Friday, July 17, 2009

80s Trash of the Week: An American Werewolf in London



Trash, my ass! I love this movie. I heard from Bloody Disgusting that it was going to be remade, so I dug up my Combo HD-DVD and popped it in. John Landis at his peak was one of the most naturalistic comedy directors and this is one of his best. He'd made three classics in a row- Kentucky Fried Movie, the king of the skit anthologies; Animal House, the king of college comedies; and The Blues Brothers, a blockbuster that practically defies genre. A year later he decided to write and direct a horror movie, and gave us one of the funniest and scariest horror movies of all time: An American Werewolf in London.
Landis got the idea in 1969 when he was in Yugoslavia working as a Production Assistant on Kelly's Heroes, and witnessed a gypsy funeral where the body was being buried with its feet bound in garlic so the corpse wouldn't rise from the grave. It so affected him that he came up with the script about a young man like himself confronting the mythological forces of the supernatural of Old World Europe, and shelved it for a decade before the aforementioned blockbuster films afforded him the cred to get $1o million in funding from producers for a horror comedy, something no one thought would fly. His first self-produced film, Schlock, about a giant monkey man who falls in love with a blind girl, was a more straightforward spoof; this was something altogether different, which like Animal House, influenced its genre ever since.

Landis began with two newcomers for his main characters: David Naughton had a youthful energy and appeared in other memorable 80's films like Midnight Madness, the scavenger hunt flick with a young Michael J. Fox, and Hot Dog... The Movie (full review) a ski town boobie flick. Griffin Dunne would go on famously to Marty Scorsese's absurd comedy After Hours, Johnny Dangerously (full review) and more. Jenny Agutter, who plays Alex the nurse, began acting at a young age, and not only played the sympathetic nurse Alex Price, but also the young girl in Walkabout, Equus and Logan's Run. The film was also peopled with many stage and classically trained actors who lend an aura of authenticity. Alan "Brick Top" Ford plays a cab driver; Rik Mayall of "The Young Ones" is a furious chess player in the pub. London is portrayed as the multi-ethnic metropolis it is, with Indian actors in the hospital and theater scenes. But the film's beginning sets the tone, and makes us unsure of what kind of story we're watching; should we laugh or brace for a scare? Both.
It comes to a mastery of silence. When we meet David and Jack in Bumfuck England as they hop off a sheep farmer's truck while backpacking across the country, they say barely a word. This convinces us that they've traveled alone together a good while. A less confident director would pepper us with needless small talk. It also sets the tone for the location deep in the featureless misty moors, where the driver drops them off and warns them to stay on the road. To avoid the moors. As the landscape darkens they come up a pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, which oddly enough has a sign with the skewered head of a wolf on it. Not a lamb.

The denizens seem oddly unfriendly and stare once again, silently as the boys enter. This builds an uncomfortable but comic energy that keeps us on edge throughout the film. The pub scene feels almost absurd, as the townfolk's distaste for outsiders seems so bizarre; is it that hatred of Americans we're told to expect when traveling? They ask about the arcane pentagram scrawled on the wall, interrupting an off-color joke, and get kicked out. It's the kind of story you could imagine hearing from someone on a backpacking trip, except John and David won't be coming back.
The barmaid protests, and tries to talk the men into letting them stay; for what we don't know. I mean, we have a good idea, the movie has "werewolf" in the title. Out on the moors, they quickly learn what the townies are all freaked out about, and we're shockingly introduced to the film's bloody side as Jack is torn apart by a tusked monstrosity leaping out of the darkness. David is slashed, and passes out after the pub folks blast the beast with shotguns... the last thing he sees is a naked young man peppered with buckshot, his wounds steaming in the cold night air.
David wakes in the hospital, to the shock of his friend's death. He's been unconscious; his wounds are freshly healed. Frank Oz gets a funny cameo as an American embassy agent, who heads the agency in "Grover Square" and says "these dumbass kids don't appreciate anything you do," two in-jokes referring to his career with Sesame Street and the muppets. Landis keeps the humor level constant but low, taking the edge off the brutality of lycanthropy. David meets the beautiful nurse Alex Price, who gets attracted to his sad case from a desire to truly help her patients. There's a cute scene where David refuses to eat, and she treats him like a child. The story works because we care about them, and don't want David to have the werewolf curse, even if it's pretty exciting watching this werewolf of London tear things up.

David's nightmare sequences will stay with you for a long, long time. Who needs jump cuts? Landis pulls a few double whammies on us, and does a few quick, nice cuts, but most of the time they work in reverse. The wolf is about to attack, and he cuts to a lion roaring in the Zoo; he does a lot with a little gore. The infamous stormtrooper scene, where David imagines his family slaughtered before his eyes, scared the living crap out of me as a kid and it still gets a reaction, because it's so bizarre. The nightmare soldiers wear crazy monster masks and German WW2 uniforms, looking like Star Wars-inspired grindhouse monsters. "Holy shit!" is right. According to an interview on the Special Edition DVD, he was inspired to use nested dreams by Buñuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeosie. It does add to the surreal quality the film's fantastic story has.
Jack returns without fanfare. He's a horribly mangled corpse, with his throat torn out and larynx bared, flaps of shredded skin wiggling as he talks. He begs David to take his own life, to free him from the limbo of the walking dead. And each time he appears, he decomposes further, giving Rick Baker more chances to show off the effects that would garner the film an Award for Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up, created specifically because this film so impressed the Academy. And it still holds up today, glistening and sloppy. Griffin Dunne's indefatigable cheeriness makes it work, something Landis urged him to do, to keep the film from getting too melancholy. He leaves David with "Beware the moon," a final warning before he disappears.
"You ever talk to a corpse? It's boring! I'm lonely."

Landis knows that less is more; we never see the beauty Jenny Agutter naked for long in the love scenes, but it is highly charged and erotic. He saves the boobies for laughs later as David talks to Jack and his own gory murder victims in a porno theater. "Moondance" by Van Morrison plays our heartstrings soft and low. The love scene isn't for gratuity, and helps us empathize with David, whose later "carnivorous lunar activities" will make him hard to like. And Landis knows how to build tension: We sit through the entirety of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" while David sits home alone in the apartment getting bored with television, and finally tears his shirt off out of nowhere, suddenly overcome from within by forces beyond his control.
I'm sorry I called you a meat loaf, Jack!

David's inevitable transformation is the film's centerpiece and the most memorable scene. It holds up very well today due to Rick Baker's incredible make-up effects, Landis's confident direction, and Naughton's performance which teeters on the razor's edge between comic and terrifying. Rather than the clever but quick transformation of The Wolf Man (full review) we get an agonizingly long and detailed take on it, unmatched in the genre as far as I know. It looks excruciating, and the film's loud sound mix makes it all the more so, with noises of bones crunching and muscles tearing as David becomes the hulking werewolf of a like we've never seen. Naughton says the scene took 6 days to shoot, much of it with him covered in then groundbreaking latex appliances. In fact, both his and Dunne's auditions were minimal, with Landis continually asking "are you claustrophobic?" because he knew Baker was going to need to make many molds of their faces.
Much of the bloodshed is quite gory, but also very brief and punctuated with the wolf's ragged howls, which sound like nothing that's ever stalked the Earth. The scenes are very natural and we empathize with the victims, whether they be hobos, partygoers or the famous victim in the Tottenham subway station, who painfully falls on the escalator and gets to watch his own death quietly creep up to him. Unlike a modern slasher, we aren't given victims with a built-in moral judgement. They are just everyday people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Landis wisely follows the horror with the funniest sequence in the film, when David wakes up naked in the wolf cage at the London Zoo. He doesn't let him off the hook easily, and makes him steal a kid's balloons, a woman's coat, and then get home on the bus while barefoot in a frilly overcoat. But the dry British humor is what cinches it.

"A naked American man stole my balloons."

The doctor, played with classic actor authenticity by Jim Woodvine, takes a ride to the country in his MGB-GT to have a look at the pub David mentioned. It's perhaps unnecessary, but helps take some of the focus off David briefly and take us outside his perspective, so we can believe what's going on. Other scenes that solidify the story in reality for us are simple ones, such as when Alex and David buy food at a market, or Alex has to deal with an adorable child patient who only shouts "No!" Landis has always used scenes like this to bring us to earth, like the local color in Coming to America (full review), and it's part of what made his films so enjoyable.
Back to the silence. The soundtrack is memorably full of "moon" songs used ironically, but also has music cues and interludes by Elmer Bernstein. They only total up to 7 minutes, and there is a surprising amount of time with no music at all, especially during the dialogue and various scenes of quiet intensity as Landis builds up to a scare. The lack of music also helps ground the story and make us feel at home with the characters, because it feels more natural. It's odd that a movie so famous for its use of music actually has quite a lack of it, and it's this instinct, of when to use it and when not to, that makes things work.
He also knows that the beloved classic The Wolf Man was a mere 75 minutes long with credits, so he doesn't make this movie drag at all. When David realizes that his late night escapism has led to the murder of six people, he tries to get himself arrested. It's a brilliant little scene in the park where he shouts things like "Queen Elizabeth is a man! Prince Charles is a faggot!" (The film apologizes by congratulation the Prince and Diana Spencer on their recent marriage) and expletives in front of a London bobby, who is more interested in keeping the peace than clubbing him and dragging him in. Absurdity once again rears its head, and David runs across traffic to get away from Alex, who he is afraid he'll kill when he becomes a wolf once more. In one of London's iconic and now historic red phone booths, he calls home and gets his younger sister; if we didn't sympathize with David before, his emotional plea to his sister, to know that he loves her, and his family, definitely does it. But when he puts a knife to his wrist, he can't cut the wolf's bloodline. He just can't do it.

So Jack tries one last time to confront him with the horror he's been wreaking, dragging him into a porn show- one of Landis's ubiquitous "See You Next Wednesday" references- and introduces him to last night's victims. By now Jack's face is skeletal and he's actually a puppet that Baker built, and Dunne operated. It's a simple trick but works very well. David's victims are bloody and fresh, and cheerfully suggest ways he can commit suicide, to free them from the curse of the living dead. But all's for nought; the moon has risen, and David changes once more.
The final transformation of the beast is much quicker and gives us something we've never seen before, a werewolf let loose in a crowded area: Piccadilly Circus, the London equivalent of Times Square. Landis's experience working with the Chicago police to film the insane car chases of The Blues Brothers helped here, as he planned every shot in minute detail using a scale model of the area, to minimize traffic disruption. Watching closely, you can tell that the mayhem the beast causes is not filmed on location; a massive car wreck that includes the director in a cameo as a pedestrian thrown through a plate glass window, as double decker buses and Mini Coopers dodge the hulking hairing creature as it chomps at passersby.

Landis immediately switches to an almost documentary mode reminiscent of Z and The Battle of Algiers, cutting between bystanders fleeing the snarling jaws of the beast, Alex running to see what her lover has become, and a police lorry full of riflemen calmly loading their magazines. The ending, where the gasp of Alex's heartfelt agony cuts immediately to the credits and the silliest moon song of the soundtrack- "Blue Moon" by the doo-wop revival group the Marcels- got derided by critics such as James Berardinelli as unsatisfying. I disagree, and think Landis took the proper route here. No maudlin tears, ending where it began, much like the classic The Wolf Man, the direct inspiration.
My favorite shot; Mickey reacts to David's lycanthropy

I think the film's cult classic status and lasting success comes simply because of how close the sensations of being on the edge of terror and about to laugh really are. That moment of anticipation, as we lean forward to hear a good joke, or to listen carefully to a campfire ghost tale. Critical reviews of the film had issues with the mix of horror and comedy, especially coming from an established comic director. Audiences loved it, and it cemented its cult status when it came out on video. The ironic use of the soundtrack, all songs with "moon" in the title, helped things along. I was young enough to think it was brilliant on first viewing, but it's been done before in movies like Harold & Maude. It still helps keep the perfect tone, and Landis's filming style for the slaughter scenes reminded me most of Hitchcock's Frenzy, particularly in the brutal escalator scene, which shows nothing but makes our skin crawl with impending doom. Rather like Hitch's infamous second killing in that serial killer film, he doesn't need to show us twice. By withholding the gore, the suspense is amplified considerably.
Pauline Kael might not have considered this great trash, but I do. Certainly it plays lots of jokes on us and nudges us conspiratorily in the ribs in the telling; it relishes the scenes where Meatloaf Jack cheerfully tells us of the horrors of Limbo, or when demonic stormtroopers barge in for mayhem in David's dreams. But that's part of the point; Landis has digested so many old horror films that he plays with our expectations, and if we've seen the same corny films we're in on the joke. The film's impact on the culture isn't as large as its predecessor's, but there is a Slaughtered Lamb pub in New York's Greenwich Village, where you can have your shepherd's pie and a pint, and be assured that there's no shepherd in it. As expected, it's a bit of a tourist trap. Horror mavens can argue better than I which film first successfully melded comedy and horror, but this one made it mainstream; like the first Nightmare on Elm Street, it knew not to go too far in either direction. A remake is apparently in the works, and I can't imagine any reason to see it. This one holds up incredibly well 28 years later.



The transformation scene
Beers Required to Enjoy: None! but why not?
Could it be remade today? Yeah, but it shouldn't be!
Quotability Rating: a few good ones
Cheese Factor: mild English cheddar
High Points: Stunning effects and a great story
Low Point: Too much doctor, not enough Jenny? if any.
Gratuitous Boobies: Ms. Agutter's beauty, and a fake, funny porno




Jenny Agutter's brief nude scene and the silly porno follow.












2 comments:

J.D. said...

Y'know, watching this film again makes one realize how few good werewolf movies there are out there. I mean, CURSED? C'mon! I am dreading Benicio Del Toro's take on the Wolf Man. I know Rick Baker is involved but he has said that CGI is going to be involved with the man to wolf transformation sequences which doesn't bode well.

But you are right about what a great film AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is in this very detailed and well-written post! Awesome stuff, my friend.

I remember seeing this film as a kid and that scene where David and Jack are walking outside at night and about to be attacked as one of the most incredibly tension-filled scenes I had ever seen. I tell ya I was white-knuckling it on a few occasions.

But David's famous transformation sequence, that you describe so well, is the scene that gave me nightmares for days afterwards. You're right about the sound effects. I think that's what did it. I haven't watched this film in ages and really should.

What did you think of THE HOWLING? I thought that was a really good werewolf film as well and it has aged surprisingly well.

Tommy Salami said...

I saw The Howling ages ago, and didn't like it; I'm giving it another try soon. I'm just not a huge fan of Joe Dante. But Slim Pickens is in it, so that's a plus.

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