John Landis was 18 years old, and hitch-hiking from London to former Yugoslavia, when he had the idea for a werewolf movie that, as he puts it, "dealt with the supernatural in a completely realistic way". Around a decade later, in 1981, he made An American Werewolf in London in that vein, blending horror, realism and edgy black comedy.
Landis, now aged 61, reflects on the moment he conceived it: "I was in Yugoslavia and there was a wagon stopped at a crossroads with about 12 people standing nearby. They had dug a vertical hole for a dead body. [It was] wrapped in a shroud and garlanded with ropes of garlic and rosaries. I was told the dead guy had committed a crime and he was being buried like this so that his body wouldn't get up again and cause mischief. I thought, 'wow, this is happening two weeks before we plan to land a man on the moon'."
The humour, adds Landis, was a way of rendering the film's horror more realistically: "I was trying to figure out how other educated, sophisticated people would deal with something that could clearly not be happening, but that was happening in front of them.
"It's as if you were seeing a figure across the street with a cape and greased-back hair. Wouldn't you laugh if he came up to you and said "I want to suck your blood"? But then the next minute, you'd be in the gutter and he'd be tearing your throat out."
What Landis also sought to create was a monster who was as much a victim of his circumstance as his human prey. To that end, his central character – an unassuming American tourist-turned-werewolf – finds himself waking up dishevelled, naked and unaware of the carnage he has wreaked the previous night as his deadly lupine alter-ego. Two years after making the film, Michael Jackson came to Landis asking him to direct the music video for his single, "Thriller" which marked a turning point in music videos."Rock videos were like commercials then but I wanted to make it like a theatrical short," Landis says.
So what constitutes a good monster-movie? Is it the dramatic thrill that the horror film director, Guillermo del Toro, refers to as the "rollercoaster of the soul?" Landis thinks: "it's more profound than that. These movies are genuinely entertaining but they take you to another place that makes you confront all your fears."
While the genre enforces the Biblical message of good triumphing over evil, it also contains a more unsettling subversion of this Christian idea: there are those monsters that symbolise the mighty, reigning chaos of uncontrollable elements. "The most frightening thing for social order is anarchy and that is what the monster movie, especially the zombie movie, represents," says Landis.
While he has made acclaimed films across genres (Trading Places, The Blues Brothers) Landis has always had an enduring fascination with celluloid monsters. His new book, Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares, is dedicated to the most memorable and macabre. Here, he picks some of the most inventive and tells us why they are eternally scary.
'Monsters in the Movies: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares' by John Landis is published by DK on 3 October
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