He warned us. Right at the start of the MTV debut of Michael Jackson’s 14-minute horror-themed mini-movie Thriller on Dec. 2, 1983, the whippet-thin singer declared in a whispery voice, ”I’m not like other guys.”
He sure wasn’t. Jackson and his managers had raised a whopping production budget of $600,000 — more than 20 times the era’s average promo-clip budget — to turn the Thriller video into an elaborate showcase for the makeup effects of Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). In what now looks disturbingly like a warm-up for his obsession with rebuilding his own face, Jackson had Baker transform him into a jut-jawed lycanthrope as well as a pock-cheeked zombie; in the bargain, Jackson wound up resurrecting his year-old Thriller album. Already an enormous hit (having sold 20 million copies worldwide) but fading on the charts, Thriller zoomed back to No. 1, taking on truly monstrous proportions. To date, the worldwide sales tally is 44 million — and by now it’s clear that the album’s staggering success has become both a totem and an albatross for Jackson. Determined to top it, he’s made his promotional assaults ever grander, even as his behavior turns ever weirder.
Is it any wonder he turned grandiose? In the Thriller video’s immediate wake, mania for all things Michael became so intense that his public appearances took on the cast of religious visitations. Even an hour-long promotional program partly financed by MTV, The Making of Thriller, became a major hit on the music channel and on Showtime. ”We called it ‘The Making of Filler,”’ recalls director John Landis (Animal House, American Werewolf), who conceived the original Thriller clip as a theatrical short. When fledgling Vestron Video offered to pay $500,000 for the right to sell the Making of program on VHS cassettes, Landis remembers wondering ”Who would buy this thing after they’ve seen it for free?”
Within six months of Thriller’s MTV launch, a staggering 750,000 copies of the Making of tape had been sold at $30 apiece, an unusually low price (hit movies cost at least twice that; there was virtually no priced-to-sell market). ”People have claimed the whole thing was marketing brilliance, but it was all a happy accident,” says Landis. ”The truth is, Thriller was a vanity video.” Maybe so, but to millions of fans, Jackson never looked so good.
Time Capsule: December 2, 1983
Terms of Endearment was beloved by moviegoers, while TV viewers clocked in with 60 Minutes. Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary knocked ‘em dead, and Lionel Richie rocked ”All Night Long.”