Director John Landis gives us 100 years of movie monsters

Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares ★★★★
John Landis
DK Publishing, 2011

How could I resist a behemoth, colorful coffee table book about cinematic monsters put together by the legendary John Landis? I couldn’t of course, it would have been impossible, which is why I’m writing this review.

monster moviesI have a bit of fangirl squee going on for Mr. Landis, who wrote and directed one of my favorite movies of all time — An American Werewolf in London. He’s also famous for Animal House and The Blues Brothers (and a plethora of cheesy stinkers that I won’t mention here). Landis hasn’t made a lot of monster movies, but what makes him the perfect person to put together a book like this is two-fold: 1) he’s a screaming fanboy for the genre and 2) he’s best friends with a lot of the directors — and more significantly, special effects masters, who make the monsters come to life.

This entire book really does read like a love letter from a fanboy. Landis’s characteristic exuberance pours across every page captured in about 1000 exclamation points. Seriously, this book has A LOT of exclamation points. So many I began to giggle and couldn’t help but remember this scene from Seinfeld. No amount of exclamation points however, can truly capture Landis’s passion and enthusiasm for the medium, his sparkling eyes, his fervent gesticulating, his habit of leaning forward as if he spends most of his life perched on the edge of his seat (which I firmly believe is the case). Watch this guy in person and you’ll see what I mean.

So this is not an academic treatise on cinema culture. Landis makes this very clear in his introduction when he calls his book “a labor of love” and not “a ponderous examination of film theory.” Budding special effects geeks out there should take note that the book is also missing detailed descriptions from the creators of how movie monsters actually get made. There are no secrets of the trade I’m afraid.

This book is mostly a magnificent, shiny compilation of movie stills and posters featuring just about every monster that has appeared on film in the last 100 years (the good, the bad, the ugly and the cheesy). It is by no means an all-inclusive encyclopedic list; still, there’s so much to feast your eyes on, I don’t think you’ll be left feeling cheated.

Some of the most fun I had was spent pouring over the movie posters and laughing at some of the ridiculous tag lines:

Dracula’s Daughter – “She gives you that Weird Feeling”
Night of the Living Dead – “They won’t stay dead!”
Teenage Zombies – “A fiendish experiment performed with sadistic horror!”
Zombie – “We Are Going To Eat You!”
Day the World Ended – The screen’s new high in NAKED SHRIEKING TERROR!
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? – “The hand that rocks the cradle has no flesh on it.”

That’s not how you write a tagline. This is how you write a tagline: (can you name them all without clicking on the link?)

In space, no one can hear you scream.

When there’s no more room in Hell, the Dead will walk the Earth.

Who will survive, and what will be left of them?

A romantic comedy. With zombies.

Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.

Man is the warmest place to hide.

To avoid fainting, keep on repeating…it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.

If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming, she won’t wake up at all

Herbert West has a good head on his shoulders, and another one on his desk

In addition to Landis’s short introductory essays to every chapter, he has also included “conversations” with some of the biggest names in the business — Christopher Lee, Joe Dante, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, Guillermo Del Toro, Ray Harryhausen, Rick Baker and John Carpenter.

del toro

Guillermo Del Toro

I adore Guillermo Del Toro. To me he is a big giant teddy bear with a soft warm voice and a generous expansive laugh that erupts from the bottom of his belly. He is articulate, introspective, and acutely observant of the human condition. It is what makes him such an extraordinary storyteller and filmmaker. I would listen to him talk about any subject under the sun (and have in countless interviews), but when he speaks of horror and what scares us I am absolutely, positively riveted. The world could end around me and I wouldn’t even notice. In the conversation recorded between he and Landis, Del Toro shares very specific ideas of what constitutes “monster” both philosophically and cinematically.

John Carpenter is the “old guy” now, cynical, almost curmudgeonly, wise with the long view. I love his take on the value of getting “to see” the monster. Implied horror which is only hinted at is basically bullshit and a cop out to Carpenter. Movies like The Haunting and The Innocents represent “the bad and beautiful way of making horror movies.” He argues: “I paid my money, I want to see what the fuck it is.” That made me laugh so hard. It’s true that there is power in what we can imagine, but turning on the spotlights, pulling back the curtain, and letting us really see everything — leaving nothing to the imagination — can be a satisfying, cathartic experience in its own right. Ballsy filmmaking too, cause it can blow up in your face if the audience sees any strings or zippers.

This is one of the things that made American Werewolf in London so ground-breaking. Landis wanted to show David’s violent metamorphosis from man to werewolf in broad daylight with no cutaways and thanks to the amazing work by Rick Baker he pulled it off. To this day it remains an extraordinary transformation, putting to shame many modern day monsters and their over-reliance on CGI effects.


Carrie (1976)

The chapter entitled “The Devil’s Work” includes Carrie White, and I do not think this is the best fit for her, since her abilities and acts of violence do not originate with or are influenced by Satan (Carrie’s mother certainly believes this to be true, but we know better). I was also disappointed that Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Lucifer in The Prophecy did not make the cut. Viggo has very little screen time, but what he has he uses to astonishing effect. It’s a chilling, convincing performance (certainly heaps better than Gabriel Bryne’s in End of Days alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Missing from the “Ghosts” chapter is Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon, stir of echoeswhich always gets overlooked in favor of its more famous cousin The Sixth Sense. For the record I think Stir is the better movie. If you haven’t seen it, pick it up because it is awesome.

If you have a coffee table in your home, this is the perfect book for it (or your bathroom if that’s how you roll). Wherever you keep this book in your house, you’ll likely never run out of horror movies to watch. There’s plenty I haven’t seen, and plenty more I can’t wait to see again. It’s a luscious, visual feast for the eyes and incredibly fun to flip through. It would make the perfect gift for the film buff or horror junkie in your life.

All I can say is, when do we get the movie? This book would make an awesome documentary. Watch the trailer here.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

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1 Comment

  1. Kirk

     /  October 16, 2014

    Ha, I got 7 out of 9 on the movie taglines. And ditto your recommendation of Stir of Echoes.


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