I love Bill Landis, and I want you to love him, too.
I never met Bill, never corresponded with him, never shook his hand and felt his palm against my own and knew him as a living, breathing man; but he is more alive to me, has had more impact on my life, his presence hangs over me and guides me more profoundly than people I have known and worked alongside for years. Even in his absence he has been a mentor, an inspiration, a cautionary tale and a guiding force through my life; and now, thirteen years after he died without my ever having met him, I want to pluck him out of the obscurity into which he sank and bring him back into the light where he belongs.
I want you to love Bill the way I love Bill.
I first encountered Bill Landis in the formative winter of 2003-2004, when blizzards unexpectedly swept through Oklahoma and school was cancelled for the longest period I can remember it being out since elementary school in St. Louis. We were prone to the occasional ice storm come February or March that might give us a three-day weekend or odd day off, but, by the standards of Broken Arrow- a suburb of Tulsa where Christmas is more often than not celebrated wearing shorts- this was nothing short of apocalyptic. Of course, being a high schooler, I didn't hear "hazardous driving conditions" or "icy roads" or "winter storm warning," I heard "four days off from school," and so one dark night I made the consummately teenage decision to hop in my Mitsubishi and make the relatively safe yet still ill-advised four-mile drive to Hollywood Video and stock up on tapes for the coming disaster. This was, after all, Broken Arrow at the turn of the Millennium, and while I may have been far from the top of the social strata at my high school, the dearth of recreational activities in town- play pool, smoke behind the roadside tobacco stand, sit under overpasses and yell at cars- meant that hanging out in and renting movies from one of the area video stores was a perfectly acceptable and not at all socially maladjusted way to spend your free time. As I expected, I ran into more than a few classmates who'd had the same idea, though with snow quickly accumulating on the ground- and ice on the windshields of our cars- there was precious little time for socialization.
While my hanging out at Hollywood Video may have been normal by Broken Arrow teenage social codes, where I hung out in the store was not- namely, the "CULT" section, a catchall set of shelves at the very back of the store sandwiched between horror and the New Rentals wall that ringed the building. There seemed to be little rhyme or reason to what ended up in CULT, and my visits to multiple Hollywood Videos over the years demonstrated that it seemed to be at the discretion of each individual manager what was kept there. The one unifying trait all of the tapes there had was that they could reasonably be called either inflammatory, strange, or they otherwise denied easy categorization. The low-key forbidden seeming nature of the CULT section-- I recognized the cover of Freaks from my Johnson Smith catalogue, which called it ONE OF THE MOST CONTROVERSIAL MOVIES OF ALL TIME-- made it an instant draw for seventeen-year-old subversive me, and it was a personal mission of mine to eventually rent every tape. This was where I first had my mind blown by David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; was opened up to the wonders of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; had my world rocked by Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; and discovered the weird, late-night delight of Amazon Women on the Moon. It's also where I rented Heartbreak Motel that frozen winter's evening, entranced by its washed out, pastel-puke cover photo of a sobbing Shelley Winters holding a dead Elvis impersonator in her arms. How could you NOT be intrigued?
I still clearly remember my kneejerk reaction as the end credits of Motel rolled the next night: what the hell did I just see? Patently NOT a good movie, it's the improbable tale of Liz, a black jazz singer in the 1970s (Shelley Uggams because, long story short, the movie was financed by the Mafia) who inexplicably decides what she needs to fight career burnout is a road trip through the Deep South. The sight of a rich, single black woman chugging through the backwoods of Georgia in a Rolls Royce goes over just about as well as you'd think, and soon our heroine is being held as the de facto hostage of aging burlesque dancer Bertha (Shelley Winters; see above about the Mafia money) and her demented Elvis impersonator sugar-baby, Eddie, who sees in Liz a meal ticket to his own dreams of singing superstardom. Will Bertha's taciturn henchman Keno (Ted "Lurch" Cassidy; again- mob money) finally step up and rescue Liz, or will she be crushed in Eddie's bizarro machinations?
After that initial "what the hell did I just see" reaction, my next was, I recall: "where the hell did this come from?" Google was still burgeoning at the time, but I immediately hopped on to see what I could find out about this fascinating little glimpse into Hell. And that's how, on a Winter's day in 2004, I came to meet Bill Landis. Bill was the creator and co-author-- with wife Michelle Clifford-- of a book named Sleazoid Express that was soon to become my grindhouse Bible.
Before Heartbreak Motel, I had heard of cult movies, I had heard of midnight movies, but I had never heard of grindhouse movies. I didn't know that 42nd Street was a place or why it was important to American cinematic history. All of that was about to change. Learning that Sleazoid had nearly an entire chapter dedicated to Heartbreak Motel (under it's original title, Poor Pretty Eddie), I ordered the book and was soon transported into another world. Part movie guide, part travelogue of 1980s New York, Sleazoid Express opened my eyes to a world and culture I never knew existed. The writing was as brilliant as it was acidic and occasionally gut-bustingly hilarious; I still recall laying on the living room floor with my brother, reading aloud a snipey blow-by-blow of Richard Burton's turn as Robinson Caruso and both of us laughing so hard we nearly peed ourselves. I would read the book twice over the next year and then keep it handy to casually peruse if I just needed a quick distraction; it was the perfect bathroom book, and a nice way to take a break my from studies as I began college the next year. With each chapter describing the history, fate, and specialty of a variety of NYC grindhouses, it was easy to dip in and out of, with an episodic structure and easy readability. I spent the next two years soaking up everything I could about grindhouse cinema, 42nd Street, and tracking down as many movies as I could from Sleazoid Express; when I began writing short stories in 2007, I knew they would be set on The Deuce, and that Sleazoid would be my primary reference source for them. Without Sleazoid, there's no Lady of the Inferno, no writing career for me; I literally owe it my place in life now.
Why, though? What had enraptured me so? Was it just the the bizarre thrill of reading about a kingdom of the damned built around movie theaters? No, there was more; for as funny and biting as the writing was, there was also a melancholy to it. Occasional bursts of autobiographical information, coupled with the odd offhanded comment and a brief introduction about Landis' arrival to New York as a child in the late 60s, pointed to someone imminently human beneath all the snark and sensationalism. There was an aching vulnerability that was intriguing to me, a depth of compassion, insight, and wounded authenticity that was appealingly real in contrast to the irony-drenched 90s in which I'd come of age. I knew all about 42nd Street-- now I wanted to know more about Bill.
But Bill Landis is a ghost.
Bill died at 49 in 2008, only four years after I found the Sleazoid Book. Theoretically I could have met him- he was active on MySpace- but it's probably best I didn't. The final years of his life were unhappy ones. In the 1980s, he had laid the groundwork for the Sleazoid Express book with the original Sleazoid magazine, a trade journal of the grindhouse world that offered both serious academic critique of exploitation cinema and an anthropological analysis of 42nd Street culture when most other movie mags were concerned with BTS photos and SFX tutorials. He had been profiled in Rolling Stone and Film Comment and spoken of in the same breath as Bret Easton Ellis and Tom Wolfe as a voice of the 1980s. He had also developed a crippling drug addiction to cope with unresolved childhood trauma, an addiction that haunted him most of his life and which finally proved his undoing at the end of an extended period of bridge-burning, divorce, alienation, and a slow descent into the abyss. When Bill died, most of the memories he left behind were unpleasant ones, and in the thirteen years since, those who knew and even loved him have been content to let him sink into obscurity, his legacy buried beneath anecdotes about "Mr. Sleazoid," the irascible character Bill played in public appearances and who came to overshadow the real, hurting man under it all.
Because there was a man there- a real, brilliant, suffering man. A man who'd graduated college at 16 as a child genius; a man who'd help cofound an entirely new school of film journalism; a man who loved his wife and daughter but who could never overcome the years of repressed pain that finally dragged him down. That's Bill Landis. That's the man I've spent the last three years chasing through the crumbling halls of old 42nd Street, as more and more of its veterans die every day and their stories are lost. Since 2018 I've been tracking down everyone who knew Bill who's willing to talk about him; the death of Times Square luminary Joel Reed at the height of COVID did a lot to rattle the Grindhouse Old Guard, and finally get folks talking who'd been reticent to share before. With LANDIS: THE STORY OF A REAL MAN ON 42nd STREET, it's my hope to make Bill no longer a ghost- to bring the man back into the light. Here, for the first time, his friends, enemies, and compatriots open up about his life and times. There are some familiar faces here- Mike Wheldon helped move Bill into his first apartment, and even got inspiration from him to create Psychotronic. Deep Red's Art Ettinger pops up, as does Mike "McBeardo" McPadden, Bill's arch-frenemy, who gave me one his final interviews before his own 2020 death. You'll read about Bill's tragic military upbringing, his improbable child genius years, his meteoric rise as the founder of Sleazoid and his descent into the porno underworld of 1980s Times Square as XXX superstar "Bobby Spector." You'll read never before seen excerpts of some of his final, unpublished work; and, as a special treat, courtesy of Fangoria Magazine, you'll even get to read a piece of Bill's classic writing, not available for almost forty years. Through it all, though, I hope you'll come to know Bill- as a writer, as an artist, as a genius, as a man. And I hope you'll come to love him too.