John Carpenter talks monsters

Sample interview chapter from my book, Monster Movies:

John Carpenter

In his own words, August 2007

“There are times when we seem to be sticking our heads right down into the bloody, stinking maw of the unknown, as the Thing transforms itself into creatures with the body parts of dogs, men, lobsters, and spiders, all wrapped up in gooey intestines” – review of The Thing by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times
(1 January 1982)

Growing up in the ‘50s, that’s the time I remember and love the most as a moviegoer. I think you always love the movies you see when you’re young. Always. They make this gigantic impression on you.

In the United States, they just released a DVD of old monster films during the 1950s. Watching this DVD is like taking my favourite drugs. I love it. There are four movies in there and they’re just awful… The Gigantic Claw (1957), The Werewolf (1956), Zombies Of Mora Tau (1957), and The Creature With The Atom Brain (1955). They’re terrible but fabulous. God, yeah.

The ‘50s was a great time for monster movies and science fiction movies. That was the time of the giant bug movies ­– Them!, Tarantula, Beginning Of The End. My love of monster movies goes very, very deep. During the ‘50s, they were re-releasing the classics – Universal classics like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man – on television. It was just wonderful. When the occasional film came along that purported to be a monster movie, but was really not, it pissed me off.

Monsters are glorious because, first up, you want to know what they look like. That was the big thing when I was a kid. If they made a great-looking monster, it was so fabulous. “Show me my monster, guys. I want to see it. I don’t want it to be in the dark. I want it to come out in the light. I want to see this fucker. I want to deal with it on the screen. I don’t want it to be a dog in makeup like The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Give me my monster and give it to me now!” That was my attitude. Just as long as you give me a glimpse of the monster, then I’m a happy camper.

Monster movies have been with us since the beginning of cinema. They’re nothing new. Monster films keep getting, essentially, reinvented with every generation. Each time there’s a change in calendar, we’re all getting older, and a monster movie will come out and we think we’re seeing something new.

Monster tales are ancient. Go back to the time when we climbed out of the trees, formed tribes and were hunter-gatherers. We’d sit around campfires and talk about evil, and get worried about those terrible monsters out there in the dark – monsters that may come and get us.

Monsters are manifestations of us. They can be us in different terms. They can represent things as they do in fables and myths and fairytales. They keep evolving throughout time. They’ve always been important in terms of any type of cultural myth that’s going on – the monster is us in a different way, they’re part of us. They could be our conscience, the dark part of humanity. You can see this from the very beginning, the earliest writings.

Monsters also come from peoples’ knowledge of the world that they live in, and their ability to explain that world to others. Monsters are a way of putting it in symbolic and visceral terms so we can all understand.

Look at the myth of Dracula. Vampires have been around in one form or another for a long, long time. Dracula was a gothic romance about the end of the aristocracy in Europe. Vampires crumbled and they were bloodsuckers. They fed on people. They were corrupt. They hid in the dark. You see all these things and you say, “I know what this is about”. The myth is basically talking about the end of aristocratic culture.

Now we keep reinventing vampires, over and over and over again. Bela Lugosi – he was Dracula and generally followed the idea of Dracula from the Stoker book. He was the embodiment of a 1930s swooning silent movies sexuality. It was the ‘30s, he had this thick accent… It looks cheesy to us now, right? But at the time, it was like, “Oh my, what a sensation”. But now look at vampires… Vampires don’t really change, they just change their costumes. We add a few details, like day-walkers and all that crap, but they do exactly the same things – that never changes. They’re a durable myth. They’re wonderful.

Monstrous behaviour in humans is what monsters represent in movies. Monsters themselves are, essentially, mythical creatures that are non-human creatures. Human beings that display monstrous behaviour, as in Wolf Creek, they’re even more terrifying sometimes. They hit closer to home in terms of the horror. I mean, it’s harder to understand the darkness in each of us.

A monster movie has a monster in it – a mystical creature, whether that comes from outer space or whether it’s created by a doctor with lightening or it’s an ancient legend like the vampire or a wendigo (a malevolent cannibalistic spirit into which humans can be transformed) or all sorts of things. But they’re supernatural in one way or another. They’re above nature. They’re not a part of every day nature. A man walking down the street might be monstrous, but he’s not a monster – he’s human.

There have been quite a few monsters in my movies. Prince of DarknessIn the Mouth of Madness has a bunch of fucking monsters in it. They Live… well, they’re aliens, but I guess you can call them monsters. My first film, Dark Star, had a cheeseball monster in it.

The Thing was offered to me as an assignment by Universal and it was my first studio film. I was a big fan of the original movie – The Thing from Another World – it terrified me. Oh God, it was scary. I had mixed feelings at first because of my love for the original film, but it was vastly different to the novella upon which it was based – Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell – about a creature who imitates humans perfectly so you can’t tell who is imitation and who is real.

The Thing is a purely evil monster, but on the other hand, all it’s trying to do is survive. So it’s about survival instinct, which we all hopefully have. It’s evil in our world. It’s evil to us because it hides in us.

How did I conceive a monster like the one in The Thing? I found someone able to design and build it – Rob Bottin. He came up with how to do it and the idea behind it, which is a great idea – it can look like anything. It comes along and imitates, then it shows you every life form it’s ever imitated, on however many planets it’s ever been on. So it’s not one Thing we’re looking at, it’s not one creature that looks like ‘this’. It’s not like Frankenstein who never changes. It looks like a hundred million different things.

Essentially, the challenge was to design something that can be executed with special makeup and effects, which are right in front of camera. They’re not computerised. They’re rubbers operated by people. They’re very effective because a computer does not animate them. The real life movement is so disturbing. When the art of it, the sculpting, is realistic, it really looks like a human face. Really disturbing.

When it comes to CG effects, if you look at Jurassic Park, that’s extremely successful. That film moved the art way beyond what was possible before. I mean, those dinosaurs running… all that stuff was incredible and, at the time, it was jaw-dropping. CG can be quite incredible, but they can also be quite ridiculous. It’s just like anything else. I would pay a lot of money to see a special makeup effects person create a giant monster that moved around. It can’t be done.

In the ‘80s in the United States, there was an enormous body culture starting up. People started to exercise. There was this worship of the body and an unease with the body too – that you might get fat and you might not be as attractive anymore. Well, what we did with The Thing was throw it in peoples’ faces – take the human body and rip it apart as an attack on the body culture. That was there and also the virus and all that.

While Rob Bottin had a bunch of great ideas, he hadn’t figured the whole thing out. He sort of figured it out as we went along, which is an extremely terrifying thing to do as a director. We didn’t know what it was going to look like until the whole film was shot and we were shooting insert effects.

I don’t know if I’d ever do that again as a director. I was young and stupid, I guess. When you don’t know, you’re just taking a big leap of faith, so it was like a religious experience – it was all about faith. I had faith that we would work it out, that we would find a way to go through it. And often times, the designs would not work, so we’d have to go back and re-conceive them. This was going on as the movie was being shot. It was insane.

As far as Rob Bottin working himself into exhaustion, let’s say he was aided by certain controlled substances. When you’re working, you just don’t want to sleep – you want to keep going. So there are various substances you can take to keep yourself awake. There was a time he needed to go to hospital – or rehab – however you want to look at it.

No one’s really imitated The Thing, which is really interesting to me, because I don’t know why. I agree that it’s been really influential. It’s so different. It’s not like any other monster movie that I’ve ever seen. When shooting, I was just hoping we’d get something. We were walking in the dark.

Christine came about because The Thing was a pretty big failure in box office terms. I was attacked for doing awful things because of the violence. The fans hated me, which serves me right for going down that path. They turned against me because they thought I had soiled the original. I should’ve realised because they’ll turn on you like bad pets – they’ll bite you.

I needed a job and I’d missed out on a movie because of The Thing. And then along came Christine. It was a Stephen King book about a haunted car and I thought, “What can we do with this?”. If you love cars and you’re a car culture sort of person, then it’s OK.

Village of the Damned came about because I had to finish off a contract with Universal. Once again, that was an assignment. I’d seen the original film in 1960. I think I had a thing for one of the little blonde girls – a 12 year-old thing, not an adult thing. I liked the original movie. There are a lot of great things about it, but there are a lot of stupid things about it too because it was of its time.

I went back to the original movie as much as possible – the brick wall ending and the design of the kids is pretty much out of the original film. One of the issues, however, that I noticed about the original movie was that pregnancy was dealt with hilariously, like the wife (Barbara Shelly) had indigestion. It was so bizarre. The husband and wife live in this big mansion and she kind of goes off into another drawing room and comes back a bit later with a kid. It was hilarious so I thought we could update this a little. That was a fun movie to do – that was Christopher Reeves’ last movie before his accident.

With my film Vampires – like I said before – they just have new clothes. Vampires never change, but the business around them changes. In terms of the monsters, I don’t know what you can do to change that. That was good fun to make.

The one vampire film that stands out in my mind was a film I saw when I was ten. It was called The Horror of Dracula – a Hammer film. Christopher Lee played Dracula and it was just sensational. It sexualised the vampirism more than it had been done before. The girls wanted ‘it’, if you know what I mean. She’d be in bed and she’d rip her bodice a bit in anticipation of his bite… It was great stuff. I’m telling you, for a young kid who was ten years old, that was hot and heavy, man. It’s great. Plus the British, they love to have low-cut dresses. That was always a plus for us as kids.

I’m a big Godzilla fan. I believe I have all the movies. Every Godzilla film is brilliant. He’s a perfect example of a monster who changes depending on his time. He began as, sort of, the A-bomb – this evil creature. Then he becomes a hero. Then he fought for the environment. Then he came back in the ‘80s as a terrible monster.

Godzilla is always changing – it’s fabulous. He saves Japan, he destroys Japan. He’s all-purpose. There are no bad Godzilla movies. Maybe the movie with the son of Godzilla wasn’t that great, but my son loves it. The end of the movie where they freeze him – my son cried. Godzilla speaks a universal language. He speaks to all of us.

Want to read more about monster movies? Buy the book.

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