Darkness fell across MTV on December 2, 1983, the day Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video made its world premiere.
Directed by John Landis, it is the single most influential music video of all time. To date it’s the only music video in the National Film Registry, which ensures the preservation of American films. It was also the most expensive to film at the time, costing 500,000 US dollars. This was 10 times the budget of the average music video. (In 1995, Michael and his sister Janet shot “Scream,” now cited as the most expensive video ever, at US$7 million.) Thus Landis found it difficult at first to raise the money. After all, the video’s eponymous album was already more than a year old, even though it was still producing hit singles.
By late 1983, the album had been living in the Billboard 200. It had sat for a record 37 weeks at No. 1, and all its six singles had made the Top 10. The “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” promos had been successful as regular-sized music videos – in fact, they had raised the bar on MTV. So why shoot such an expensive video?
Because sales were flagging – why else? Jackson was enjoying the top spot on the charts, but Thriller kept getting bumped off by the likes of the Flashdance soundtrack and the Police’s Synchronicity. There had been no plans to release the title track as a single, but it looked like the only one left in the album that could revive sales. Jackson didn’t even like horror movies, but he was open to the idea of a horror spoof. Landis had recently written and directed The Blues Brothers (co-written with Dan Ackroyd) and An American Werewolf in London, two experiences that made him the perfect man to help 24-year-old child-at-heart Jackson create an MTV thriller. Together they wrote the screenplay for a brand-new genre, wrapping the music video in a short film.
The story is set in the 1950s as well as the present, and Michael stars along with model-actress Ola Ray. The singer was then a Jehovah’s Witness, so the video opens with a disclaimer stating that it “in no way endorses a belief in the occult.” Then the title appears in a blood-red scrawl: “Michael Jackson’s Thriller.” Surely the first viewers knew they were in for a treat.
Almost 300 million YouTube views later, it’s still thrilling to watch the Chevrolet Bel Air sputter to a stop on a wooded nighttime road. We know the words to the song. We know trouble’s afoot. Cut to Michael in a red varsity jacket, and his girlfriend in a sweater possibly sourced from the Grease wardrobe. But where’s the red leather jacket?? Just wait. First he has to turn into a shaggy werecat.
If the make-up effects look familiar, it’s because they were done by Rick Baker of Star Wars fame, who also worked on American Werewolf, the Men in Black movies and Maleficent, among many other films.
Metafictional plot twists abound in “Thriller,” starting when the scene cuts to a movie audience. We’ve been watching the 1950s horror flick they’re watching! Michael, finally in that killer black-trimmed red-leather jacket, is shoving popcorn into his mouth as his poofy-haired girlfriend clings to his arm. The theater marquee shows us they were watching a Vincent Price movie called Thriller. That’s when the drums and bass finally start up, about 4 minutes in. Michael’s teasing his date for being scared, and she can’t help smiling as he croons, “It’s close to midnight, and something evil’s lurking in the dark … ” Who wouldn’t love a guy who’s singing and dancing around as he walks you home? All will clearly be forgiven afterwards.
But first they pass a cemetery, and that’s when Price, Hollywood’s Master of Menace, starts his rhyming monologue. (Really, it’s not a rap.) The fog thickens. Coffin lids creak open. Corpses and “grisly ghouls” ooze out of their tombs and stumble down the streets of L.A., and when the music stops, our hero and heroine are surrounded. The monsters close in. Violins start up. Ola is terrified, and as the camera pans toward Michael, the violins increase their intensity and we see … noooooo! He’s a zombie!
Contributing the incidental music was no less than the composer for The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird and (funnily enough) Airplane! He is billed in the credits thus: “Scary Music by Elmer Bernstein.”
Then begins the most celebrated dance sequence in history. It’s a highlight of 2004’s 13 Going on 30, but its best-known tribute is the 2007 version by a staggering 1,500 prison inmates in the Philippines.
Michael becomes human again when he finally breaks into the song’s chorus, but lest you think the movie’s over, he soon reverts to undead, causing Ola to flee from his band of funky flesh-eaters. She barricades herself in an abandoned wooden house – never a good move but, to be fair, there’s never a better choice. As the monsters literally break in, will this be Ola’s doom? … Of course not. It was all some kind of dream, and normal Michael offers to take her home. Yet, at the end of the video he turns his face toward us for the final plot twist. His eyes glow, and the Master of Menace laughs maniacally. The final chorus repeats as the credits roll.
With a runtime of almost 14 minutes, the mini-movie made Landis the Peter Jackson of music videos. Not only that, it was accompanied by a 45-minute documentary, Making Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The video was also screened in a Los Angeles theater with the 1940 Disney cartoon Fantasia in the hope that it would be nominated for an Academy Award. However, this gambit failed. Worse: several mothers complained that the werecat scared their kids. Quoted in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the then-president of Disney said sheepishly, “If we did it again, we probably wouldn’t show ‘Thriller’ until after seven o’clock.”
“Thriller” the single was finally released a month later as its album’s last single. The head of CBS Records had once scoffed, “Who wants a single about monsters?” Apparently, the world did. Thriller the album’s sales skyrocketed to one million per week around the world. To date, it is still the best-selling album of all time, and it earned an unprecedented eight Grammy Awards to boot.
Michael had apparently only wanted to be transformed into a monster “just for fun,” Landis told Vanity Fair. Instead, his “vanity video” was transformed into a historic cultural phenomenon. ’Cause it was “Thriller.”