Sunday, September 27, 2015

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Screenplay by: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover
Running Time: 97 minutes
Tagline: "From the director of ANIMAL HOUSE...a different kind of animal."

"Beware the moon, David."

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON came to Landis in a moment that sounds like it could have been the opening of a werewolf movie itself. It was 1969 and he was working as a production assistant on KELLY’S HEROES in Yugoslavia. While being driven to a shooting location in the countryside, Landis witnessed a burial being performed at a crossroads by a group of gypsies. The man being buried was done so feet first and had his body wreathed with garlic. When Landis inquired as to why he was being buried in this manner, his driver informed him that this was to prevent the man from rising from the dead. Wondering what would happen if the man didn’t stay in his grave was all that it took to send Landis on a writing jag, resulting in a script that was a contemporary update of THE WOLF MAN. Had things gone as planned, WEREWOLF would have been the follow up to SCHLOCK!, Landis’s 1971 debut feature. It was going to be his second collaboration with special effects and make-up man Rick Baker, who created SCHLOCK’s ape-suit and Landis, correctly, thought was just the guy to pull off this ambitious idea he had for how they would approach the werewolf’s transformation scene. Things had to be put on hold, however, due to studios not wanting to pony up the funds it would have cost and furthermore, not understanding how to sell a movie that was too horrific to be a comedy and yet too comedic to be a horror film. So, onto the back burner it went and there it remained for a nearly a decade, until the success of ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS gave Landis the clout he needed to get the project off the ground. That Rick Baker had worked on this small, independent movie called STAR WARS in the interim probably didn’t hurt, either.

Two American college students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are backpacking across north England when they come across the sleepy village of East Proctor on a stormy night. The place makes a rather ominous first impression; what could charitably be called the center of town is dominated by an Angel of Death statue and the local pub carries the rather uninviting name of The Slaughtered Lamb, its sign depicting a severed wolf's head impaled on a pike. ("Where's the lamb?") But the boys are cold, hungry, and could use a rest, so despite their misgivings, they head inside. Once there, they run into the expected throng of suspicious-of-strangers types you find populating sleepy English villages in this sort of movie, and when Jack inquires to the purpose of a five pointed star on the wall,"The sign of the wolf man" according to him, they're asked none politely to move on. Their departure sparks an argument among the bar patrons, with some saying that they've just committed murder by sending the boys out on this particular night before the village leader (Brian Glover) shuts them all down with the usual "outsiders shouldn't be stickin' their nose into our business" spiel.  Besides, they reason, the boys will be alright as long as they obey the cryptic warning to stay on the road, steer clear of the moors, right? Maybe nothing will happen...

Almost as if it that was its cue, something that sure as hell isn't a dog cuts loose with a very unpleasant sounding howl. The creature, a hulking beast that looks like a shaggy bear with canine features, chases the boys down, tackles Jack and rips him to pieces before David can come to help, and all that little act of bravery earns him is some teeth in his shoulder. The villagers, finally deciding they don't want the boys' blood on their hands, intervene and shoot the creature dead. Before David loses consciousness, he catches a glimpse of their attacker, which, strangely enough, is now a naked man.

David comes to in the hospital and discovers that weeks have passed. Jack's body has already been shipped back home and buried. Confusing David even further is when officials question him about the attack and he discovers that several witnesses blame it on an escaped lunatic. David's claims that his friend was killed by a monster are dismissed as the ravings of someone who's just been through a very traumatic event. That would be all she wrote, but David's having these dreams, you see: real vivid ones. Ones where monsters are killing his family or he's going through some form of transformation. Then there's the visit from his good buddy, the dearly departed Jack Goodman, Jack, who now looks like he's been thrown face first into a threshing machine, informs David that they were attacked by a werewolf. Seeing as David survived the werewolf's attack, the creature's curse has passed onto him and as long as the bloodline of the werewolf lives, Jack is condemned to walk the earth as a ghost, unable to pass on. As much as for wanting to save his friend from the cruel fate in store as he is wanting to be free from his own horrible unlife, Jack urges David to kill himself before the full moon rises.

If there's one bright spot for David in this whole mess, it's the Florence Nightingale-esque romance he's struck up with Alex (Jenny Agutter), the nurse who has been serving as his primary caregiver during his recovery. It's a testament to the actors and the filmmakers that they're able to sell us on this relationship despite it developing so fast, so we don't bat an eye, much, when he goes home with her once he's discharged. (And hey, it's Jenny Agutter.) The two sleep together that night but David's good mood doesn't last, because Jack makes a return appearance looking much worse for wear, and again warns him of what's coming. Up until now, David's been able to convince himself that everything; the monster, the dreams, Jack's ghost; was all in his head but he's beginning to question that. He won't have to wait long to get a definitive answer. The full moon is tomorrow night.

If you’re going to discuss AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF at any length, you’re almost required to discuss that other werewolf movie that opened in 1981 and also featured a totally boss transformation sequence, Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING. They’re practically joined at the hip at this point. I had even planned on reviewing both movies in one go for this blog entry, only to find my copy of THE HOWLING had deteriorated to the point of being unplayable. Despite the close proximity of their release dates, the two movies are pretty dramatically different. LONDON is a fairly traditional werewolf story by design, adhering close to the template established by THE WOLF MAN. We’ve got the male American outsider in a foreign country, the mysterious societal outliers for whom the patient-zero werewolf is their dirty little secret, transformations that come with the full moon, and our hero’s doomed love with a local girl. Only deviation from the norm here is that silver isn’t necessary to kill him (good ole buckshot will do just fine) and there’s no old lady with a thick accent to proclaim “the way you walked was thorny…” THE HOWLING, on the other hand, wants to put as much distance between it and Lon Chaney Jr. as it can; portraying werewolves as a secret society of competing factions and philosophies, tossing out any overt supernatural elements, and picking up the ball and running with the Freudian and sexual underpinnings of the werewolf archetype, all while skewering mental health fads and the news media culture in the process. (I saw someone describe THE HOWLING as the closest thing we'll get to a Brian DePalma werewolf movie and can only nod.)

Both were noted for their pitch-black humor, but THE HOWLING approached that through inside jokes and satirical touches, while AMERICAN WEREWOLF goes broader and more absurd, it's success laying in knowing exactly how to utilize that mixture of comedy and horror that so confused studios and later critics; when to contrast imagery and tone and when one needs to intrude on the other. Think of David's dream where he sees his family butchered by shrieking, monster headed Nazis while The Muppet Show plays in the background. The image is so over-the-top and bizarre that it's certainly amusing, like escapees from a creature feature crashed into some Family Ties-style sitcom, while at the same time...Holy Shit, right? Or the scenes late in the film where he sits in a theater with a particularly naff porno playing, surrounded by the bloody shades of his victims, all of whom are suggesting any number of methods he can use to kill himself in chipper tones of voice. It also helps that WEREWOLF knows when to pull back and let one aspect take over completely. The moments that are just straight comedy, like David having to escape from the zoo after waking up naked in the wolf's enclosure are legitimately hilarious. ("A naked American man stole my balloons!") Then, scenes that focus entirely on horror, such as the initial attack on David and Jack or a transformed David stalking his victims, still effectively generate a palpable amount of tension even after any number of repeat viewings. (I watch this flick at least once a year around this time, for obvious reasons.) The distance between terror and laughter isn't as far as many people think, and the best horror comedies like this or RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, know how to use one to underline the other. It doesn't hurt either that AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF may be the most quotable skinwalker flick, some of its best lines coming from the banter between David and Jack's ghost. ("Have you ever talked with a corpse? It's boring!" "I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!" "He is your good friend, whereas I am a victim of your carnivorous lunar activities!")

If there's one thing that both AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF and THE HOWLING have in common it's the major shifts they represented in the werewolf genre. The biggest one being that, after these two movies, just dissolving between shots of an actor with more hair glued to his face wasn't going to cut it for a transformation anymore. Special effects technology had finally reached a point where you could show the hair grow, claws sprout, the limbs and face distort, selling you on the idea that yeah, changing into a completely different species was horrifying and painful to watch. Horror fans will debate 'til kingdom come which movie had the better wolf-out scene but neither are anything to sneeze at. Coincidently enough, Rick Baker was attached to do the effects work for THE HOWLING but decided to jump to WEREWOLF due to his earlier commitment to Landis, handing Dante's movie off to his protégé, Rob Bottin. I'd say things worked out for both. THE HOWLING made Bottin's career and opened the door for projects like THE THING, ROBOCOP, and TOTAL RECALL and Baker received the first Academy Award for Make-Up Effects thanks to WEREWOLF. (Presented by Vincent Price!) Thirty odd years later, they still impress, WEREWOLF's even more so because it makes no effort hide it through dim lighting or excessive editing. Landis had complete confidence in Baker's skill and lets the audience linger on every detail.

Not only did these two films change the way in which the werewolf's transformation was depicted, but the werewolves themselves. Before then, the popular image of the werewolf in cinema was Larry Talbot stalking through a fog shrouded forest in the shadow of his family castle. I can't think of too many werewolf films before these that used a then modern urban setting as its backdrop; moving away from the moors so its creature can run down its prey in subway stations or the seedier side of Los Angeles and cause all manner of carnage at Piccadilly Circus. But more importantly, after 1981, filmmakers finally got it into their head that maybe it was high time that werewolves started looking like wolves, damn it. Now, werewolves weren't just some brute with fangs and a mighty need for a wax job but gigantic hellhounds and towering wolf-headed bipeds. Even designs which were meant to evoke the older form would incorporate aspects of these new ones, i.e. THE MONSTER SQUAD. 'Bout time.

There’s one more thing I’d like to discuss about AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF before I close out this post, something that stuck out at me when I re-watched it for this review. Now, we’re all familiar with the various spiels about what fears your classic monsters represent, right? The vampire is unrestrained sexuality, zombies are the inevitability of death and societal decay through conformity, etc. etc. Our good friend the wolf man? Loss of control. Giving in to your subconscious primal impulses. The Old Adam, as Stephen King calls it in his treatise on the horror genre, DANSE MACABRE, which is a phrase that I love and so badly want to use as a title for a horror story that I’ll probably never write. The beast beneath the skin is the go to supernatural archetype for stories about someone’s bad side coming out to play and has been used as such for everything from abusive relationships (an episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) to young girls going through puberty. (GINGER SNAPS) What I find interesting though, is how rarely lycanthropy is used in fiction and film in connection with mental instability, especially when so many stories of it from history and folklore come across sounding a lot like a person suffering from that. Just ask Nebuchadnezzar. THE WOLF MAN touches on it a bit, but in the end, that’s simply Larry Talbot desperately trying to find a rational explanation for what is happening to him. THE WOLF MAN is too straightforward a movie for the connection between the two to take. THE HOWLING definitely plays around with it, what with its setting being a mental health care retreat that its beasties use as way to hide in plain sight while learning to keep their animal side under control. Werewolf rehab, if you will. But in the end, its focus remains primarily on the tried and true angle of werewolf as the monster from the id. (No, not that one.) Discussing this with some of my fellow movie buffs, the only movie that uses werewolves explicitly as a metaphor for mental illness we could name was one of the GINGER SNAPS sequels. In that, it’s basically a medical condition and if the main character doesn’t get the medicinal herbs she needs to keep it in line, she starts self-harming and doing other things that you often see in cases of people who need treatment for depression.

What does this have to do with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF? Well, look at what David experiences through the whole movie. He suffers from nightmares and hallucinations so frequently he begins to wonder what is real and what isn’t. He struggles with suicidal impulses. When he transforms into his wolf form, he blacks out and has no memory of anything that he does. Alex and David’s doctor certainly don’t buy into any of this talk of werewolves but they certainly believe that David is in a state where he could be a harm to himself or others. And consider that what starts this is seeing a close friend get killed horribly before he himself is badly injured and put into a coma. I don’t know about you guys but I’ll be damned if this doesn’t read like some of the more extreme cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF does a fantastic job of making you experience its main character’s disassociation with reality, with only its repeated cuts to the perspective of other characters preventing it from being on par with say, MIRACLE MILE, in that regard. What’s surprising about this and a good indicator of how sometimes the end result can get away from a creator’s intentions is that I don’t think that was exactly what Landis and company were going for. The reoccurring instance of David waking up from dream after dream until you’re left unsure whether what he’s seeing is real or not, Landis admits, was something he lifted from a Bunuel film that achieved a similar effect through that motif. You also have to account for how much AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF draws from THE WOLF MAN, so of course, it would feature characters blaming what’s happening as the result of the protagonists fractured mind. Then there’s the fact that in interviews with Landis and Naughton, they show that while they did think of David’s condition in terms of a disease, it was a physical sickness, not mental, they approached it as, playing him as someone who refused to face that he has a terminal disease. So, as it turns out, the most effective “werewolf-as-mental-problem-stand-in” story may have been the result of an entirely coincidental combination of influences and shooting close to the mark, with what we understand about the werewolf represents filling in the blanks as necessary. 

This review was part of the Celluloid Zeroes ADULT ONSET LYCANTHROPY ROUNDTABLE. Want more? Head over to Checkpoint Telstar for Tim's review of THE BAT PEOPLE, or maybe stop by The Terrible Claw Reviews for Gavin's opinion on SSSSSSS. Still not enough? Cinemasochistic Apocalypse bites into the samurai werewolf flick (!!) KIBAKICHI, 3-Beer Theater is inflicted with THE CURSE OF THE BLACK WIDOW, The Tomb of Anubis takes on ROMASANTA, Las Peliculas de Terror deals with a were-cicada infestation with THE BEAST WITHIN, and Web of the Big Damn Spider goes back to SUMMER SCHOOL.

1 comment:

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