John Landis is best known for his hit comedies — films such as 1978’s “Animal House,” 1980’s “The Blues Brothers,” 1983’s “Trading Places” and 1988’s “Coming to America” — but he’s also walked on the dark side. The 61-year-old directed the 1981 horror classic “An American Werewolf in London,” which featured Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning makeup design. Landis and Baker reunited two years later for Michael Jackson’s landmark 1983 music video “Thriller,” and in 1992, Landis directed the vampire movie “Innocent Blood.” Now he’s exploring his love of the genre in the new book “Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares.”
The 320-page book, which features glorious photographs from the famed John Kobal Collection, is divided into types of monsters: vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, zombies, ghosts and mummies. Landis also engages in conversation with his longtime friends who have played, created or directed monster movies, luminaries including actor Christopher Lee, directors David Cronenberg, Joe Dante, Sam Raimi, Guillermo Del Toro and John Carpenter, makeup wizard Baker and stop-motion effects genius Ray Harryhausen.
Landis will be on hand Thursday evening at the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood to launch his three-day presentation “John Landis Presents Monsters in the Movies.” He’ll be autographing copies of the book before screenings of two delicious chillers in the mad scientist genre: 1932’s “Island of Lost Souls,” based on H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” and 1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” based on the Robert Louis Stevenson tale, starring Fredric March in his Oscar-winning role as the ill-fated scientist.
Though he won’t be attending the next two days of the retrospective, Landis has chosen the films that will screen. Scheduled for Saturday is a triple bill of James Whale’s 1931 version of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff in his star-making performance as the monster, Whale’s 1935 sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein” and 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein,” which marked Karloff’s last appearance at Universal as the monster. The series concludes Sunday with two chilling black-and-white ghost stories — 1961’s “The Innocents,” based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” starring Deborah Kerr, and Robert Wise’s 1963 “The Haunting,” with Julie Harris and Claire Bloom.
Earlier this week, Landis chatted with Hero Complex contributor Susan King about “Monsters in the Movies.”
SK: What was your first monster movie?
JL: I couldn’t pinpoint my first monster movie. But the one who hugely impacted me, in fact, changed my life was in 1958. I grew up in L.A. and I had seen “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” at the Crest Theatre. It completely enchanted me. I had what is known as suspension of disbelief. I was so taken with the Cyclops and the dragon — all the magic in the movie was quite thrilling to me. When I came back home, I asked my mom, “Who does that?” And she said the director. I said, “That’s what I am going to do when I grow up. I am going to make movies.”
SK: Would you talk about the genesis of the book?
JL: What happened is that this book came about because I made a film in London last year called “Burke and Hare.” A film I made years ago called “An American Werewolf in London” is a big deal in England. Because it’s such a big deal in the U.K. culture, several publishers approached me [when I was in London] to write a book on horror films. I had no interest in writing a book on horror films. Boris Karloff and certainly Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price and Peter Cushing and Peter Lorre, people who had careers as boogeymen basically, they all resented the name “horror film.” I agree with that. To horrify someone is very easy — you just show them something horrific. All you have to do is read the newspaper or watch television. Far more difficult is to generate true suspense and terror. In order to do that you must have an emotional investment in the characters and their jeopardy. You know the Kobal Collection? It is the largest collection of motion picture photographs and stills in the world that was started by John Kobal in the 1950s. They came to me and said, “Would you do a book with us?” and that’s when I realized I’ll do a book on monsters.
SK: Why monsters?
JL: Monsters represent horror films but also science fiction, fantasy and films of Fellini and Bergman. Then you go, what is a monster exactly? Why do we need them? It is fascinating. It gets pretty profound. What you realize is that from the earliest cave paintings to even now in the most sophisticated computer-generated imagery, we humans, we hairless apes, for some reason we feel the need to create monsters and draw monsters. Every major philosophy and religion have monsters. When you try to get to the essence of what is a monster, it’s very interesting. Ultimately, humans have a real fear of the unknown. There are things that are unknown that remain unknown. Nobody knows what happens when you die. Because we don’t know, we have to invent things. Therefore you invent all kinds of ghosts and zombies and all kinds of things that happen once you are dead because we can’t accept the fact that we don’t know what happens after we are dead. On maps, when Europeans started exploring the world they would draw where they had been and where they hadn’t been they would put in Latin, here be monsters. And there would be drawings of sea serpents…. What they were saying was we don’t know what’s here, so therefore we are scared of it.
SK: Monsters can also be sympathetic, like the Beast in Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the Frankenstein monster or even “The Invisible Man.”
JL: With ‘The Invisible Man,” I beg to differ. The Invisible Man experiments with this solution that turns him invisible and makes him insane. There is a very conservative reactionary streak that runs through the whole mad scientist genre, which basically represents the church. In almost all of these movies there is a moment where it is said, “There are things man is not meant to know.” Therefore, it almost always ends badly — [the implication being] these are God’s works and you don’t mess with God.
SK: Griffin Dunne turned into a zombie in “An American Werewolf in London,” and of course you had a whole cast of dancing zombies in “Thriller.” Though vampires still seem to be the monster du jour with the continuing popularity of the “Twilight” movies and “True Blood,” zombies have had a major resurgence of popularity especially with AMC’s series “The Walking Dead.”
JL: I think the zombie is the monster of the 21st century. Zombies are a real thing. It is part of Haitian voodoo. They would drug these people and bury them alive and use them as slave labor. This is all documented. But what the zombie has become is so interesting. They are made from radiation or disease or military experiments. Dan O’Bannon made a movie called “The Return of the Living Dead.” There is a wonderful scene where the paramedics come to respond [to a zombie attack]. The paramedic vehicle is surrounded by zombies. The paramedics are dragged out and they eat them and eat their brains. Then you hear the radio in the car saying, “What’s going on there?” One of the zombies takes the microphone and says, “Send more paramedics.”
SK: I love that.
JL: Even when they become objects of fun, the idea of the living dead is so powerful and it represents so many things. Something they use it for all the time, which is increasingly relevant, is chaos, the collapse of society. What is more frightening than anarchy?
SK: It’s really interesting that everyone you chat with in the book, from Joe Dante to Christopher Lee, all have a different opinion of monsters.
JL: They are very smart guys and they are thoughtful guys. It is very interesting that none of them have a basic shared belief in what a monster is. Joe Dante, when we are talking about a monster as metaphor, used as an example “Godzilla.” Japan is the only country in the world that actually had atomic weapons dropped on them and then they make this film about this giant radioactive beast that breathes fire and destroys cities. The character changed over the years. He became a good guy and a bad guy again and then a good guy — a savior of Japan. You can trace the history of modern Japan through Godzilla.
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