Last week, I was lucky enough to chat with famous filmmaker and monster aficionado John Landis. He’s known equally for genre films like An American Werewolf in London, Innocent Blood, and The Twilight Zone movie and mega hits like Coming to America, Blues Brothers, and The Three Amigos. (And who could forget another work of his, a tiny little arthouse music video titled “Thriller” by Michael Jackson?) As evidenced by his career, Landis is clearly a lover of monsters. Further reinforcing that is the recent release of a gorgeous picture book that Landis has edited called Monsters In The Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares. Being a lover of monsters, myself, I recently sat down with Landis to discuss the book.
Find out what his favorite type of monster is, what classically derided sci-fi film he loves, and more below the cut! (And if you’re interested in learning more about the book itself, you can win a signed copy here.)
RYAN BRITT: In the book, you split up the monsters into different categories: vampires, werewolves, mad scientists, atomic mutations, etc. Do you have a favorite type of monster?
JOHN LANDIS:: I can’t say I have a favorite type, but I am partial to apes or gorillas. People in Gorilla suits.
RB: Did you like the new Planet of the Apes movie? (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
JL: I had mixed feelings about it. The first Planet of the Apes film was a really smart movie and dealt with all kinds of things. Now it’s been reinvented to be some kind of mad scientist thing about how we’re not supposed to fuck with nature.
RB: So what’s a good gorilla suit/ape movie?
JL: King Kong is an almost perfect movie. None of the sequels come close to it. I also enjoy Mighty Joe Young. There is another movie called The Monster and the Girl. It might be the best gorilla suit movie. It’s from 1941. The story is so nuts. It’s a bizarre hybrid of a mad scientist movie, a gangster movie, and a boy and his dog movie. And it’s a film noir played completely straight.
RB: I particularly liked the vampire section, because it was sexy. And also the “monster carry” spread. Can you speculate as to why so many monsters are sexy?
JL: Well, some monsters are sexy, but not all monsters. Vampires are sexy because it’s a physical act — they embrace you. Dracula…in the book he’s not sexy. Bela Lugosi was this great matinee idol in Budapest. What is considered stilted acting now was quite dashing then. But he made it [Dracula] sexy. The women swooned when Dracula came in for the kill.Vampires are maybe sexy because they’re also bisexual. Women bite women, men bite men. All monsters are about metaphors and vampires have always dealt with exchange of bodily fluids. That’s sex.
RB: I re-watched the 1931 Dracula; I was impressed that Dracula didn’t have any fangs.
JL: When I made Innocent Blood, I choose for Marie not to have fangs for exactly that reason.
RB: I’ve read that the 7th Voyage of Sinbad inspired you to make movies. That film, in my opinion, is one of Harryhausen’s best. Why do you think stop-motion is so appealing?
JL: That depends…not all stop motion is good. Ray Harrhausen and Willis O’Brien made films that had real personality, full characters. In King Kong, you totally accept King Kong as the star of the movie over Fay Wray, which is down to the skill of the craftsman. It has a quality to it that’s so interesting. But there are bad stop-motion movies too. It’s mostly just a tool. However, it is influential. If you think about the way O’Brien and Harryhausen moved their dinosaurs, I mean, nobody had moved dinosaurs before. Nobody knew how dinosaurs were supposed to move. But they started it, and since they did, that’s how we think dinosaurs move.
RB: Do you think there’s any way for stop-motion to make a full-on comeback, like in Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox?
JL: It’s never gone away, really. Corpse Bride. Coraline. They’re still making stop-motion movies. It’s got a quality that’s hard to beat. Now, I’ve heard a lot of people get down on CG. And I understand that, but CG is just a tool, like stop-motion, and when used correctly it’s great. It really comes down to the skills of the animators. In those Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Davey Jones looked great! And it couldn’t be done any other way! That character was remarkable and looked remarkable. They couldn’t do that with makeup or stop motion. So, everything has its place. They’re just tools.
RB: That’s funny, because I didn’t like that movie at all, but I did think Davey Jones looked cool. Which reminds me of something you say in the introduction of the book; that the book isn’t necessarily featuring all good movies, rather, that it’s primarily a book with pictures of monsters.
JL: Right. See. Movies have this unique power over books, music, or paintings. We’ll watch a bad movie. If we see a bad painting, we’ll not linger on it for hours at a time, we’ll walk way. But we don’t do that with movies. We’ll sit through them. And that’s okay.
RB: Using the categories from the book, what’s the most overrated type of monster?
JL: Overrated monster? Monsters succeed on one level or another as characters. So I don’t know if there’s an overrated type of monster. It’s all about the movie.
RB: All right: overrated movie featuring a monster of some kind.
JL: The Blair Witch Project. I thought that was a bit of a tempest in teapot.
RB: Most underrated monster?
JL: Again it comes down to the films and the effectiveness of the monster. Character and plot. Terrific special effects. I mean, there are so many shitty vampire movies. I will say this; a lot of it has to do with what William Friedkin said about a genuine suspension of disbelief. I’m an atheist and I couldn’t care about god or the devil or Jesus, but when I saw The Exorcist I was terrified. The whole movie scared the shit out of me. Then, I left the theatre and went home and slept like a baby.
RB: I like the idea of you walking out of The Exorcist and being ready for bed.
RB: Okay. Monster most qualified to run for public office.
JL: Dr. Mobius [from Forbidden Planet] maybe. But look what happened to the Krells! (laughs)
RB: The new book is subtitled: ”100 years of Cinematic Nightmares.” As a science fiction critic, I of course have to think about TV monsters. Do you have a favorite television monster?
JL: Wow. That’s a good question. Lots of TV monsters. The Outer Limits has good monsters. Had interesting monsters. One episode a group planned to unite the nations of Earth by creating a human/alien hybrid. But I haven’t seen The Outer Limits in years.
RB: Would you ever consider doing a book on television monsters? Would Doctor Who and Star Trek just dominate it?
JL: And Ultraman, all those cartoon shows! Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers! All the Irwin Allen Shows! Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space. All those shows. And you can’t forget The Addams Family and The Munsters.
RB: Would you ever do a book like that, as follow-up to this one?
JL: You know, I don’t know enough about TV monsters. But somebody should!
RB: What are some of your favorite monster books?
JL: Oh good one. Sure. Well Dracula is a fantastic book. Bram Stoker is great. It’s so completely post-modern. I love H.G. Well’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. Classic monsters.
RB: Do you think there’s something relevant about monster movies based on literature?
JL: Definitely! If you look at the movies that were the most historically successful genre films, they were frequently tied to literature, because a wider audience would go see them. Back in 1931, you’ve got Frankenstein, but I would argue the crossover successful big horror films of today are still based on literature, like The Silence of the Lambs or movies based on Stephen King novels. If there was a classic film that broke the mold, as being an original script, it would be King Kong. And then you’d have to wait until Alien for the next one.
RB: I like Alien. But not really Aliens.
JL: Really why?
RB: I read something about Cameron giving the actors copies of Starship Troopers to read, and for some reason that doesn’t sit right with me.
JL: Now. Starship Troopers. There is underrated monster movie. That is quite a good movie. It is truly underrated. It’s fully realized. It’s funny. The monsters are fantastic. That is a wonderful film.
(Landis picture from video interview on premierscene.net)
More Landis monster talk on the DK website here!
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.