Thursday 4 August 2011

An American Werewolf in London (1981)


Horror and comedy have a lot in common, and it rises beyond the attempt each genre makes to provoke a specific, though very different, physiological reaction in its viewer. The success of these endeavours rests on a very particular relationship it has with its audience. Things like melodrama or musicals or thrillers or adventures asks the audience to engage with the action onscreen on a level of cohabitation. It wants you to want to go along for the ride, be part of the process, enjoy the vicarious nature of the piece. Both comedy and horror work a bit differently. You’re not a cohort; you’re a target. Both attack the audience, rely on a degree of victimisation. It’s really no coincidence that people so often look at moments from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and There’s Something About Mary and say the same thing… “I’m glad that isn’t me.” So, given this deep-rooted connection between these two generic concerns, it’s no surprise that the two often cross paths in the same work.

Two American students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), are on a walking tour of Britain. Despite the cryptic warnings of the local villagers, they find themselves lost in the moors, and they are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed, but David survives. Coming to in London hospital three weeks later under the care of Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), David begins to have horrific nightmares of violence. On top of that, his dead friend begins to appear to him, telling David that he is now a werewolf and must kill himself before he hurts someone else.

If you’ve ever seen John Landis be interviewed, the one thing that comes across about him is his enthusiasm, so energetic that it borders on hyperactive. The other thing that comes across is his love for classic horror movies, the kind that Universal made back in the day. As such, it seems fitting that he should be the one to bring us one of the most successful horror-comedies ever in An American Werewolf in London. Supposedly, Landis began writing it whilst working as an assistant on Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia, making him 20 at the time. One day, he saw a gypsy funeral in progress, the body bound in garlic and then buried in a very large hole, so as to prevent the corpse from rising again. Between this scene, the Yugoslavian countryside harkening back to the Universal monster movies, and his general feeling at the time of being a foreigner in a strange land, the young Landis resolved to make classic monster picture that played on these themes of superstition and alienation.

These influences are very clear in the script Landis produced. The stereotypical nature of the English people, both rural and urban, may seem to be unnecessarily broad, but that’s exactly the point. Not only is this just the kind of thing that typified films like Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolf Man (the alien weirdness of those of a foreign locale), but it does serve to effectively heighten the uneasiness of David and Jack. Have you ever walked into a pub and had everyone stop and look round at you? I have. It’s very unnerving. And that was just in a different town, never mind a different country. This sense of exaggeration in the rendering of, for example, the locals that fill the Slaughtered Lamb pub is entirely fitting with the tone of the piece. There’s also the great touch of having the victims of David’s lupine alter ego appear to him as mutilated spirits, not as the moaning, chain-rattling prophets of doom, but as people who have suffered something of an inconvenience by being killed and who now seek appropriate reparations in the form of David’s suicide. How typically British. Even Jack feels sympathy for David’s supernatural predicament, despite being a walking member of the undead and missing a sizeable portion of his face. It’s not without some holes, though. It does seem kind of weird that, considering what happened to David and how long he was unconscious, his parents never go to London to visit him or bring him back. That he decides to stay on in London is rather odd. Then there’s the romantic subplot, but I’ll get to that later.

Landis does have some great skill as a director. American Werewolf has a very good sense of pace. For the first hour, before David’s initial transformation, the film has a fairly slow pace, giving David a chance to consider whether or not he's a newly initiated member of the werewolf club or just going insane. However, following David’s change, the film rockets forward, a new sense of the inevitability driving the film. Landis’ sense of humour is also very apparent throughout. It should be, since Landis’ four films prior to this were all comedies (Shlock, Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers). Rarely does he let any moment go by without having some sort of absurd joke thrown in for good measure. A classic example of his absurd humour can be seen in the film within the film, See You Next Wednesday, the porno that’s showing in the theatre where David has his last transformation. The couple onscreen are interrupted mid-coitus by another man entering the room, saying that he told them not to do this again. The couple tell the man that they’ve never seen him before, so he sheepishly apologises and leaves. It’s utterly pointless, but very funny. That the couple are interrupted again later by a wrong number phone call is equally amusing. Also, the rapidly deteriorating vision of the undead Jack is wonderfully undercut by his perpetually cheery demeanour. The first time we see him as a mangled walking corpse his first words are, “Can I have some toast?” That’s pure Landis right there. The moments of humour are met with some rather unsettling scenes of horror, too. David’s dream of being home with his family before a squad of machine gun-toting, Nazi demons burst through the door, laying waste in a frenzy of bullets and fire. It’s sheer over-the-top nature makes it both darkly funny and rather horrifying. In fact, the whole film is surprisingly gory, especially considering the clampdown on “video nasties” that would kick in soon afterwards. There are also numerous other touches that show a more subtle hand as well. That Landis has assembled and effectively used a selection of songs that all contain the word moon in the title is a nice touch. Also, in the scene where David accidentally locks himself out of Alex’s flat, he sees two little girls laughing at him. These two girls are wearing the same colour coats that he and Jack wore when they were attacked, bright red and dark green. That the girl with the red coat, David’s colour, has a dog on a leash is a very subtle indicator of David current situation. In a manner of speaking, he too is holding back an animal. In fact, just consider the prevalence of the colour red as the film progresses.

Of course, what we cannot fail to mention is the famous transformation scene, in which David turns into a wolf right in front of us, in full light. Rick Baker, really a god in the movie makeup world, did an unbelievable job in this film. It’s a marvel of practical special effects as we watch David’s body elongate, contort and shift into the form of a supernatural beast. His hair grows, his teeth and eyes change, his nose flattens, and none of it is encased in shadow or hidden behind a desk. It all happens right in front of us in bone-cracking, skin-stretching detail. The editing around it is superb, with every cut revealing a new change. It’s seamless. To this day, it’s effectively unnerving and rather uncomfortable to watch, especially at one point when David looks pleadingly into the camera for help we can’t give. Fun fact: Baker was actually the first person to ever win Best Makeup at the Oscars in a competitive manner (this was the first time a makeup category was created, though honorary awards were given in 1964 and 1968). It’s easy to see why.

If there is a real misstep of sorts in proceedings, it’s the rather rushed feel to the romantic subplot between David and Alex. Both Naughton and Agutter do their best with it, but it does still seem rather improbable that the two would indeed fall in love so quickly. Call it the Florence Nightingale effect, whereby, in this case, the nurse develops romantic feelings for one of her patients, but that is still a fleeting notion. That Alex later confesses to David’s wolf form that she loves him does little to assuage the thinness of this ideal. Then again, perhaps this is the point. In one scene, David begins talking about The Wolf Man, suggesting that, by the lore espoused by the film, in order to be cured of his newly acquired lycanthropic ways, he must be killed by someone who loves him, which he believes could be Alex. However, there is already evidence that this is not true. The werewolf that attacked David and Jack is killed without any such concerns, and when David talks to Jack’s corpse about whether or not he needs silver bullets to kill himself, Jack dismisses this as nonsense.

All of this somewhat relates to how the film ends, which seems to have two different opinions concerning the motivation behind it. When David, as a werewolf, is cornered in an alleyway by armed police officers, Alex runs to meet him and tries to get him to… calm down? Anyway, after she tells him she loves him, he makes a lunge and is shot and killed. From what I’ve seen, some people believe that David was still in there somewhere, recognised Alex and purposely made a jump in order to get himself killed, lest he continue his murderous rampage. Others believe that, in his wolf form, David was consumed by the beast and was unaware of anything Alex said to him. He made his lunge to kill her, but was stopped by a hail of bullets. Love, real or imagined, had no effect either way. Personally, I go with the latter reading. I’m frankly a little perplexed that some consider the former theory as possible, given what seems to be such a relatively flimsy romantic relationship

An American Werewolf in London is, to this day, still funny and scary in equal measure. It’s a classic story updated to a more contemporary setting, but it’s lost none of its subtextual concerns of culture shock and feeling misplaced in alien surroundings. The effects, as well, remain something to behold. It’s also constantly marked with a degree of wit and self-awareness, shown in the dismissal of Hollywood-esque lore, its use of certain musical cues and in the directorial flourishes of colour and pacing. There has been many an imitator since, but few have managed to come near the potency of this film.

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