form video, it’s a piece of music history that turned kids like me on to film in general and horror in particular–and hopefully will continue to do so.
All photos copyright their original owners.