Wednesday, March 13, 2013

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Why it takes me forever and a day to buy a DVD of a great horror film I will never know. But when I came across this one new for $3 my wallet gave a hearty hell yeah! This is the Full Moon edition too with all the bells and whistles etc. 

In 1981 I was a 10 year old monster kid. I was full of imagination and had a love for all things monsters and Star Wars. I remember seeing snippets of American Werewolf on an episode of Robert Eberts and Gene Siskels “At The Movies”. I was floored by what they showed of the transformation scene! I had never seen anything like it before and I wanted to see more. So as the movie ran in the theaters I had the pleasure of sneaking another peek! I was with my parents at the old Churchland theater, which was one of the first “multiplexes” in the area at the time, and was waiting for the theater to start seating for the movie I was going to see with my parents. I cannot tell you what movie it was but I don’t think it was a kids movie. We were waiting near the door to the theater that was showing American Werewolf so I stood on my tiptoes and peeked through the porthole window of the door to that theater. I could hear screams so I knew something was up. I was able to see about half the screen as I witness the entire transformation scene. It was the scariest thing I had seen since my Dad had taken me to see The Amityville Horror (which is another story I should one day get to).

The Slaughtered Lamb....a family hang out.
Everyone reading this blog more than likely has seen An American Werewolf in London so I’m not really going to bore you with the story too much.We all know it but let's recap shall we? Two Americans, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are hiking across England on Holiday. They encounter some odd inhabitants of the local pub and are then sent on their way into the dark during a full moon. They are both attacked by a creature that resembles a large dog. Jack is killed but David survives. Eventually David learns he was attacked by a werewolf and slowly begins to spiral into madness as he transforms and goes hunting for human prey. His new found love, nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) tries to help David and save him before he is *SPOILER ALERT* gunned down by England police. Well I guess that wasn’t so boring but to the point. Now let’s get to why this movie works on every level and is such a classic piece of horror….with a little black comedy thrown in for good measure.

The lovely Jenny "Logan's Run" Agutter.
American Werewolf works on many different levels. John Landis creates characters that are believable and either liked or at least made to be sympathetic towards. The townsfolk that David and Jack encounter at the Slaughtered Lamb are good examples. They are wary of strangers and for good reasons, especially since there is a werewolf in their midst and they don’t want anyone to know. When Jack becomes inquisitive over the pentangle that is drawn on the pub wall he gets an incredibly cold response. They decide to leave and the townsfolk do show some worry in their faces, telling the two that should stay off the moors and stick to the road. Good advice that they don’t seem to heed. The townsfolk do have a change of heart and come to the rescue, killing the attacking werewolf. Jack of course is killed but David survives but has been bitten. So even though they basically turned them out into the danger, Landis is able make us feel for them as well in their own personal plight.

David is another sympathetic character. He’s been bitten and infected/cursed. In one scene he brings up the storyline to the original Universal film The Wolfman (1941). David Naughton even seems to conjure up that old Lon Chaney Jr magic within his own character and turns the sympathy up a notch. Landis is able to create a main character who we can identify with just based on a likeable person which opens the door to the sympathy of knowing it’s not David’s fault when he turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree. We feel even more sympathy when he realizes what he is and tries to convince an English police officer to arrest him. In David’s final moments in the film, in werewolf form, the sympathy is again conveyed through the creature design of Rick Baker as we see the creature’s recognition of his love Alex but still succumbs to the beastly nature of his curse.

"Cat Scratch Feeeveeeer!"
Another working level is the humor that Landis injects into the film. American Werewolf IS a horror film but it also has shades of black humor too, especially in the very jovial treatment of the dead incarnation of David’s best friend Jack. Jack visits David three times in the film and each time he is in a different state of decay. His first visit is in the hospital where David is recuperating. We see Jack in all his post attack gory glory. But Jack isn’t vengeful or angry with David, he has come to warn him and let him know that is going to happen to David now that he has been attacked by a werewolf. One can’t help but giggle as Jack nonchalantly takes a piece of David’s breakfast toast and dips it into an egg and eats. In the last visit, set in a porno theater in Piccadilly, David meets with Jack (who is now very decayed) and also meets the persons he has murdered. David apologizes to them but in British fashion they tell him it’s okay and understand that he didn’t mean to harm them. Here Landis embraces that dry British wit infamous with humor from across the big pond.  

Ding Doooong......."DIE!"
My favorite scenes from the film involve the incredibly strange and violent dreams that David begins to experience. They start off rather benign and with each dream become more troubling and ultimately violent. The dream in which David’s family is slaughtered by Nazi werewolf like creatures is on the top of the shelf for bizarre and intensity! The slain bodies of his kid siblings are a very disturbing shot that thankfully is only shown for a few seconds. Even though the scene is bizarre and over the top, it still conveys intense terror.  Another dream where David is running through the woods and comes across himself in the hospital bed is one of surrealism. As nurse Alex attends to him he suddenly opens his eyes and glares at her with yellow cat like animal orbs and emits a beastly growl. John Landis for sure is hitting all the marks in this film.

"My God! I need a manicuuuuuurrrreee!
"Can I get a jumbo popcorn with this?"
Rick Bakers make up effects are of course the crowning jewel of An American Werewolf in London. The transformation scene in which, for the first time on camera, we see skin bubbling, hair growing, appendages stretching, bones snapping from metamorphisms and a full body stretch that continues to amaze me to this day and I know how they did it! That scene completely suspends the disbelief with no problem whatsoever. The only other werewolf effects to rival Rick Bakers were that of Rob Bottins in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981) that came out the same year. The reason they rivaled is because Baker was originally working on the effects for The Howling when Landis contacted him for American Werewolf. Baker left the project and left his ideas in the hands of Bottin who used much of the same transformation designs.  Some say American Werewolf is the superior film but I think that The Howling is just as good and even better in some ways. When it was all said and done however, Rick Baker won an Oscar for his work in An American Werewolf in London making the film to be the first to ever win an Oscar for makeup.

An American Werewolf in London was a game changer in both horror film and special effects. It opened the door to big budget horror films and propelled the careers of both Rick Baker and John Landis. A film that needs to be in every horror fans collection even if it takes you a stupid amount of time to add it….like me. 

No comments:

Post a Comment