Thursday, September 20, 2007

An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

For some reason, werewolf movies leave me cold. I'm not 100% sure why this is, but I do have some theories. One of them is that, when you get right down to it, werewolves themselves just aren't very interesting. As opposed to vampires, werewolves aren't immortal, can't speak, aren't intelligent (aside from in the instinctual sense), and don't have much in the way of personalities. There's the blatant metaphor for the werewolf - the civilized man becoming a beast - but once you catch onto that metaphor, there's not much left to it.

Let's look at the recent spate of werewolf movies: only a handful of them are really any good at all. Although not a bad movie, Mike Nichols's Wolf leaves much to be desired (mainly, um, scares). Joe Dante's The Howling isn't bad, although the Howling franchise is laughable (especially the first sequel, Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf, one of the few movies Christopher Lee has made that he's actually apologized for).

I freely admit that I have neither seen Bad Moon or the recent Skinwalkers, but reviews have been far from kind (as of this writing, Skinwalkersw has a 16% "Fresh Rating" on and film critic James Berardinelli has put Bad Moon on his Bottom Ten list for being one of the worst films of the '90s).

However, there is one werewolf movie in recent years (recent meaning since the original 1941 film The Wolf Man starring Lon Cheney) that, although not bringing much new to the table in terms of story or werewolf mythology, serves as a superlative template to the modern werewolf film.

Although in many ways John Landis's 1981 film An American Werewolf in London is about as conventional a werewolf movie as you can get (a guy turns into werewolf, goes on killing spree, gets shot then turns back into a human), it's less a conventional werewolf movie and more a slapstick comedy run amok: a live-action "Itchy & Scratchy" cartoon (and about as funny and brutal as one, too).

Landis's film can either be viewed as a pitch-black mean-spirited comedy or a very, very funny horror film. That two versions of the song "Blue Moon" bookend the movie and that Miss Piggy and Kermit are credited as themselves in the closing credits (the main character has a dream in which his younger siblings are watching The Muppet Show) should give you a good idea of the film's mindset.

Which isn't to say that American Werewolf isn't scary. It is. You can never quite trust the filmmakers; you feel like they're ready to pull the rug out from under you at any moment. Consider the double-dream sequence where the character thinks he's woken from a nightmare, only to find himself in a new nightmare:

This is actually a good thing (it is, after all, a horror film we're talking about, so the goal is to not feel fully at ease).

Having Landis, who specialized primarily in comedies (Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House, Blues Brothers), its writer-director also makes American Werewolf work as both a horror film and a comedy. Landis understands the fine line and connection between comedy and horror and frequently blends both without veering too far off into either.

The movie opens with two American students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) backpacking through England and coming across a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb. At this pub, not only are its customers quiet and creepy, there's a pentagram on its wall that said customers don't want to explain. One guy warns the two students to beware of the full moon and stick to the road.

And do they indeed stick to the road? Of course not. Instead, they stray off the path, get lost in the woods and get attacked by werewolves. In the attack, Jack is killed. David is wounded.

A few days later, David finds himself recovering in a London hospital. There, the rotting corpse of his dead friend Jack visits him and warns him to kill himself before the next full moon. See, he's turned into a werewolf and will start an uncontrollable killing spree when the moon turns full.

David, of course, refuses to heed the warnings of his friend, falls in love with his nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), and moves in with her.

Jack insists, however, regardless of how quickly he's decaying, that David kill himself. Rather than kill himself, David turns into a werewolf and goes on a killing spree through London.

I always get a kick out of Jack's impromptu visits with David, slowly decaying more with each subsequent visit, and even bringing along the (grumpy yet oddly cordial) ghosts of David's victims ("Can't say we're pleased to meet you.").

The comedy makes the horror that much more ghoulish and the horror in the film can't help but cause laughter (albeit shocked and appalled laughter). Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are two of the few other directors I can think of that can offer this blend of copious bloodletting and huge laughs right.

Consider the climactic scene in which the werewolf's appearance in Piccadilly Circus sets off an utterly absurd chain reaction that leads to a seemingly endless and brutal multi-auto pileup accident, where countless drivers, passengers and pedestrians are decapitated, run over, cut in two and flattened. It's graphic and horrific, but at the same time, you can't help laugh (again, in that shocked and appalled way) at how utterly over-the-top it is, or be reminded of the epic car chase in Blues Brothers or the homecoming parade piling up in the alley in Animal House.

Landis tried in the '90s at a comedy-horror vampire film, Innocent Blood, which could charitably be described as unfortunate (although I did like Robert Loggia's corpse get up off the morgue table and run off, with one mortician going, "Stop him!" and the other, played by Frank Oz, going, "You stop him!").

Despite Landis's slightly lackluster resume in the '90s and modern day, he revitalized the idea of the werewolf movie, even though no one seems to have followed in his footsteps. True, the story is not the most original, but how can you not love a movie whose tagline promises: "From The Director Of Animal House...A Different Kind of Animal?"

Liking to bite things,

James "Furry Beast" Comtois

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Blogger Philucifer [aka Charlie Willis] said...

This is one of my all-time favorites, and I'm glad you zeroed in on it. It's a film that's difficult to categorize, even moment-to-moment, and that's one fo the things I love about it. And one of the reasons I eventually lost interest in the horror movies of the 80's and early 90's because so few other film makers understood how to use comedy alongside horror.

I'm a big fan of Griffin Dunne in this movie, too. And you're totally right about werewolf movies. This is about as close as anyone has come to really nailing it. I like to think there's the potential to really re-invent the werewolf story just waiting out there in the ether. I think Stephen King (and Pete Straub) came close to finding it with the character of Wolf in "The Talisman".

That last climactic scene in Picadilly Circus messed me up, though, man. Up to that point it was the most graphic and realistic version of a major car crash I'd ever seen and you feel that while you're watching. Although, I also adore the chase through the tube station, from the wolf's POV, and I couldn't help but replay it over and over again when I was living in London.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

For the longest time, that scene in the Tube was a strain on my suspension of disbelief, since I just couldn’t believe that the man would be stuck underground for so long after running that much. Then I visited London and found out it wasn’t an exaggeration (I swear, I had to stop and buy new shoes halfway through some of the tube transfers I made).

Me, too, with the whole car crash scene. It was so relentless it freaked me way the hell out the first time I saw it.

Of course, after visiting London, that scene was less believable, since the traffic in Piccadilly Circus is just too damn slow and gridlocked for that to happen.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Praxis Theatre said...

Another great post James.

I wonder if the relative lack of werewolf movies compared to other horror types has anything to do with the great difficulty of creating a believable-looking werewolf for your film? Movie werewolves tend to look either like a man in a werewolf suit, or an awkward and obvious CG beast.

The Lichens in the Underworld movies are about the best I can think of in recent memory. But that's the exception – and they seem to be of the particularly humanoid variety.

That said, this looks really cool:


3:42 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Ian. And let me say, great interview with Mr. Joshua James!

Yeah, that’s another good point. I mean, in one way, the filmmakers just can’t win: ideally, the werewolf is supposed to look like, well, a wolf, but that’s not too interesting (“I mean, we paid to watch a monster and we get a freakin’ housepet?”).

So the option is to make it look more humanoid, which end up invariably making it look like, well, a dude in a wolf costume. Or worse.

The other problem is the one I had mentioned: ultimately, bloodthirsty wolves just aren’t that interesting. When in wolf form, it’s not like they have any existential angst about who/what they are (the way some vampires do).

3:50 PM  
Blogger Paul Rekk said...

Great choice, James! It's been years, but I also remember the porn playing in the background of Griffin Dunne's final visit being particularly hilarious.

And re: werewolf films, any thoughts on Dog Soldiers?

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Praxis Theatre said...

Yeah, that's true. Probably the same reason there aren't a lot of films starring animals that don't talk. It's kinda hard to relate.

Re: Joshua James. Thanks. It was nice of him to take the time for the interview.


9:52 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Thanks, Paul! That they're in a porno theatre is pretty funny. Not only that, there's the scene in the porno film itself where the man walks in on the couple and accuses her of cheating, then realizes he's in the wrong room, apologizes, then leaves. So silly, so funny.

Oddly enough, I haven't seen Dog Soldiers. Hell, I'm mildly ashamed to admit this. Should I?

Even though the reviews for Skinwalkers are almost uniformly awful, I still have the temptation to see it. Who knows? I may like it in the way I like Howling II.

(Now, seriously, folks, Howling's sequel is a terrible movie. But I still can't get enough of it.)

11:23 AM  
Blogger Goose said...

Again, lovely post and hitting all my heart strings. Yeah, I really had to rack my brain to even think of a werewolf movie that I have seen, besides this, that even compares. Nope. Totally forgot about Dog Soldiers - haven't seen it, but hope to.

The transformation scene - first time in werewolf movie history that not only the man just got hairy - the whole bone/physical structure changed. Amazing. That is the scene that just makes me giddy. For the time that was amazing special effects. Actually, it's pretty darn amazing by today standards too.

Totally forgot about the car crash scene (a lot of these movies - my first watching of them were edited b/c I was a wee-girly). Ack. Yeah.

I would have to agree with Ian on the Lichens in Underworld. Probably the closest to what a werewolf would be like. Again, more manish and CG awkward.

And, if anyone gets a chance - probably one of my fav interviews: John Lanis, John Carpenter and David Croenberg. It's in 3 parts on youtube.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Paul Rekk said...

I would absolutely recommend Dog Soldiers -- sort of a Wolfman's Rio Bravo.

It's low-budget in all the best ways -- a few simple locations and a no-name cast (most likely friends of the filmmaker, they've got the chemistry), leaving a majority of the monies to go to the effects.

And the werewolves are pretty damn impressive, especially for such an indie outing.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Wow, that sounds so incredibly up my alley. I'll definitely have to check it out. Thanks, Paul!

2:22 PM  

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