Tuesday, October 5, 2021

An American Werewolf in London, Forty Years Later

Forty years later, why does An American Werewolf in London still resonate, scare, and get laughs?  Let's look back at this horror-comedy classic.....

An American Werewolf in London.  Sounds like the name of a Gene Kelly musical.  Or a Gene Wilder spoof.  Or a Gene Simmons KISS-branded product for sale at  Okay, maybe not that last one.  No, An American Werewolf in London is for my money the greatest werewolf film ever made, the brainchild of a young assistant director named John Landis, then working on the Clint Eastwood war vehicle Kelly's Heroes.  Landis was inspired to write the script after witnessing a Yugoslav burial ritual in which the dead were interred feet-first and sprinkled with garlic cloves to prevent them coming back to life.  Struck by the solemnity of the ritual, Landis wondered how he would react if someone he knew was dead came back to life to visit him, and the creative spark for AWIL was ignited.  The script was completed in 1969 and its unique blend of scary and funny earned Landis numerous writing gigs, but no one wanted to actually produce this particular script, ironically due to said horror/comedy blend, which every producer deemed either too funny to be scary or too scary to be funny.  Fast-forward eleven years and two smash-hit movies, and Landis was finally able to secure financing for his gruesome pet project.  
Landis envisioned a palpably realistic take on the classic werewolf film, featuring a truly demonic four-legged monster, graphically visceral violence, and a transformation sequence to render all other werewolf transformation sequences obsolete.  Old-school monster movies like The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London and numerous Jekyll & Hyde adaptations had used lap dissolves of static shots to convey the morphing of man into beast.  Lon Chaney Jr. for example sat quietly in a chair as his feet grew fur and claws; not exactly scary by 80s standards, or even 60s standards for that matter.  But Landis imagined a brightly lit, torturously painful, in-camera metamorphosis showing off state-of-the-art makeup effects that would break people's brains.  Enter Rick Baker.

Rick Baker earning his first Oscar....

Baker had first worked with Landis on his 1973 film Schlock and was slowly building a resumé as a top makeup effects man (he'd contributed makeup for The Exorcist and Star Wars and played the title role in the 1976 King Kong remake), and Landis tasked him with bringing the ultimate werewolf scene to life.  After accepting work on rival werewolf flick The Howling and later farming the job out to his protégé Rob Bottin (who earned more than a few stripes on the gig), Baker dove into problem-solving the AWIL effects, for which he'd require six months and six figures to develop.  Once the film's two leads David Naughton and Griffin Dunne were cast, Baker immediately went to work making molds and sculpting prosthetics to transform both actors into horrific versions of themselves.

This scared the ever-lovin' SHIT out of me as a kid.

For my part I first became aware of this film via a movie magazine that came out when I was six: Famous Monsters of Filmland's Film Fantasy Yearbook 1982.  The publication covered numerous special effects-driven films of '81, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clash of the Titans, Superman II, The Howling, and yes, An American Werewolf in London.  Images of David's hand stretching into a wolf paw, Jack's torn-apart face, and a Nazi demon holding a knife to David's throat immediately grabbed my attention and I wondered what the hell this movie was all about (Seriously, show these images to someone who's never heard of AWIL and see if they can make sense of any of it).  Later that year my older sister hosted a slumber party and rented AWIL, and from the other room I could hear howling and roaring and screaming, and wondered why anyone would want to watch a film that sounded so primally terrifying.  I gave the movie a go myself some months later when my stepfather watched it on cable, but only got halfway through before deeming it too upsetting - between Jack's grisly, gory death scene and David's startling demon-face nightmare jump-scare I didn't even make it to his transformation scene.  Still I was fascinated with the movie and its genuinely frightening first half; the images of Jack being ripped apart on the moors and his subsequent posthumous appearance, and the bizarre dream sequences haunted me for weeks.  I still had no idea what David looked like as a werewolf but I pictured something along the lines of Lon Chaney Jr.  It wasn't until 1986 when I acquired a VHS copy of Michael Jackson's The Making of Thriller, featuring a clip from the infamous Piccadilly Circus car crash scene, that I first beheld the monstrous hellhound that was Rick Baker's werewolf.  It was unlike anything I'd ever seen - a quadruped werewolf with nary a flicker of humanity, pure evil raging from its eyes, and gaping, bloody jaws.  But it would still be a few years before I was ready to take in the full movie experience.  As a freshman in high school I'd finally reached the age where I was no longer scared of horror films, and my new VHS copy of An American Werewolf in London found its way into our VCR on a regular basis after school.  Three decades later it's still at the top of the werewolf heap for me.

I still have this stupid magazine...

AWIL is a rare combination of legitimately harrowing set pieces and real laughs.  Very few films can comfortably house anarchic humor simultaneously with jolting scares and scenes of ghastly horror violence; it's actually pretty astounding Landis was able to make this all gel.  It certainly didn't hurt that he had a great cast to work with; Naughton and Dunne have wonderful best friend chemistry together, while Jenny Agutter and John Woodvine provide a grounded support system for Naughton's character, helping guide the audience through the fantastical story.  The film's realism in turn makes the horror elements so much scarier than Joe Dante's more comic booky approach in The Howling (a great movie in its own right but one I consider more satirical than frightening); Jack's murder is captured in urgent, alarming detail (aided by a stunningly believable Griffin Dunne performance right up there with the bloodcurdling Chrissie Watkins scene in Jaws), his later decomposition looks nauseatingly realistic, and of course the transformation sequence in which David's body is literally stretched and contorted, complete with the sounds of bones crunching and crackling, looks and feels 100% authentic (again, aided by an equally believable David Naughton reaction - the man fully appears to be in unbearable agony).  

An absolutely brilliant visual choice....

Then there's that demonic wolf creature.  Baker was told they'd be showing very little of the werewolf in its completed form to maximize suspense and shock value, a la Alien and Jaws, thus he designed the wolf to have an extreme, frighteningly evil expression so when its face did appear on camera the audience would grasp its elemental malevolence.  It's one of those movie monsters I can't take my eyes off of when I see it.  To solve the problem of the wolf's movements, Baker designed a "human wheelbarrow" configuration, where a puppeteer would be inside the suit controlling the wolf's front legs while a second puppeteer wheeled him around on a rig.  The effect worked to perfection during its very limited screen time, particularly for example in the famous wide angle London Underground shot when the wolf skulks into frame to attack Gerald Bringsley, looking from a distance like a satanic bear.  Not only did Rick Baker win one of the most well-deserved Oscars of all time for this film, the Academy actually created a new Best Makeup award in 1982 just so they could give it to him.  That there is one hell of an endorsement.

The most famous of Baker's "Change-O-Heads"

But what makes this film more than just a terrifying exercise in horror is its sardonic, at times brutal sense of humor.  From the opening credits set over Bobby Vinton's dreamy rendition of "Blue Moon," to David and Jack cracking jokes as they're being stalked by an offscreen beast, to Frank Oz's character bitching about "these dumbass kids," to Jack cracking jokes as an eviscerated, undead corpse, to Sam Cooke's "Blue Moon" serving as the background score for the transformation (Who does something like that??), to David's naked adventure at the zoo, to David and a roundtable of his mauled victims discussing the best method of suicide, in a London porno theater no less, to the film's abrupt finale which cuts sharply from Jenny Agutter's Alex mourning the fallen David to the rolling credits, over The Marcels' bombastic doo wop version of "Blue Moon."  One final twist of the knife; the tragic hero is dead, alright everyone, time to go home now!  For the record, I can't hear any of these "Blue Moon" versions or Van Morrison's "Moondance" or CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" without thinking of AWIL.  This film pulls zero punches and gets away with it.

Is it weird that I want a sculpt of this in my house?

I think An American Werewolf in London has endured four decades because it's unlike any other horror film experience.  It lulls the viewer into a sense of ease and comfort with laughs and then blindsides you with some of the most horrific moments captured on film up to that point and beyond.  And then while you're still getting over that shock, it throws more jokes at you, and you laugh.  And then a Nazi demon dream sequence comes along and you laugh and scream at the same time.  This film is the cinematic equivalent of an incredibly intense roller coaster, taking quite literally the notion that it's fun to be frightened.  And when it's over you want to get right back in line and ride that coaster all over again.

I give An American Werewolf in London **** out of ****.

Thanks for reading - subscribe to our mailing list, and follow us on Twitter, MeWe, Facebook and YouTube!

No comments:

Post a Comment