John Landis has been a horror movie luminary ever since he directed An American Werewolf in London in 1981. In the decades since then, he's seen monsters evolve from elaborate works of costume and make-up magic to elaborate works of CGI.
In his new book Monsters in the Movies, out Monday, Landis explores a century of cinematic creatures, from the currently hot vampires and zombies to apes, genetic mutants, mad scientists, psychos and scary children. Scanning through the book, it's hard not to be taken by the evolution of how Hollywood monsters are created, from rudimentary make-up tricks to really slick technical feats.
"Technology in movies is always changing," Landis told Wired.com. "In terms of CG, it's an amazing technology and like all new technologies, completely overused immediately."
It's a transformation the director has witnessed first-hand. When he was in the process of writing his seminal monster movie An American Werewolf in London in 1970, he asked computer-generated graphics pioneer John Whitney if it would be possible for his werewolf's transformation to be done with CG. The answer was, "Potentially." By the time he began making the movie in 1981, Whitney had passed away, so Landis asked John Whitney Jr. if it could be done. The answer was, "Soon, soon."
The technology did not develop soon enough, but maybe that's a good thing: Landis created his werewolf with make-up artist Rick Baker, who went on to win an Oscar for his work. It was so good Michael Jackson hired Landis and Baker to make his video for "Thriller." That video turned out to be kind of a big deal, and by the time Landis made Jackson's "Black or White" video, he got the technology he wanted — it was used to morph the faces of many races at the end of the clip.
"That was really startling for everybody when that video came out," Landis said. "But within years you can by that software and do it on your laptop."
Landis adds that there's a time and place for CG, just like any other movie-making tech, like zoom lenses or Steadicams. Sometimes it works (the director sites Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End as an example) and sometimes viewers walk away thinking, "Well, that looks shitty," Landis said.
To get a taste of the metamorphosis of movie monsters, Wired.com asked Landis to tell us about some of the best beasts in history. See what he had to say in the gallery above. (Spoiler Alert: He gets the ghoul.)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Landis says: "Poltergeist is another movie almost like Edward Scissorhands in that it deals with suburbia. That movie uses the oldest trope in the book, which is the that the housing estate is built on an Indian burial ground. It's the corniest fucking thing in the world. But some of it is so effective. I mean, the little girl saying, 'They're here!' Tobe Hooper makes great use of traditional childhood fears like that clown doll. That's a very effective movie."
Photograph reproduced by permission of MGM/SLA Entertainment (Kobal Collection) and DK Publishing