The Thriller in Thriller: anatomy of a cult video.

On the thirtieth anniversary of Thriller, December 2 2013.

Thriller (1983), directed by John Landis, excels as a video because it has a structure that is as complex as film. It is not clear what “the thriller” is, until you pause to listen to the lyrics, and carefully appraise Jackson’s gestures, and the overall structure of the video. In the beginning of the video, we are surprised to see MJ in a letter jacket, and Ola Ray dressed up like a 40s bobby soxer.

thril 1

Her outfit in particular seems old fashioned, and since in American movies this outfit was usually worn by white June Alison type girls in the 40s, suggests an odd sort of assimilative pop art/we-can-belong-too ethos to the sequence (MJ was a true believer). In the context of the costumes, the opening dialogue, I’m not like other guys, comes off as clichéd, typical movie stuff. But then he turns into a werecat

thril 2

The transformation is a classic movement from dream to nightmare as what begins
with a figure in the middle ground ends with a monster in the foreground with his
claws reaching in close to you, to cause you to involuntarily flinch

thril 3

And this is exactly what happens, as we find out that this is a scene from a
“movie” that is being watched by MJ and his date, who have been projecting
themselves onto the screen. They are back in 80s clothes, MJ in particular is
wearing the blood red thriller jacket, he has not taken it off for the movie

thril 4

Now, this is a classic gendered scene, the boy laughing and having a great time with horror, the girl cringing away and hiding her eyes, and soon she will say, as a girl, hanging her blonde hair down as a veil against the screen, during the finale bloodbath in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, whispered angrily at me once, “why did you bring me to this?” jeez, as if I knew (and of course the amazing nexus aspect of this conflict was that it was a contagious aftereffect of a scene exactly like that in the movie, when, almost in the manner of  American Werewolf in London, Cybil Shepherd is affronted when full on sex comes on the screen, Travis settling in for a good time, “this is a dirty movie” she says and leaves).

thril 5

So, here is the same moment again. She leaves, he decides to stay, but then he decides, ok, he will leave too. I have discussed before that Thriller was possibly the name of the movie they were watching, and that it played at a theatre that was also showing Vincent Price in Corman’s Masque of the Red Death, with echoes on MJs red jacket

thril 7

This kind of implicates MJ in a boyish conspiracy, as, as I pointed out, in
discussing The Blob, that being upset by how bad the movie is, laughing at it, is all part of it, but so is the girl getting upset, the guy not, they fighting, then he has to calm her down, but she has been agitated, and then, it is part of a seduction, he makes his move.
And that is exactly what goes on in the foyer, MJ must save his date, he must
talk her down from her anger. And odd thing here, little noticed in commentary,
is that the Vincent Price movie shown on the poster in back, between them, is a
movie of deception, of a failed artist, or duped woman, and of an attack on
that woman. Again, this seems to implicate MJ, and suggest that he was seeing
his projections of how the date might go, if he pounces on her, to get sex, in
the movie.

thril 8

I do not know the movie poster behind, here, but she is calming down, lowered eyes, she is saying, ok, maybe….the date is saved, and we see a classic scene of a monster carrying a passive unconscious largely exposed woman

thril 9

The Mad Magician, amazingly, shows up, even, perhaps again commenting on what MJ is up to, the dashing operator (odder still that a theater in 83 is obsessed with Price, and odder still that I did not see The Mad Magician, ever, in my House of Wax childhood, but only saw it for the first time in 2010).

thril 10

So, this incident marks the movie as a “cult” movie, The Thriller is that movie, a cult movie, marked by one’s projections, and by the sort of headspinning contretemps that you have to go through regarding it in the context of a date. At this point, MJ gets the evening moving forward again, in the groove. And at this point, the song is all about how HE will be the thriller, and the love he gives her, the turn on he gives her, the sex, what she feels from it, will thrill her a thousand times more than any thrill she
had in the movies. Here he also does the grooming arm of protection around
here, gesturing with a making-a-screen gesture, that he will protect her from
the terror on the screen

thril 11

Ola Ray has her best moments in the video, here, when her 80s high heel, hair tossed back, tails out, strut, takes on a dancelike cadence, emphasizing behind. This reminds us that during the 80s was the last heyday of the big hair, and the era of hair, and hair as an attractant metaphorical of wildness and animality; and perhaps this even more so in Rap culture at the time. Indeed, Ola Ray had already done a layout in Playboy, and the poses, all echolated with double entendres to assist young men to get enough out of these rather chaste shots to excite them and aid them in masturbation. And in this one she is all hair thrown back, tail above, an tail behind.

thril 12

I apologize for this rather impolite inclusion and only mention this because in the “she’s so hot” appraisals of her performance here, from Playboy, the video is in fact playing off of the symbolism of her hair, and her look, which mimicked in fashion a hunted animal.

OK, so, on one level, there it is: a movie, a problem on a date, talked down, and then MJ smoothens everything over. But then they walk past a cemetery, which is odd, and Vincent Price begins his priceless rap

thril 13

They are not aware that they have walked into another movie. It is happening around
them, out in the dark, but they are not aware of it.

thril 14

The best line of the rap is that the zombies are corrupted with “the funk of 40,000
years,” and earlier in the song it was said that “the thriller’ has 40 eyes.
Just lyrics, but they must mean something, and have a good sound to them. In my
view, a beast with 40 eyes would be an audience, 20 people looking at them, 20
people now seeing them happy, on a good date, on their way to having sex, and
being jealous of that. So, evil eyes, the envy of the outside world. So, this
is us, we have moved from the film-in-video to the reality-in-video, to
them-in-video and us-watching-video, they have walked out of their date, into a
crowd—us—ready to undo them. I have theorized that what the funk of 40,000
years refers to is the Cyclops: as Mayor has conjectured that the Greeks
imagined the Cyclops, the one-eyed monster, from finding a skull of a mastodon,
with odd forehead construction, from 40,000 BC: and so the Cyclops has, in its
conceptualization, the funk of 40,000 years on it. And it is the ithyphallic
excess of the world, the sex drive, the boys will be boys idea, forcing MJ to,
once again, betray his embrace of protection, and turn on and turn against her,
like the undead, a being of pure blind lust, regardless of her feelings.

thril 15

Note that this one is coming out of a sewer. And then, when
they are encircled, MJ at first protects, but then springs the trap, he really
is a monster, ready to pounce, he is a zombie

thril 16

This sideways glance is important, it is a demon’s glance, cases of which I will collect, to support the argument. And so, now, Ola disappears, and MJ goes off to rap dance with all the zombies of the world, in the video’s most terrific sequence. Still, today, seeing MJ up on his toes, doing the Dracula gesture, a monster of sex drive, is (blocking out biographical retrospect)—thrillllllling, now MJ, per se, himself only, is the thriller

thril 17

Then she runs away, to a house. We now recreate Night of the Living Dead, in a vivid
house invasion by the zombies, in fact, doing more than in Living Dead,
breaking through the windows, up through the floor, its terrific stuff. We are
still in the movie of reality, of the wild world of boys, of all the boys out
there, all the “that’s all they want” boys, as routinely, cynically appraised
by girls in teen movies, etc etc.,

thril 18

As in other movies, again, now, there is a genuine suffocation nightmare sequence, as they all converge, hands out, to smother her, and grab her, we close up on her eyes, they are wide, symbolizing her crazed vision (and it might be pointed out that in her nudes Ray’s eyes and aureoles were repeatedly echolated off of each other, to arouse, so it is possible this was read in its day as a sign of sexual arousal, in spite of her
fear, MJ getting her turned on

thril 19

But then she looks up, and MJ is back being the helpful who me? innocent protector Thriller, the one who will keep her safe, protect her from the terror on the screen, and be better at thrilling her, with sex and love, than anything on that screen

thril 20

What house are we in, whose is it, did they go home to her house, her parents maybe not home? It is not clear, they were on the couch, making out, maybe the zombie sequence was her imagining in her head what it felt like to kiss the grave tongue of MJ and the hesitant quaking ground of his flesh, for him and his uncaring, lying touch to touch her breast, maybe she was conveying how the making out with him was most definitely NOT thrilling her, as this all was in fact part of the MJ ruse, and then she wakes up to sweet noncontender nice guy not boyfriend material MJ.

But then as he takes her back under his wing, and they depart, he makes one last turn to the camera (my god, what a complicated date he is, no more!), his eyes go all werecat and Price cackles for him an evil laugh of I got her, after all. Notice too an obelisk on the drawers and tables, both phallic and mystic, occult (in movie tradition), apart from MJs opening disclaimer

thril 21

These are the eyes of deception, and so the video ends where it began, in the movies, with the problematic dynamics of dating, sensitively recorded by MJ, who had no doubt anxiety about all that, even at age 24. In its sequence of twists, its tricks, its going back and forths, it does to viewers, male and female, what the film within did to them, it marks the video with cult events, initiatory complexes, that has in fact made it a cult video. So, like a cult movie, this video is a clever accordioning of moments, disjointed, to elicit cult response, and enable it to become a vehicle of initiation into the rites of dating. For that complexity, but then too of course for its amazing music and dance, Thriller remains one of the very few pop culture videos that are genuine works of art.

Other notes related, forthcoming.




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