Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Corner: Monsters in the Movies

 "A monster is a distortion of something that has a normal, non-threatening form. The monstrous form is threatening and disturbing because it is beyond the pale of what we consider normality.” – David Cronenberg

Some books are not meant to be read cover to cover, but paged through at random, revealing a new surprise at every turn.  Monsters in the Movies – 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares, by John Landis, is just such a book.  Landis is no stranger to monster movies, having created the seminal hybrid comedy/horror flick An American Werewolf in London (watch for my upcoming review).  He’s also a frequent contributor to the delightful web site Trailers from Hell, providing snarky and insightful commentary for an eclectic assortment of movie trailers.  Although his recent directorial efforts haven’t been quite up to snuff, he’s produced a book about monsters that’s a joy to read.

This book is Landis’ love letter to movie monsters, past and present.  He traces film creatures from their humble beginnings in silent cinema to the current crop of CGI beasties.  Landis admits that his book was not intended to be an exhaustive survey of movie monsters, referring to himself as an entertainer, not a scholar.  Because this isn’t a comprehensive collection, you’ll probably find some of your favorite movie monsters conspicuously missing.  But it’s not what’s missing, but what’s present that counts.  Browsing this book feels like you’re walking the halls of a movie monster museum with hidden treasures in every corner.  It’s wonderfully illustrated, with many rare stills from collector-extraordinaire Bob Burns’ private collection.

Landis, a true Hollywood veteran, doesn’t simply languish in the past.  He takes a surprisingly evenhanded approach to covering his subject across the decades, from the works of Tod Browning to Peter Jackson.  His emphasis is clearly on classic horror, but the new stuff gets its day in the sun as well.  The pages are filled with an intriguing assortment of film images, recollections, trivia tidbits and opinions (he doesn’t mince words when he expresses his disdain for the Twilight vampires).  The real gems, however, are the interviews with several of his colleagues and idols, including Joe Dante, Christopher Lee, Ray Harryhausen and Rick Baker.  His dialogues reflect a genuine respect for each individual, and read more like an informal conversation with one of his friends than a hard-hitting interview.  It’s great to hear each interviewee talk about his respective influences, and the films that made the biggest impact (Island of Lost Souls pops up frequently).  It’s particularly enlightening to observe how each individual provides a distinctly original definition of what a monster is (my favorite quote is listed above). 

Monsters in the Movies – 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares is the perfect guide to leaf through on a lazy summer day (Oh, I suppose you could buy the ebook version, but where’s the fun in that?).  With its odd assortment of vintage photos and Landis’ wry commentary, there’s enough to keep ardent film fans and casual moviegoers entertained.  I’m happy to report that this book has taken up residence alongside my Psychotronic guides and Marcus Hearn’s The Hammer Story, as movie books worthy of repeated browsing.

Rating: ****

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