Some movies are best viewed with a crowd. Christopher Landon's Burning Palms, an anthology of twisted, Los Angeles'set tales, can feel particularly dark if you see it solo, but viewed with a group it has a way of lightening up. 'At screenings, people are literally roaring with laughter,' Landon says.
Amusement is helpful when a movie exorcises taboos, as in one of Landon's vignettes, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's classic short story 'The Tell-Tale Heart.' Instead of a beating heart, the ever-present reminder of sin is a finger that bears the stench of' down there. 'Everyone has a fear of the ass,' he explains matter-of-factly. 'There's a fear of the dirty asshole.'
Landon seems to possess little fear of onscreen challenges. Disturbia, the 2007 movie he wrote, which brought him to Hollywood's attention, recast thriller master Alfred Hitchock's Rear Window in the world of high schoolers ('Everyone wants me to write a teen thriller for them now,' he says). Last year, he was among the team who penned the seemingly unscripted Paranormal Activity 2 ('It's a slightly thankless job: No one thinks you wrote it'). With Burning Palms, his first stab at writing and directing, Landon revives a tough-to-pull-off format that went out in the '80s with Creepshow ('It's like making five movies in one'), with storylines about incest and bad gay parenting. 'I find the inappropriate highly entertaining,' he says gleefully.
It's hardly what people expect of the youngest son of the late Michael Landon, whose reputation as America's paragon of virtue was sealed in the '70s and '80s by leading roles on Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. 'He was either the perfect dad or literally an angel,' Landon says between sips of a double cappuccino at a West Hollywood caf' near his home. Landon's pink, green, and yellow orchid tattoo is peeking out of the right-hand sleeve of his T-shirt.
'There was an expectation for him to be like his characters, and at a certain stage in his career, he was like, 'Oh, wow, I really put myself in a box.''
As Landon attests, that box was unlike reality. 'My dad was many things -- a loving dad, a wonderful guy -- but he also had his demons. He had his dark side and things he kept hidden.'
The 35-year-old filmmaker attributes his career path to growing up in a Hollywood family of nine siblings from his father's three marriages. 'Even the most pristine, perfect, white picket fence-y looking families have something going on underneath,' he says. 'There were so many people around me, always so much going on, and, frankly, a lot of drama.'
Landon was the quiet observer, a role that helps him concoct crazy narratives with virtually no judgments. That seems to appeal to actors: Landon's $2 million indie drew the likes of Dylan McDermott, Zoe Saldana, Nick Stahl, Oscar nominee Adriana Barraza, and Shannen Doherty, a friend of the family from her days on Little House.
In two segments of Burning Palms, Doherty plays a Beverly Hills psychologist. Landon recalls: 'She came in and said, 'I think this woman should be unbearably pretentious. I want to do a British accent, but a really bad accent, like Madonna's.''
Who was he to stand in her way? He just sat back and enjoyed it. 'Whenever I write something, I always kind of imagine myself in my own little private screening room,' he says. 'I'm always in there with my friends and certain members of my family.'
By 'certain members' he means those who 'get it,' like his father, who died in 1991, before Landon came out. 'He was very liberal, he had gay friends, and my stepmom told me he had conversations with her in which he said, 'I think he's gay. I hope he figures it out. I'm sure he will.' He knew! He was just waiting for me to play catch-up.'
Says Landon, smiling, 'My dad definitely would have been one of the people in the screening room up in my head, laughing.'
Burning Palms is now playing in New York City and Los Angeles.