Watch: Vintage Carpenter, Landis and Cronenberg Discuss Breaking Ground in Horror
Enter the mindset of the greatest body horror filmmakers ever.
Due to the recent demise of FilmStruck, I've realized there's still very much a need for physical media and have taken it upon myself to go ahead and start building up a Criterion Collection of my own. My first three purchases? Videodrome, The Brood, and Scanners.
For those unfamiliar, these are three of David Cronenberg's more shocking works, all three of which deal heavily with body horror and were incredibly explicit for there time.
Of course, aside from the beautiful packaging and tasteful curation of film, the best part about The Criterion Collection is their rare commentary and special features. And after watching Videodrome for the umpteenth time last night, I stumbled upon a real gem.
In 1982, while working at Universal Studios as a publicity and marketing specialist for horror and science-fiction films, Mick Garris produced and hosted a roundtable discussion with three of the most groundbreaking horror filmmakers of all time: John Carpenter, John Landis, and David Cronenberg.
At the time, all three were working on projects at Universal. Carpenter was knee deep in The Thing, Landis was coming off a huge hit in An American Werewolf in London, and Cronenberg had made a name for himself as one of the boldest voices of modern horror.
All three also shared a special love for special effects and body horror.
For his part, Cronenberg believed, there shouldn't be anything that shouldn't be shown on film, as the others were eager to relay there feelings on censorship and Rated X films. All three had to deal with censorship, but Cronenberg had his own thoughts on how violence needs to be presented.
"I think it really depends on the tone of the film, what the film is trying to do. I mean, I have been offended by violence in movies, but primarily because I think that the violence is completely gratuitous within the context of the movie," he explained. "That is to say, every movie has its own rules and you can set up any game that you want, but once you do that you really have to play that game otherwise the audience feels, they know that something’s wrong or something’s not working."
Carpenter admitted that Halloween deserved an R rating, but in his mind, The Fog was should've been PG. "It's a kids film," he insists.
"I think they can be cathartic," said Landis on the nature of horror films. "It depends entirely on the individual film. I’m known as a maker of comedy, so now I’ve made a strong generalization in my own mind. I’ve made a rule. Blood is not funny. Gore is not funny. If someone is injured it has to be done in a very straight slapstick way. And then I saw a film called Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a guy is severed limb by limb and it was hysterical. I was fascinated by them breaking my rule and I’m laughing and I realized it all depends on the individual. Because the vast majority of horror in monster films are drek."
Every horror filmmaker (and for that matter every filmmaker in general) have their own unique themes which resonate throughout each of their pictures. "My films tend to be very body conscious," Cronenberg admits. "The body and what it is and what it does and what it can do tends to be very central in my films. And it was never a conscious thing but I gradually realized that I was more interested in things that happen inside you mentally and physically then I was in an exterior threat. Which is why you could legitimately say that none of my movies are monster movies. In fact to a certain extent, it’s your own body that’s the monster. Your own existence."
At the time, special effects were going through a huge boon and all three of these filmmakers were directly responsible. Cronenberg was a master of body horror whose iconic head explosions and appendage growths would forever be embedded in the minds of his audience. Landis' werewolf transformation sequence was truly the first of its kind and Carpenter's The Thing was about to feature what to this day is probably the best creature design of all time.
Not to say that any of that was easy. Landis had this to say of that very same transformation scene on American Werewolf. "It was a ten-week schedule. It took one week to shoot the two minutes. It was horrendous," he remembers. "Rick Baker and the makeup crew would start at five in the morning and we’d come on set at seven and we’d be lit and ready at eight and then we’d sit there until one, which was horrendous. I hated it. And then they’d come out and shoot two shots and we’d be like, see ya tomorrow!"
"To build it took months," he continues. "To devise it, I wrote Werewolf in 1969 in Yugoslavia, it was based on a real experience I had, believe it or not. I met Rick Baker in 1971 and I told him I wanted this metamorphoses for the movie to work. I really felt you couldn’t use opticals, you couldn’t use lap dissolves like Lon Chaney Jr. You had to see it in bright light, you had to see a guy’s metamorphosis. And then in 1971, he showed me his first change-o head, he’d figured out how to do it. It was very frustrating for me because I felt it was very important in the film for the makeup and special effects to work, again because I’m treating it realistically, I’m treating it straight. And it’s one thing to say last night I turned into a werewolf, and it's another thing to see it happening to the guy and experience it with him! Rick wanted ten months, I think he got four, to build everything and I’m very pleased with it."
John Carpenter, who worked with most of the same FX artists at the time had a slightly better experience. "Well, unlike John [Landis] we have set aside about five months to shoot all the effects separate and apart from the first unit," he explains. "They go on and on and on and on and on and on and on. And the same problems that John is describing where you do one shot in a day or two shots in a day. They are a pain in the neck if you’re trying to do them in first unit, if you’re trying to do them all at the same time. If get a ten week schedule and it took a week to do the transformation scene, I would be out of my mind."
None of them were happy with the status quo at the time, so they decided to change it. "There’s a new phenomenon that I see, because you know, I’m a monster buff and I go and see everything no matter how schlocky which is that it used to be that there were some pretty intelligently, well directed, well-crafted films until the monster showed up and the monster was so dumb looking that it blew everything. And now there’s a whole new phenomenon, there a whole bunch of films that are just dreck, but the monsters look great," Landis complains.
Times were indeed changing, but Carpenter, Landis and Cronenberg always remembered to put story first. "Your producer says, look, the only way we’re going to sell this terrible film is on the basis of the special effects, the stills of the special effects. If you’re selling the artwork and the still and the title before the picture, what are you going to sell? You aren’t selling the dialogue, you are selling the monster or the effect," Cronenberg laments. "That happened to me on It Came From Within. We said ok look, if you have a dialogue scene, obviously it’s three shots, goodbye. One take. Forget it. But when we have special effects if it takes all day, great, we have to do it. And thats exactly the way that film was shot."
"Every shot has a history, every cut has a history, every actor, every prop has a history that distorts your perception of your own film."
Cronenberg had one more quote that I really thought was useful to round things up on the nature of screening your own films. "When I was younger, more arrogant and more ignorant certainly, I used to think that the idea of having previews for films was really a bizarre cop out strange industry kind of thing and I couldn’t really understand what that was about," he admits. "And I later realized that there was a very good reason for it. I used to think a poet doesn’t go out and preview his poetry, but in fact, I was wrong about that too, because poets used to always go out and read their poetry to audiences and they would refine it afterwards for the very same reason. You get so close to it after you’ve worked on a picture for a year or two years or however long. You begin to lose some kind of contact with it and you have to vicariously experience it again through an audience so that you can really see what it is. It's almost impossible, it is impossible, to walk into one of your own movies, even thirty years later I’m sure and see it the way anybody just walking in cold would see it. You can’t see it that way. Every shot has a history, every cut has a history, every actor, every prop has a history that distorts your perception of your own film. You have to see it through other peoples eyes, and when you do that you are constantly being surprised at reactions to things."