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Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller” is one of the most iconic videos ever, however, it wouldn’t exist without a certain horror film. Jackson saw a classic movie and decided he wanted to work with its director. The director of the film had some reservations, but ultimately decided to work with Jackson for a very specific reason.

Michael Jackson | Joe Traver/ Liaison

The 1980s movie which inspired Michael Jackson to make ‘Thriller’

First, a little background. 1980s horror movies stand out for their technical merits. Practical (non-CG) effects had reached their pinnacle, so horror filmmakers could use them to create surreal and convincing monsters and aliens unlike any seen before or since. Enter director John Landis.

At first, Landis was most known for directing comedy films like Animal House and The Blues Brothers. However, he showed off his range with a 1980s horror movie called An American Werewolf in London. An American Werewolf in London remains among the most well-remembered film of the 1980s werewolf craze. It features a famous scene where its lead character transforms into a werewolf — a scene with memorable and convincing specifically effects. According to Bloody Disgusting, this film inspired Jackson to make “Thriller.” Landis recalled what happened when Jackson called him.

A child wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants hat with a copy of Thriller
A child with a copy of Thriller | David McNew/Getty Images

What Michael Jackson told John Landis about his idea for ‘Thriller’

“He called to say he was a fan of my film,” Landis told Vox. “He wanted to make a rock video where he turned into a monster and he felt he had the best song to do it with, ‘Thriller.'” Landis had some reservations about the project.

“I thought, ‘I don’t know, because music videos are essentially commercials to sell records,'” he recalled. However, he changed his mind. “I decided to do ‘Thriller’ because it was an opportunity to do a proper musical number.” While working with Jackson, he learned a fact about Jackson which is very interesting given his artistic output.

John Landis with a microphone
John Landis | Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

“Turns out he hasn’t seen many horror films, they were too scary,” Landis told Reuters. “I found him great. He wanted zombies, but the big thing for Mike was turning into a monster.” Jackson’s aversion to horror films is surprising given how he gave the world multiple horror-themed songs like “Thriller,” “Ghosts,” and “Is It Scary?” Landis revealed what it was like working for Jackson.

“Michael was very determined that everything had to be the best, the greatest,” he said. “He had a spectacular work ethic, but he was an old pro, the guy has been performing since he was 8 years old.”

Michael Jackson’s Thriller

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The surprising public reaction to ‘Thriller’

Both “Thriller” and its music video are classics, however, the public response to the song was not as strong as its reputation may suggest. The song merely reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was not one of Jackson’s biggest hits. Commercially, it was eclipsed by other Jackson songs like “Rock with You” and “Beat It.” However, its has an iconic video — a video which might not exist if Landis didn’t want to direct a musical number.