Thursday, October 8, 2015

An American Werewolf in London

Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson so successfully parodied and exploited the slasher formula with Scream that, on paper, the two of them re-teaming to do the same treatment for werewolf pictures must have sounded like a good idea at the time, but for a variety of reasons, including behind-the-scenes turmoil, Cursed lived up to its title and didn't do anyone involved any favors. I'm not saying a send-up of the lycanthrope genre combining laughs and chills can't work; what I'm saying is John Landis beat them to the punch more than two decades prior with An American Werewolf in London (1981).

In early 80s, Landis was on an incredible roll in Hollywood with the one-two punch of National Lampoon's Animal House and The Blues Brother proving huge successes. An American Werewolf in London made it a hat trick. Equally funny, scary, and ultimately tragic, the film updates the classic wolf man mythos to the modern age, where the character find themselves as terrified as they are baffled.

An American Werewolf in London begins with American college students backpacking through England, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne). After ignoring warnings from a pub to stay clear of the moors, they are attacked by a creature that kills Jack and wounds David. David is taken to London where he falls in love with a nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), but he is soon visited by the ghost of Jack, who tells him he was bitten by a werewolf and now must kill himself lest he transform and kill others.

Landis' film arrived the same year as Joe Dante's The Howling, and both share a similar conceit in bringing a traditional folklore monster to the modern world. But while Dante's film focused on a pack of werewolves who clearly relished their power and savagery as villains, the Landis lycanthrope is a tragic figure, a good guy with a bad, dangerous side, similar to Jekyll and Hyde. David, first seen hitching a ride in the back of a truck with sheep, is an innocent, a decent guy not deserving of the fate that befalls him, but once bitten, he can't control his animal side.

The humor and the horror of the movie stem from the modern update of the werewolf. Jack and David crack jokes about the superstitious locals, and it's all fun and games until they discover the locals have reason to be afraid. David, when visited by Jack's decaying ghost, is exasperated. "I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!"

Jack, for his part, is the funniest character in the movie. Each time we see him, he is looking worse for wear until he's practically a skeleton, and he still talks to David in a jovial, nonchalant manner. When David stares at him in dumbstruck shock, Jack nonchalantly eats some of his toast and jokingly whines, "David, you're hurting my feelings." The makeup, by Rick Baker, is gross and creepy (Jack's pretty much torn to pieces), and the result, between the effects and the performance, is creepy and funny.

The laughs also come from the stern British sensibilities clashing with the outrageous behavior. After his first nocturnal hunt, David wakes up naked in the zoo and almost bumps into a very dignified-looking woman. "Excuse me," he smiles and runs off, and the look on her face says it all. David also steals a little boy's balloons to use as clothing. The boy tugs his mother's sleeve. "A naked American man stole my balloons." Even a couple of David's victims remain chipper as they visit him as bloody ghosts (though a few others are understandably more peeved about it.).

Landis is known more for his comedy, but he shows sure-handed aptitude for frights. The scene where David and Jack are stalked on the moors is exceptionally well handled; they're completely isolated, and we never see what they see, the werewolf suggested only by howls and growls until it strikes. Landis maintains this strategy throughout the film. One attack on the subway is show from a high angle, looking down at the bottom of an escalator, one victim as the wolf moves in for the kill, and while we see most of its body to show how big it is, we still don't get a perfectly clear look at it.

The centerpiece of the film is the transformation. It's under harsh light, no shadows to hide in, and the sound effects of bones popping and snapping, plus David's tortured screaming, illustrates just how painful it really is. Baker's work is really top of the line, and I don't think any work in the werewolf genre since has topped it.

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