In Conversation with John Landis

Today is my birthday, so it seems like the perfect moment to share this wonderful gift DK Canada gave me. Director John Landis has overseen the compilation of a new anthology, Haunted Houses, and it is perfect reading for the Halloween season. It’s a fantastic collection, and DK Canada arranged for me to speak with Mr. Landis about it.

What followed was an epic conversation that covered ghosts, horror movies, a shared love of film and his new book…

As the phone started ringing I got increasingly nervous and excited, because my formative years were filled with his films…

John Landis: Hello?

TD Rideout: Hello Mr. Landis! How are you sir?

JL: I’m, uh, tired. How are you?

TDR: (Chuckle) I’m good thank you. It’s Tim Rideout calling. I’m sorry for getting you up so early in the morning. 

JL: No, that’s alright. What time is it? It’s Toronto so it’s 10am there.

TDR: It is 10am, yup. I’ve been up, I’ve walked my dog. I’ve had my breakfast and I’m giddy and anxious.

JL: Well okay. I think you should lower your expectations. 

TDR: Let me just get my geek moment out of the way and say thank you for An American Werewolf in London, cause – one of my all time favourite films. So thank you.

JL: Thank you.

(I’ll spare you the geekry that happened here, but we conversed about the forthcoming 4k box set from Turbine – I lost my mind) 

TDR: Let’s jump in and talk about your new book. Your anthology.

JL: Okay.

TDR: Your anthology, Haunted Houses showcases tales you selected yourself, offering up tales by a variety of authors, and featuring a diverse amount of ghostly and non-ghostly residences, which kind of story gets under your skin the most? 

JL: Well truthfully, ghosts and monsters don’t frighten me that much because they aren’t real. All good storytelling in literature, and movies, and theater, and paintings and whatever is based on the suspension of disbelief – meaning that… The best example I can give you is The Exorcist. Wonderful movie by William Friedkin. Where I went to see it when it was brand new. I think it was the last movie I stood in line for. Like an hour and a half to see. In the early 70s. But I went with two friends Jim O’Rourke and George Hallsey and they were lapsed Catholics. Actually George wasn’t so lapsed. But nonetheless, they were brought up Catholic and had both been altar boys. And I, y’know, sort of a classic liberal Jewish person who certainly doesn’t believe… Actually I’m an atheist, but I’m certainly Jewish culturally and going to see that film… … I certainly don’t believe in satan. I think the devil is the best excuse man ever thought of. ‘I didn’t do it, the devil made me do it.’ 

In any case. So I’m totally a sceptic, and we go see that movie and y’know within a half hour I completely bought everything. I was terrified.

TDR: I love it!

JL: Satan had possessed this child. Y’know I was so grateful when Father Karras showed up. 

(lots of laughter) It scared the shit out of all of us. It was just extraordinary! And what I never forgotten from that was after the film, we all went out for coffee, talking, and very excited and went home. And Jim and George had nightmares for weeks…

TDR: Whoa!

JL: I slept like a baby. (Laughter) What I mean is but while I was in the theatre, watching that film. I bought ALL of it. And that’s called suspension of disbelief. So for me, ghosts and monsters in the moment, and you know seeing them in the movie or reading something they can be scary, but what really frightens me, I’m serious, are people.

TDR: Right?!

JL: I mean my wife can see any horror film, any zombie, any vampire, any horror movie, but refuses to see what are now called slasher movies. The first famous one being Psycho. Hitchcock’s brilliant Psycho. But she won’t see Psycho. She won’t see any of the Jason Vorhees movies… all those movies because it’s about maniacs. And as we know… there are maniacs, there are dangerous people out there. So that – I require no suspension of disbelief… so that scares me. Ghosts not so much. 

TDR: Yes, the human monster can be very scary. You kind of touched on it by talking about The Exorcist – a good story can hook the reader, and can also influence their own creative process. You’ve spoken about how The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was like your first big film and showed you that there’s a world behind the camera. What other stories have stayed with you through the years and how do they affect your storytelling?

JL: Oh my goodness. I think. I think everything you see has impact on you somehow and everything you read. I just… that’s a tough one, because I LOVE movies. I really love ‘em. You know when I was eight and saw 7th Voyage of Sinbad I had the complete package. Total suspension. I was on that beach fighting that cyclops (chuckles). I was. You know, the word is transported. In fact I once knew a producer who told me ‘You know John, we’re just in the travel business. You know people come to a movie theatre to go somewhere else.’ I thought that’s great, that’s a great analogy.

So I’ve seen so many films that I’ve adored. The original King Kong and certainly, again, Hitchcock’s Psycho. I mean… I can’t… Fellini, Bergman, Howard Hawks, and George Stevens and Frank Capra. Preston Sturges. There are so many wonderful filmmakers and so… Kurosawa!… and so many great, great films.

In fact, I could tell you a direct influence because you mentioned An American Werewolf in London. There’s something in there, very effective, that really I guess hadn’t been done before except for what I’m going to tell you is where David, the character of David is having this terrible nightmare from which he wakes up only to learn that he’s still in the nightmare. Sort of a dream within a dream and it worked as a tremendous scare. It worked as a big boo in the theatre. But I actually got the idea from one of my favourite movies is by Luis Bunuel called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeousie which is a great film. And in that film, I won’t do it any justice here. But basically you watch the movie and you meet some characters, and suddenly one of those characters wakes up and you realise ‘oh wait a minute! What I’ve just been watching for six minutes was a dream of his.’ And so now you’re in reality, and he starts going until someone else wakes up and then you realise ‘oh no wait, it was her dream in which she dreamed about his dream. And it becomes Pirandello. And so it’s not used to scare you, it’s actually quite a witty movie but that’s where I got the idea. So that’s a direct influence. 

TDR: I love it!

JL: I’ve heard filmmakers say I’m not influenced by anyone, and they’re, they’re completely full of crap. You’re influenced by everyone. And one of the things about movies. I mean this is about a book but one of the things about movies is it’s a new art form. It’s only about one hundred and twenty years old, and compared to literature or painting or theatre, which are thousands of years old… It’s incredible what’s been accomplished, and hopefully it’s going to evolve and continue. 

Anyway… but Haunted Houses, my book from DK. This came about because I did a book for DK, gosh, five or six years ago…

TDR: Yeah ya did! I have it right here, Monsters in the Movies. Love it!

JL: Thank you! That book was a labour of love and very successful. I mean I was shock and surprised at how well it has done. And I really want to do a new edition and all the monsters that have appeared in movies since then, because if anything, it’s increased tremendously… In any case, what’s fascinating is that, uh… they had such, it’s a British company, and they had such success with that book. Alistair. This gentleman, the editor of that book came, called me up out of the blue and said ‘Would you like to do an anthology?’ He was very specific. It had to be ghosts. And it had to be haunted houses. Which I stuck to, mostly…. …He was talking about really, the canon. And he wants me to go back to the early days and really go through. But I have to say I was able to find really effective and interesting haunted house stories by Henry James, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, you know, and really Saki. I mean I just have a lot of interesting authors in here, and classic stories. Classic and important stories.

TDR: Oh very much so. I mean you’re dealing with the height of Gothic Horror and the beginning of pulp magazines like Eerie. So you’ve got some great selections in there.

JL: Well, it’s interesting. Because it’s uh. The one that I’m really pleased with is. I was able to use The Turn of the Screw which is probably one of the scariest books. lt’s a novella. But it’s in here as a long short story by Henry James. And it’s a fascinating, really scary story about a governess that’s been made several times into films. But the one with Deborah Kerr.

TDR: The Innocents

JL: God that’s a scary movie!

TDR: Yup.

(laughter)

JL: And directed by Jack Clayton. Wonderful film. Really one of the best. It’s really difficult in a film to do ghosts. It’s almost better in literature because you know you’re imagination…

TDR: Right? You’re in the theatre of the mind!

JL: Right. And in the movies it’s difficult to actually make an apparition that’s not ultimately disappointing. BUT! Movies like… you know there’s a wonderful movie called The Legend of Hell House from a script by Richard Matheson. Very clever ghost movie that’s very effective. Of course, oh my goodness, I just went out of my head. It’s too early in the morning. Oh gosh. Well, dementia. We knew it was coming. 

(Laughter)

TDR: It’s interesting. The Haunted House story seems to be a classic trope and now that we’ve seen suburbia spreading do you think… how would you go about telling a modern haunted house and do you think it could serve as a social commentary while serving up frights?

JL: Absolutely! I mean the tradition. Starting in the 40s and 50s and 60s they started to make, to come up with reasons for ghosts that were political. For instance there are not one, not two but maybe thirty movies where the ghosts actually are unhappy spirits from a Native American burial ground. That was the premise of Poltergeist. They built that housing development on it. On a Native American burial ground. The skeletons come up for revenge and the ghosts from the spirit world. But you know, you have to remember, spiritualism was huge in the 20th century. In the early 1900s. People like H.G. Wells bought it.

TDR: Arthur Conan Doyle. 

JL: Oh Arthur Conan Doyle was a major, major proponent of spiritualists. And all of them were phony. (Chuckles) They really were. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle was good friends with Harry Houdini. And Harry Houdini’s interest in spiritualism came up after his mother died. He was very attached to her. And Arthur Conan Doyle offered condolence and said, ‘gee y’know would you like this medium I know to contact your mother from beyond’ you know?  And Conan Doyle was very serious and this medium was very famous. And so Harry Houdini went. Really! And he’d given his mother, he discussed it with her, a word. A word to say if she wanted to reach out from beyond the grave so he would know it was her. And anyway, this medium, he saw through and could expose her as a hoax, and Conan Doyle was horrified. It was something he really believed in. And they ceased being friends. And then Houdini went around, a great part of his later career was exposing fake spiritualists and you know that was quite a big thing?

TDR: Right?

JL: You know the belief in ghosts is fascinating because I really think… I write about this in the other book, the Monster book, but, death is such an overwhelming and universal event. Everybody dies. And therefore, a loved one especially, a spouse, a child, a relative, a lover. When a loved one dies it’s very difficult for many people, most people, to accept the loss. Like one day they’re there and the next day they’re not. I had a friend who use to say that… An older friend, who used to say that none of his friends died, they were just on vacation. (Laughter).

They were just out of town. So instead of saying someone dies, you would say they’re in the Bahamas having a wonderful time. 

TDR: Right?

JL: But that’s what is so interesting. Because since we don’t know what happens after you die we invent! We invent or with science we do research. Well science hasn’t given us answers, because I think they’re a little above the pay grade of scientists to figure out what the hell happens. You know? So we come up with religion. And religion are stories to make… People aren’t dead, they went to heaven. Or they’re being punished in hell. Or they’re being reincarnated. I mean different religions have different explanations why you don’t really die. You don’t really go away because the loss is too great to bear. So we invent it. 

TDR: Nice.

JL: So therefore ghosts make complete sense. I mean ghosts are as rational as angels. So, so ghost stories are plentiful. And some, I have to say, are really fascinating. Ghosts aren’t’ always frightening. Some ghosts are benign or come to help. Most ghosts are scary though. (Laughter).

It’s just. It’s a fascinating genre of literature because it’s so, believe it or not, it’s so, uh, what’s the word, universal. In that everyone deals with death. And what are humans scared of the most? We are scared of death, pain, starvation. You know? And beyond that, we’re really scared. Scared. Frightened. Of the unknown.

TDR: Yes.

JL: Humans have real difficulty with the unknown and since we have great imaginations, what we do is we invent explanation… …There’s a need to have ghosts. And that’s why one of the reasons we come up with the idea – well they’re in heaven. They got their reward. And they won’t be bothering me anymore! (Laughter).They won’t be under that bed, or in that closet. They won’t show up in the mirror behind me. I mean poltergeists are fascinating. And there are many documented cases of objects being flung around the room.

TDR: Sure.

JL: Unexplained. 

TDR: Doesn’t mean it’s ghosts.

JL: I mean who knows? But this book puts together some wonderful stories. Some will really disturb you and others will just fascinate you. And of course there’s a couple in here that are pretty funny.

TDR: I was rereading the Lovecraft one last night. Despite his racism I’m a fan of Lovecraft and I just love how it’s just a buildup. There’s so much. He gives the history of the house, and the family and everything before our main character even ends up in the house. It’s all buildup. Just to build that sense of dread. I like when a story can take its time to do that and then scare the pants off you. 

JL: Well, you’ve seen The Haunting…

TDR: Oh yes!

JL: The Robert Wise one.

TDR: I love the Robert Wise version!

JL: Yeah! It’s terrific. And the premise of that is that the actual evil is the house itself (chuckles). I mean the house itself is the ghost and the malign spirit is physical. And yet you never see, you never see anything in that. I mean in The Innocents you actually see, in the glass, briefly, a reflection the gardener, the dead gardener. What’s his name, Quint? I forget his name. But in The Haunting, which is one of the scariest movies ever made, you see nothing. 

TDR: It’s so good.

JL: It IS so good. And well this book was a chance to get some classic stories out in front of hopefully younger people who, you know, were never exposed to that sort of stuff.

TDR: Right? And it’s such a variety, like you said. I mean there’s the humorous tales, Oscar Wilde and then of course, you know The Turn of the Screw is just so unnerving. I mean they’re all there. It’s just a great collection. And it’s all in one book. 

JL: I managed to get a story in here by and I’ll mispronounce his first name but Lafcadio… How do you say that? Hearn…

TDR: … Yeah, The Reconciliation.

JL: Do you know who he was?

TDR: I don’t.

JL: He was an American who went to Japan early on and became completely engrossed in Japanese culture. Learned Japanese. He’s really deep, deep, deep into the culture and he wrote a book where he wrote down many Japanese folk stories all involving ghosts and spirits. And those are some of the scariest stories I’ve ever read (chuckles) and there’s a wonderful movie. Have you ever seen Kwaidan?

TDR: Yes!

JL: Okay! Well those are all based on his stories. 

TDR: Oh, okay… It all clicks now.

JL: And you remember Hoichi the Earless? That, that… When I saw that movie I must have been in my teens. Whoa did it scare me! And it’s so beautiful. And I don’t know if you remember the one about the samurai who, the Japanese lord who ditches his wife. Basically abandons her and comes back, and it’s in here, and he comes back many, many, many, many, many years later to find her young and beautiful and happy to see him. And he’s overjoyed. And I won’t tell you what happens but…

TDR: It’s probably not good.

JL: It’s not good. (Laughter).

TDR: I’ve got one last question for you, and then I will let you go about your day, how do you think the horror genre will change after the pandemic?

JL: Well the horror genre and especially science fiction has dealt with the pandemic for hundreds of years now. You know, what is Dracula? When he comes on that ship with the rats to London, he is the Plague. He’s the Black Death. And there are so many frightening stories that are based in pandemics. And what are zombies? Where do they come from?… …I know this is sacrilegious but who did Christ raise from the dead?

TDR: Supposedly Lazarus. 

JL: Lazarus! Ok. Does that make Lazarus the first zombie?

TDR: Right?

JL: You know, and I always wondered when a zombies killed can there be… does he have a ghost? You know? But there are so many explanations. Zombies are like the monster of the day. Really. It’s the zeitgeist. They… there are so many zombie movies, and they keep coming.

TDR: They really do. 

JL: There’s a wonderful Korean series on Netflix now called Kingdom?

TDR: Okay, I’ve got marked.

JL: I totally recommend it. It’s beautifully produced, gorgeous sets and costumes. Period Korean movie that I don’t want to just say it’s a zombie movie because in fact it feels… that’s like saying Game of Thrones is a movie about dragons. (Laughter).But! Wonderful. The first episode is a little slow, but by the end of the second episode I promise you, you will be deep into it. 

TDR: Ok!

JL: And it deals with the living dead, and you know. I knew George Romero quite well and George… he always felt conflicted that he became… his film The Night of the Living Dead was so colossally, hugely influential and impactful that it kind of ruined his career. 

TDR: Yeah. 

JL: They wouldn’t let him make any other kind of movie. He made three other zombie movies, because he was kind of trapped. But they were all extraordinary. And the image of the zombies… I remember George shot in Pittsburgh and I was shooting in Chicago. He was shooting Dawn of the Dead and I was shooting The Blues Brothers. And I remember…

Another great movie. When I saw the movie, I was like ‘hey! We both trashed the mall!’ (Laughter). But that image of the zombies in the mall. I mean you know, you can’t get more political. 

TDR: That was total social commentary…

JL: …That’s what’s interesting about the stories. Is the people.There are the people who encounter spirits unintentionally but so many of them are people who go deliberately. You know, they’re investigating. Or they want to see for themselves, you know? They are people who are sceptics and people who are believers but the stories are filled with people who put themselves in the situation. 

TDR: It’s true. 

JL: But anyway, I really appreciate your time.

TDR: Oh no. Sir, you are the one giving me the time, thank you. This has been. It’s been… Yeah, this has been a huge pleasure. Like I said American Werewolf, and I could just ring off the list of films and how they’ve affected my life but just know that you have had a huge influence on my life and wow. 

JL: Alright. I have a question.

TDR: Do it!

JL: How did Three Amigos affect your life?

TDR: Oh dude! (Chuckles) Do you wanna hear? I will tell you! It was 1987, I was living in Bermuda, cause my dad was in the service so we were at the Canadian base there and as soon as it hit videotape me, my buddy Sean, my buddy Don… we sat there and we watched it and then we would know… we knew the songs. We would sing the songs. I mean we’re like fifteen, sixteen, walking around singing these songs. We would do the salute, we had the dialogue down pat. I mean even now I’ll be going around and saying ‘that looks like a male plane.” And people would like at me like ‘you’re still pulling that out?’ And I’d be like ‘yeah I totally am!‘ Yes. It’s embarrassing how much that movie affected me. 

JL: Oh my goodness. Alright well gosh. I should probably stop while I’m ahead.

TDR: Well I mean Blues Brothers introduced me to soul music. I had no idea before then. 

JL: Oh! That’s good. That’s excellent.

TDR: I grew up in a country household, so I was like ‘oh! There’s this whole nother style of music and it’s so cool.’ and Spies Like Us, Trading Places. Dude you were all over my youth and adulthood so yeah, keep it up. 

JL: Sounds like I’m haunting you. 

TDR: Yes, but in a good way. 

JL: ‘But in a good way!’ Okay, well thank you so much and I do hope people take a look at the Haunted Houses book. 

TDR: Oh, such a good collection. 

JL: And I’m very pleased. Very pleased with the line I came up with for the spine. It says on the cover ‘Classic stories of doors that should never be opened’

TDR: Love it. It’s such a good book. 

JL: Well thank you. I appreciate it so much.

TDR: Mr. Landis you have a great day, sir!

JL: You too! 

TDR: Thank you, bye. 

JL: And stay safe!

TDR: Yes, and you as well sir!

JL: Ok. Bye.

TDR: Bye.

That was it! I had a great chat with him, and am delighted to be able to share it with you. And make sure you check out both of his books, Monsters in the Movies, and Haunted Houses, available now from DK Books!

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