John Landis interview: Monsters In The Movies, genre cinema, political zombies, aliens and more

To mark the release of his new book, Monsters In The Movies, we sat with John Landis to talk about horror and sci-fi cinema, and much more…

Look back over John Landis’ career as a director, and you’ll find not only some of the most successful comedies of all time, including Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, but also some classic horror work, such as An American Werewolf In London, Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, and the underrated Innocent Blood.

Landis is well qualified, then, to compile a loving and lavishly illustrated guide to the creatures of genre cinema. Called Monsters In The Movies, and serves as an exhaustive compendium of aliens, zombies, atomic mutants and vampires.

With Landis in the UK to promote his book’s release, we jumped at the chance to talk to him about movie monsters, film making, and what he’s up to next.

How did you go about putting Monsters In The Movies together?

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I was making Burke & Hare in Britain about a year ago, and four different publishers approached me, independently, about doing a book about horror films. They all said, “Your five best, your ten best.” I hate those kinds of books. The ten best, the 50 best – I think they’re bullshit. Because movies aren’t comparable in that way, you know? They’re really aren’t.

I thought, “I don’t wanna write about horror films.” But then I was approached by someone named Loretta Dives. She runs the Kobal Collection, which is the largest collection of motion picture stills in the world. And she said, “Do you want to do a picture book?” And I was like, what do I want to do a picture book for? But that’s why it’s called Monsters In The Movies, because I love that subject.

And so it doesn’t limit itself to horror at all – it’s science fiction, fantasy, Bunuel, Fellini. And about 90 per cent of the pictures come from Kobal, but about 10 per cent come from friends – Guillermo [Del Toro], Sam [Raimi], Joe [Dante] and Bob Burns, who’s a collector who gave me a lot of stuff.

There are about 75 in there that have never been published before, so it’s great. And if anything, luckily, it’s doing well, so I’d like to do another edition, because I came across about 600 pictures of monsters that I didn’t cover in the book – plus there are new ones coming out all the time. We’ll probably do another edition in a year or two.

I thought it was a timely reminder, if any were needed, of how beautifully shot and designed some of those early films were.

Oh God, yes.

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There’s an early shot in the book, of Frankenstein’s monster looking in through the window.

It’s a beautiful photograph. The Frankenstein monster make-up that Jack Pierce designed for Karloff, is still one of the great designs ever, and so iconic. You can show that to aborigines and they’ll recognise it. And Karloff’s performance is extraordinary.

It’s a vulnerable character.

He’s a victim. There are so many monsters that are, in fact, the victim.

One thing that it reminded me, was that monsters are often scariest when they’re humanoid shaped.

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Well sure, because people can relate to that – that’s what we are, and that’s what the apes are. People can get their heads around that better. Sometimes, when they get these really far-out monsters, they just don’t work.

With CG you can do all kinds of crazy things.

Guillermo Del Toro spent a year preparing At The Mountains Of Madness, the HP Lovecraft story, and I was very anxious to see that, but it just fell apart. It’s happening more and more.

I would have loved to have seen what he brought to it, because he knows how to marry CG and practical effects so well.

Well, he does some pretty out-there things, you know?

And he knows how to blend effects so well.

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Yeah. And that’s how you should do it.

Do you think CG has a tendency to be overused, where monsters are concerned?

Well yeah it’s over-used, but it’s just a tool, like colour, sound, cinemascope. They’re just tools, and CG, if used correctly – the CG in Pan’s Labyrinth was just fantastic. It’s a question of balance in how it’s used.

I mean, today, I was on some silly TV show, The Wright Stuff, and they were all down on CG. And I looked at them, and I said, “Did you like Toy Story?” “Oh, it was great.” “Did you like Terminator 2?” “It was fabulous!” “Did you like Jurassic Park?” “Yeah!” “So what are you talking about?”

Overused is a good word. I think that we’re sick of it at this stage. But we’re not of CG, we’re just sick of the same shit. One of the problems with superhero movies… Spider-Man is a great movie, Sam Raimi’s version, or Iron Man’s a great movie, but once the CG starts, they could be the same movie? We’re tired of it.

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On the topic of filmmakers, I enjoyed your interviews in the book.

They’re all important guys, in terms of monsters, and they’re all people I’ve known – some of them, for more than 30 years. That’s why I don’t call them interviews, because I can challenge them. I can say, “You’re full of shit!” And they’re all very  smart, interesting people.

My favourite moment was with Christopher Lee, talking about when he was a little boy, and being so terrified of Frankenstein’s monster. He’d see him at the end of the bed, and wouldn’t be able to sleep at the thought of it. Or Ray Harryhausen, who said his creatures were not monsters.

I liked David Cronenberg’s insistence that the Seth Brundle character in The Fly wasn’t a mad scientist.

Yeah. He wouldn’t accept that. I was like, “Well, you’re wrong, David.” The whole thing with mad scientists and doctors is that they’re so conservative. It’s the classic, “There are some things man wasn’t supposed to mess with. Don’t fuck with God.”

And David was going, “What? I don’t believe it!” And I was saying, “Tough! That’s what you did!” I love him. He’s such a smart guy. And funny.

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It struck me that, like you said, that it’s a conservative attitude…

It’s a conservative genre. Doctor Frankenstein, Doctor Moreau, Doctor Jekyll. They all end badly.

But is there anything wrong with being conservative, of at least asking the question, “Should we be following this path?”

It’s like Galileo and the church. These people are the church!

But as an artist, you should question things, shouldn’t you?

They’re not questioning. They’re condemning. They’re anti-science. Very few movies are pro-science. Things To Come is pro-science.

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I thought Joe Dante was a great in the book, too. His line about monsters being metaphors.

They’re all metaphors. It’s like John Carpenter said about Dracula, he’s in an aristocrat sucking the blood of peasants. That’s brilliant.

It’s surprising, isn’t it, that we haven’t seen a post-financial crisis Dracula movie yet.

Oh we will. So many of these zombie movies are about the collapse of social order. Chaos. Anarchy. That’s what they’re about, and that’s what’s happening. That’s why they’re so prevalent now, and that’s why we’ll see more and more of them. Brad Pitt’s doing World War Z right now, which is something like a $200 million zombie movie.

It’s surprising how much money they’re willing to throw at it…

It’s because they’re popular. Last night, 700,000 people around the world were dancing to Thriller, dressed as zombies. It’s how we deal with death.

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What do you think the subtext is in the current generation of monster films?

Well, it depends on which one. The Mormon vampires in Twilight – that’s about abstinence.

That is a strange one. It’s like we’re living in a more conservative time than we have for more than two decades.

Well, it’s more reactionary than ever, absolutely.

Why do you think that is?

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I think we’re scared to death. The more conservative people are, the more frightened they are, because they have the most to lose. They see everything as a threat, and these movies depict that anxiety. Look how many end-of-the-world movies there are right now – zombie apocalypse fiction.

And also alien invasion movies.

Well that’s because we scared, you know? And alien invasion has a lot to do with, all over Europe and America, everyone’s up in arms about immigration. Literally aliens coming in. You go to any restaurant in London right now, and everyone’s Polish. It’s like the Hispanics in the United States. It’s the Other. That’s like I say about monsters – they only come from two places: the outside and the inside.

I think there may have been as many alien invasion movies recently as an equivalent year in the 50s.

I think there must have been more in the 50s, with the communist era. I mean, how many alien invasion movies have there been recently? Name some.

Skyline, Attack The Block, Battle LA, the new Transformers, there’s a Spanish one whose name I’ve forgotten… Extraterrestrials. There’s Battleship next year. Pacific Rim

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Ah, Pacific Rim. Is that aliens? I know it’s giant robots.

It’s giant robots and giant monsters. I think the assumption is that it’s an alien invasion movie, but I may be wrong.

I told Guillermo to change the title, because it sounds like a Tahitian porno. Pacific Rim. [Laughs] But you’re right, you’re absolutely right. There have been an awful lot of alien invasion movies. It’s because we’re scared.

You mentioned earlier about World War Z costing so much money. Why do you think Hollywood’s sinking so much money into genre pictures?

I think there are many reasons. I mean, there are economic reasons. But one, there’s piracy, and two, there’s technology, and three, marketing. A movie now has to open in London and Hong Kong and Shanghai and Kenya at the same time, so they basically go for the broadest common denominator. So, Cowboys & Aliens. These high concept movies.

Another alien invasion movie.

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You’re right. They’re tentpole films. But they tend to be stupid. Many people point to Star Wars and Jaws as the beginning of the end, because those were B-pictures made with A-budgets. So now you get things like Transformers, which would have once been tossed off, but now they’re lavished with money.

I suppose the upside is that occasionally we end up with a film like Alien, which shows that you can give a B-picture concept and ladle it with quite dark, interesting subtexts and themes.

Alien’s just a cold dark house movie in outer space. It’s a remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space, it really is. The movie that I thought was brilliant was Aliens, the sequel. He knew he wasn’t going to compete with the original, so he made a big action movie. Which is so great. That’s a wonderful movie.

I still think one of the best sci-fi movies is Terminator 2. Terminator’s fine, but Terminator 2 is so imaginative, and it was the first time we saw that CG morphing. It was like, “Woah!” when he came up from the linoleum floor. That was so great.

But you’re not keen on Alien?

I think Alien’s good, I just don’t think it’s special. It’s very beautifully made, and I love Harry Dean Stanton. The one moment in Alien that is spectacular is the chestburster, and I think the little monster’s stupid looking, but their reaction is really shocking.

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It’s difficult for younger audiences to appreciate how shocking it was at the time, perhaps.

Well, that’s true of Psycho for instance. That film was so shocking at the time. It’s still a powerful picture, but now it’s lost… whenever anything’s radical like that… I mean, I made American Werewolf, and at the time it was successful, so people forget, but it got some bad reviews, because it was so violent. People were horrified by it.

I remember being so terrified by it when I was younger that I couldn’t watch it all. It was only when I was about 14 that I saw it properly.

[Mixture of surprise and bemusement] Who showed it to you?

It was on TV. I just stayed late and watched it. But as you say, the passage of time often erodes the shock value of films.

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Of course. Most films aren’t as shocking or even as funny as they are when you first see them. Have you seen Island Of Lost Souls? Criterion have just restored it. I just showed it to BFI. It’s just gorgeous. And that movie, I think, is really creepy.

Do you think it’s inevitable that monster movies eventually go down a B-movie path? It happened with the Universal monsters, and it happened with Jaws and Alien too.

Sure, that’s true of everything. The James Bond movies became comedies with Roger Moore. Now they’re serious again. It’s hard to keep going back to the same well.

What do you think about the current appetite for remakes in Hollywood?

I have no problem with the concept of remakes. People forget that The Thing, or David Cronenberg’s The Fly are remakes, and those are both brilliant. And the original movies are good, too, so I’m not opposed to them. People forget that The Wizard Of Oz was a remake. But they’re usually not as good.

The difficulty lies in bringing something new to it, I suppose.

How many times have they done Hamlet? If something’s got a good story, it can be done countless times, and countless ways. There are some movies that are so special that even the concept of them is offensive.

Is there anything you’d like to remake?

I wouldn’t mind making Island Of Doctor Moreau. It would be different from Island Of Lost Souls. It’s been remade a few other times, but always badly. The book itself is so horrific. And very current, because of genetic research and all that.

What are your views on 3D movies, which seems to be a little on the wane now?

3D again, is just a tool. The real reason they’re doing 3D now is so they can charge you more money. I mean, it’s blatant. The question is, what does it bring to these movies? The answer is usually nothing. Did you see Despicable Me? That was really clever use of 3D. But most movies are still just sticking stuff in the camera. But I’ve got nothing against it, as a technology I think it’s fine. I’m curious to see how Scorsese does it in Hugo.

One of the things I liked in your book, was your theory that we can read the language of film so readily because it mimics the way we dream.

Well, that’s my theory, but it fascinates me, that you can show a movie to a child and they’ll immediately understand it. It’s quite complicated, but we just read it.

Do you think 3D breaks that link between the viewer and the screen, sometimes?

It’s fatiguing for one thing, because of those glasses. But you rarely see it in the optimum surroundings. It’s like Dolby – it’s often fucked up, because the sound isn’t always right. And I’m spoiled – I grew up in Los Angeles, where all the films are well presented. William Friedkin famously said, “Only the projectionist has final cut.”

So you’ve got Monsters In The Movies, and you’ve got another edition on the way, possibly. Is there anything else you’d be interested in writing about?

I don’t know. I was actually asked to write another book, this one on comedy film. But the problem is, these monster pictures are interesting in themselves. If I presented a picture of the Crazy Gang, I don’t think the majority of the British kids would know who the fuck they were. It’s difficult to describe that stuff.

But this book was a real labour of love for me, and I enjoyed writing it. It took something like three months to write this book. I was worried that no one would read it, but would just look at the pictures!

Would you consider writing about your years as a stuntman, and your way into making films?

Maybe. It’s hard to think of myself as the subject of an autobiography. I just read Nile Rodgers’ autobiography, and I enjoyed it very much. He may be younger than me, but he’s a huge music producer, and I hired him to write the music for Coming To America, which was a great score. And he just wrote an autobiography, and I was like, “Really?” Simon Pegg just wrote an autobiography. It’s crazy – he’s so young!

So what about filmmaking?

I’m doing a little monster movie in Paris next year.

Really? Can you tell me anything about that?

Not really. I don’t want to. It’s a surprise.

So what’s happening with The Rivals?

The Rivals I was supposed to make, and then the money just fell apart. I was really disappointed, because I liked that script very much. And it had such wonderful actors, you know? I don’t know what’s happening, candidly.

So the monster movie, will that come out next year, or are you just shooting next year?

I don’t know if it’ll come out in 2012, but I’ll be making it in 2012!

John Landis, thank you very much