John Carpenter: What Hollywood Doesn’t Get About Godzilla

Exclusive: John Carpenter sees Godzilla as an all-purpose monster we need to celebrate, and he has the perfect Godzilla Day celebration to prove it.

John Carpenter vs Godzilla
Photo: Getty Images / Toho

Can you believe it’s been 68 years since we first heard the pitter patter of Godzilla’s city-crunching feet? And the excitement has never abated. “He’s an all-purpose monster,” as director John Carpenter enthuses while sitting down with Den of Geek. “Anything you need, he’s there for you.”

Godzilla (a.k.a. Gojira), directed by Ishirō Honda, is a horror landmark and a science fiction legend. Its atomic-powered star, the enormous, atomically mutated dinosaur we call Godzilla, is the embodiment of a country’s fears and a beloved icon of destruction. Produced and distributed by Japan’s premiere monster factory Toho Co. Ltd, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, Honda’s 1954 film created the kaiju (big monster) genre, reinventing the motion picture industry by miniaturizing more than budgets for maximum payloads, and spawning almost 30 sequels.

Shout! Factory TV thinks that is a reason to celebrate. Beginning on Godzilla Day 2022, Nov 3, the “Masters of Monsters” will stream a movie marathon of Godzilla films introduced by Carpenter, who is by no means a stranger to different types of monster movies after films like Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), and The Thing (1982). 

The full schedule for Masters of Monsters:

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11/03 –Gojira 6pm and 8pm PT

11/04 – Rodan 6pm and 8pm PT

11/05 – Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster 6pm and 8pm PT

11/06 – War of the Gargantuas 6pm and 8pm PT

The presentation is a four-day event because Godzilla is a very big monster, who had a very hard birth. On March 1, 1954, the U.S. tested the Castle Bravo H-bomb, which was more than 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. Conducted on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, fish caught around Japan for months after the tests were contaminated with fallout. On Nov. 3, 1954, the most iconic product of that fallout surfaced. In the film he is called the “child of the H-bomb” but he became known as the “King of the Monsters.”

The marathon will be hosted by one of the radioactive reptile’s biggest fans. Musician and director Carpenter knows his monsters. One of his first films, which he will never show anyone, is a battle between Godzilla and a rival studio’s knockoff. We may never see his Gorgo fight Godzilla, but it certainly helped pave the way for Michael Myers!

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For the marathon, Carpenter picked his four favorite kaiju films, all directed by Honda with Tsuburaya’s historic and literally groundbreaking effects: Gojira, Rodan, Ghidorah, and War of the Gargantuas. He will be discussing the films with directorial authority in between commercials. For Den of Geek, he talked about what it was like to sit in the theater with popcorn and watch.

Den of Geek: The first time I saw Godzilla in the theater, we were yelling at the screen. What were you doing?

John Carpenter: I was cowering because I was just a little tyke. Godzilla was very formidable at the time, that’s the original black and white. I was also fascinated because the effects were just so interesting and fabulous. Everything about it was great.

What was the audience like?

You know? I don’t remember, but this is a small town, so they were pretty much always quiet. There was not a lot of yelling and screaming.

Were Godzilla movies ever “date films,” or just a monstrous pleasure?

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Oh, they were a monstrous pleasure.

Did you have a specific group of friends you went to them with?

No, I would pretty much go by myself. After a while, they weren’t available to us. A lot of them weren’t released heavily, but I kept track of them. A lot I didn’t see until much later. But it would be just me, by myself.

Was Godzilla part of a double bill?

It was just Godzilla.

What was the difference between going to the theaters to see monster movies or something like Blackboard Jungle?

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[Laughs] I loved monster movies when I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of them. I ate them up, the cheesy ones especially. Blackboard Jungle was interesting, but it was serious. Monster movies are fun!

Do you forget that you’re a director when you watch Godzilla movies?

Yes, oh god, yeah, I’m a kid again. The ones I love are in the past. I really don’t watch anymore. It’s a part of my life, Godzilla.

You saw the Raymond Burr version in the theaters, but you’re a renowned filmmaker with monster connections. Did you see the original cut before the official 2003 release?

Boy, I think I did. The original Japanese version of Gojira, yeah. I believe I saw it before 2003, but I watched it again in 2003 because it was restored and was beautiful to look at. I love that version. That version is stunning, just a stunner.

What does Gojira lose by adding the Raymond Burr sequences?

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Well, the Raymond Burr sequences are simply to entice American audiences. He does nothing much more than narrate what’s happening, but he breaks up the mood of the original. Some of the darkness and the sadness of Japan and nuclear weapons, it’s something else. Back in those days, everybody was thinking about the atomic war. We were all wondering because we knew it was the end of the world. One way or the other, it was doom.

Mainstream movies didn’t deal with it. It was like, “don’t talk about that,” “don’t do that.” It was up to monster movies to make these giant creatures with atomic hands on. It was always an atomic lab accident in monster movies. That was where you could get your doomsday vibe out. Oh, there was one serious film, the Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer movie, that was one that dealt with atomic destruction, but I digress.

Please digress. Kiss Me Deadly, I love that movie.

Yeah, it’s a good movie.  

At the very beginning of Rodan, they’re talking about global warming.

Yes, I know, it was crazy. Crazy shit going on there. I would say don’t look to these kaiju movies to inform you on what is going to happen in the future. It’s just hit or miss with them.

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Did these inspire you to infuse your own films with social commentary?

Well, they have thematic commentary, my movies. Some of them don’t. Some of them are straight-ahead stuff. Movies can do all sorts of things and they can do it well.  They don’t have messages, really, that doesn’t work. Themes work pretty well.

Josie Cotton sang a beautiful version of “Shiawaseo Yobo (let’s try to be happy)” from Ghidorah, tell me why this music endures?

Akira Ifukube, who composed the original Godzilla theme, is brilliant. As I recommend to everybody, there was a LaserDisc released in the ‘90s, it shows him conducting an orchestra for the Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah movie of the time. It’s brilliant to watch. It’s amazing. In terms of music, there’s a movie—that’s in this Godzilla Day—called War of the Gargantuas. There is a scene, a legendary scene, where this girl sings “the words get stuck in my throat,” and then this giant monster comes up behind her and eats her. It just doesn’t get better than that. Ever.

Russ Tamblyn plays a Frankenstein expert in War of the Gargantuas.

[Laughs] Yes, he does, you can light matches off his performance. He didn’t have any respect for that movie whatsoever. He adlibbed it all, his own dialogue. [Laughs] And then he had to loop it all, and it’s horrifyingly bad, and hard to do. I met Russ Tamblyn at an event before The Haunting. He wanted to talk about The Haunting, and I reminded him “fans love the Gargantuas. They love it. Why don’t you embrace it?” He said “I probably should.”

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He’s a Frankenstein expert in the movie. How much tribute were the Japanese filmmakers paying to the American monsters?

Oh huge, they were big. A lot of the tropes they came up with originated with American movies. American movies ruled the world, they maybe still do, I don’t know.

In Ghidorah, the aliens read brain-waves.

[Laughs] I know. They read brainwaves, all sorts of stuff. That movie is nuts, it’s just great.

And the monsters get together to gossip.

I love that, and they’re talking about how bad humans are? Well come on, man, you just stomped our city. What do you mean we’re bad?

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Did Godzilla lose something by becoming the good guy after the first few films?

Well, I wasn’t a fan of that, but yeah, he lost something. He kicks ass. We don’t want him to be a good guy, but people loved him that way.

Were you bummed Mechagodzilla was always the bad guy?

Yeah!  Come on, man! He’s great! But there was just a joyous naivete to these movies, Asian cinema in general. I loved it.

Godzilla and Michael Myers are beloved because they’re misunderstood.

We love bad guys, man, we always have. There wouldn’t be anything without them. Michael Myers, they love to see him kicking ass, and they love to see him get his ass kicked. It’s really bizarre. It works both ways.

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King Kong and Frankenstein are empathetic. Why do we root for Godzilla?

Godzilla has been everything. He’s been an arch-villain. He’s been a savior, a hero who saves the Earth. He’s an all-purpose monster. Anything you need, he’s there for you. If you need him to be a vicious world-ending creature, he’s there. If you need him to save the earth, he’s there. That’s why we love him. There’s something great about any big reptile who destroys a city, he is in our hearts.

I always had a thing for Mothra. Who do you root for against Godzilla?

Well, there’s only one monster that could beat Godzilla, that’s King Ghidorah. King Ghidorah is an awesome creature.

Rodan was the first kaiju film to be shot in color. How exciting was that for fans?

Oh, it was incredible, and the movie was incredible. At the time, movies relied heavily on TV advertising. That’s why the theater in my little town had a line outside the box office because the movie was advertised on television. It was a big deal.

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What is the most educational thing directors can get from Ishirō Honda?

Watch how he deals with lots of actors in crowds. He’s really brilliant.

Did Monsterland from Destroy All Monsters have any influence on the prison island of Escape from New York?

[Laughs] Oh, no, no, no, not really, no. That I’ve never heard, now that is an original question. I love it.

What do you think of the American Godzilla movies?

Oy, well, the first one was horrifying. It’s pretty good. It’s a spectacle. They just don’t have the same charm of the original Godzilla movies, the cast of the Godzilla movies. Even though they brought over old has-been American actors to be in it. The actors were great, I guess most of them were under contract at Toho. American Godzilla movies are a computer-fest. They lack charm, and I’m just not that interested.

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What did Eiji Tsuburaya bring to motion picture special effects?

Tsuburaya invented the giant monster genre. He invented all that. They didn’t know how to do this, originally, most big monsters were stop-motion, or little monsters with rubber suits. He used this giant monster suit and a model city. It was groundbreaking at the time. He invented a lot of things. He used a lot of techniques people were not thinking about, like the animations. It was incredible. You got Tsuburaya on special effects and Ishirō Honda directing. You can’t go wrong with that.

Ken Kuronuma wrote Rodan after reading about an American national guard pilot who crashed chasing a UFO. A bunch of UFO movies came after the mass sightings over DC. How did the mutant monsters and the extraterrestrial threats feed off each other in movies?

Well, the atomic menace has been with us now since 1945. Mainstream movies in Hollywood and elsewhere didn’t deal with it. They thought audiences would hate it. Why talk about the end of the world? But monster movies, ooh hey, here we go. So, it was usually a backstory for the creatures. Them! may be one of the earliest.

But outer space shit, that started in the early ‘50s because 1947 was the Kenneth Arnold sighting. It was an allure: Oh, they’re out there, they’re coming to get us. Filmmakers both poor and rich utilized it. And we loved it, going to see it. It was the only way you could see something about the atomic bomb. The only way. Mainstream Hollywood didn’t really cover it.

Not many people know George Takei dubbed four voices for Rodan, and dubbed Godzilla Raids Again. Tell me about the American dubs, and as a fan, did you practice speaking out of sync after watching the movies?

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[Laughs] No, I didn’t. But they did their best. You know, it’s a real challenge to dub in over the Japanese language. It’s so different. We have to be kind to them now.

I know we’ll never see “Gorgo versus Godzilla.”

Oh, please, let’s not talk about this, I was so young.

I just wanted to know if Godzilla kicked Gorgo’s ass just because he was such an obvious rip-off?

[Laughs] Yes. Yes, he did. He just trashed it. What a question.

Of all the genres, what keeps your interest strong enough to present a retrospective on Godzilla movies?

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I just wanted to share my love of Godzilla movies with others. I grew up on them, I raised my son on them. Godzilla is the longest-running franchise of any movie in the world. He is the king. I wanted to do it as an act of love. These movies have been appreciated in silence for years. It wasn’t cool to be a fan of Godzilla. It just wasn’t. It was just a shameful thing. I’m not ashamed.

The “Masters of Monsters” Godzilla marathon will stream beginning Nov. 3 on Shout! Factory TV, TokuSHOUTsu, Scream Factory TV and Shout! Cult.