Originally published at Den of Geek on 21/07/2009
Henry Hull. Larry Talbot. Eddie Quist. David Kessler. Four relatively unassuming names that don’t mean anything at all unless you’re a fan of horror cinema, as this quartet are all severely guilty of carrying out carnivorous lunar ac-ti-vi-ties under the light of the full moon.
That is to say, they’re all werewolves.
I originally planned this article as a twenty-fifth anniversary “look back” at John Landis’ seminal An American Werewolf In London, before realising that landmark passed three years ago. Still, you should never need an excuse to re-examine one of the greatest werewolf movies the living, the dead, and the undead have ever seen. So grab a pint from The Slaughtered Lamb, get comfortable in the wolf pen and travel back to a time when werewolf movies were like buses: you wait around for one for years, and suddenly three come all at once.
While it was released in 1981, American Werewolf had an unusually long gestation period, the seeds of which were sown during a gypsy burial ceremony Landis witnessed during the making of Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia circa 1968. The thought of the real-life ramifications of facing creatures actually rising from the grave to cause mischief gave way to another classical myth from the depths of Eastern Europe – the legend of the werewolf.
However, werewolves have never been exceptionally treated by the Hollywood honchos, and Landis – who had infected the script with measures of both horror and comedy – was continuously told over the next ten years that his script was either ‘too scary to be funny, or too funny to be scary’. It was inconceivable back then that horror movies could also be funny, despite the fact that Hollywood’s big productions had already led the way decades ago – just look at the humour prevalent in James Whale’s Universal movies.
Luckily, by the time the eighties began, Landis finally had some clout and two bona fide hits in 1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House and 1980’s The Blues Brothers, a pair of sterling money makers for Universal, who would then finance his next movie: An American Werewolf In London.
For the benefit of those who haven’t seen the film, here’s a synopsis, although be warned that spoilers will follow: Two American backpackers are attacked on the Yorkshire moors by a werewolf; one survives and is brought to London, where he begins a hideous transformation from man to beast and preys on the Cockney populace whilst having sex with Jenny Agutter. Contains mild peril, nudity and Brian Glover.
As mentioned previously, American Werewolf was not the only Lycanthropic opus to hit cinemas in 1981, as it was preceded by two other mainstream werewolf movies – respectively being Joe Dante’s The Howling and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, although whether the latter is actually a werewolf flick is still of some debate. According to Joe Dante, American Werewolf was fast-tracked into production after The Howling began development to stop effects wunderkind Rick Baker working on Dante’s movie instead of Landis’, and as such there was reportedly a bit of bad blood between productions, especially as The Howling would be using make-up effects developed by Baker, under his protégé Rob Bottin.
But American Werewolf is more than just spectacular make-up effects. Landis’ script is brilliant, and is both hilarious and terrifying at alternate moments. Indeed, the film itself is often erroneously called a horror-comedy, and while the film certainly has its fair share of humour, at its core it’s a tragedy, with the spirit of The Wolf Man. As Landis himself puts it*, ‘[American Werewolf In London] is not a comedy. We meet these two boys in a truckload of sheep. This is not subtle! These boys are dead at the end of the movie. This is not a happy story, this is a horror movie.’
Like The Howling, the picture uses humour to justify the concept of a creature like the werewolf believably existing in modern times, poking fun at the subject at most opportunities, such as the wall decorations in The Slaughtered Lamb (‘It’s a pentagram. A five-pointed star. It’s used for witchcraft. Universal Studios and Lon Chaney, Jr maintained that’s the mark of The Wolf Man!)’.
However, whilst the protagonists take the piss at every opportunity, the movie itself treats the superstition dead seriously, so much so that Jack and David are asked to leave upon pointing it out. Even John Woodvine’s very serious Dr. Hirsch pokes fun at the very concept of werewolves with the line ‘If there were a monster roaming around Northern England, we’d have seen it on the telly!’ which is all the more relevant today regarding contemporary catch-all media, so much so that it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the forthcoming remake replaced it with ‘If there were a monster roaming around Northern England, we’d have seen it on YouTube!’
Humour is also used heavily where the undead are concerned, with Griffin Dunne’s Jack initially treating death as it if it’s one big tragic joke, before his visits get more and more ominous as the full moon approaches, with Jack and David’s final conversation being in a porno theatre amidst a mock-kangaroo court held by David’s victims, some of which are far too cheery and chipper considering the fact that they have recently been brutally murdered by a werewolf. But the best use of comedy actually runs hand in hand with the best scare in the film, as Jack and David are running on the moors. David slips, the audience gasps, Jack wisecracks, goes to help David up, a werewolf comes out of nowhere and that incredible sound design fills our ears as we fill our pants while watching Jack get torn apart and try to get our breath back.
The film does have some horrific moments, and Landis treats this with a certain matter-of-fact approach that completely alters the tone of the film, but naturally so and not jarring in the least. Landis wanted the violence to be very realistic, and as we see people get torn apart by the wolf there is a lot of blood but very few flashy camera angles. It’s all just there in your face to deal with, although the blood and gore are never really dwelled on, instead allowing our imagination to take hold. One of the best examples of how the film deals with this is in the subway, where Gerald Bringsley has just tripped and sits helpless at the foot of the escalator as we see – in a long shot from the very top of the escalator peering down – the werewolf approaching him, only to cut away a few seconds after it enters the frame.
But yes, one of the main reasons American Werewolf is still so memorable today is the astonishing make-up effects by Rick Baker. Baker had a longstanding relationship with Landis, having created the gorilla suit for the director’s debut – 1972’s Shlock – and worked on movies such as The Exorcist, the 1976 remake of King Kong (playing the title character), and the original Star Wars (creating masks for the Cantina sequence) before reuniting with Landis for American Werewolf, eschewing The Howling in the process (although he still received a ‘Special Make-Up Effects Consultant’ credit on that film) and subsequently having a special Academy Award created for him and his team for their efforts.
The actual transformation scene was understandably jaw-dropping on release and still holds up to this day. There is usually a divide between horror fans on which transformation is better: The Howling or An American Werewolf In London, but Baker’s transformation still holds up better for me, especially due to the fact that it isn’t hidden away in shadow, it’s just there and more the real for it. Both have extensive use of bladders, which was brand-new and the height of technology back in 1981, but American Werewolf’s transformation is a lot shorter and much less obvious that it’s an actual effect, as The Howling’s is a little more raw, though still great. I doubt this great debate will ever be solved, although if it helps sway your mind, Dee Wallace slates the American Werewolf effects on the special edition DVD of The Howling.
The werewolf itself is undoubtedly the best modern-day lycanthrope to hit the silver screen, even though it is rarely actually seen until the end of the film. Baker himself says ‘I think the wolf is very cool. John always said he was never gonna show him and I intentionally sculpted a very extreme expression on him.’ Unusually for most werewolf films, Baker’s creature is a four-legged wolf on Landis’ insistence, and was – amazingly enough – pulled off by adapting the concept of the old school sports day mainstay known as the wheelbarrow race.
But Baker’s makeup also shines with the werewolf’s victims, namely in the grisly makeup for Griffin Dunne’s three appearances as one of the undead, providing three separate stages of decomposition, including a freshly-killed look (with the throat clearly torn out, providing a quite distracting little piece of wiggly flesh), a rotting corpse look, and finally a skeletal appearance, created by making a life-size puppet of Dunne’s head and carving away at it. The results are spectacular, but not in a showy way, and you never watch the film thinking anything other than ‘wow, it’s a guy with his throat torn out’.
But for all of Baker’s effort, his makeups constitute very little of the movie’s screen-time. The film runs at a brisk pace (even brisker if you live in Europe and as such are subjected to the PAL system), courtesy of Malcolm Campbell’s editing, which strips away most of the fat and leaves few scenes that do not really contribute to the story in one way or another. Okay, the ‘Bad Moon Rising’ montage isn’t really necessary, but it’s still a classic sequence. In fact, it’s remarkable how lean the film is, right up to its somewhat abrupt ending. It’s almost a homage to King Kong, only Landis leaves no time for someone to utter a soliloquy on the werewolf’s behalf. It’s simply werewolf dies – Jenny Agutter cries – quick shot of a naked and very dead David Naughton – cue The Marcels.
The music itself is unique, with Landis opting to use mostly already established songs, with only a tiny bit of actual score for good measure. As has been stated many times before, all the songs are moon related (three versions of ‘Blue Moon’, ‘Moondance’, and ‘Bad Moon Rising’), and legend has it that Landis tried to get the rights to Cat Stevens’ ‘Moonshadow’, with the musician apparently turning him down due to the subject matter.
The rest of the film is scored with music by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein, who at the time was in his ‘comedy phase’, having scored movies such as Animal House and Airplane!, and would do Ghostbusters a few years later. However, Bernstein’s score is not comical in the slightest, and adds a moody tone to the film. Due to the number of songs, the score only runs just over seven minutes, and as such it was never released as an album. However, Italian disco-maestro Meco Monardo (who hit number one in the States with his cover of John Williams’ ‘Cantina Band’) re-recorded parts of the score and released it – along with some original material and a cover of ‘Bad Moon Rising’ and The Marcels’ ‘Blue Moon’ – as ‘Meco’s Impressions of An American Werewolf In London’, which is actually mentioned on the film’s end credits.
Now as you may have heard recently, American Werewolf is currently on the slate to be remade, courtesy of Dimension Films. Who knows what horrors they are capable of (well, the Scary Movie films for a start, along with countless terrible horror sequels), but it will follow the rich legacy that American Werewolf has left behind, not least the huge injection of comedy into horror that happened in the 80s, which gave way to such classics as Gremlins, Evil Dead II, and, um, Haunted Honeymoon, not to mention Shaun of the Dead.
Werewolf movies since have also been hugely influenced by the film, not least its 1997 sequel An American Werewolf In Paris, which was to the first film as Attack of the Clones is to The Empire Strikes Back. Funnily enough, the film has already been sort of remade with a BBC Radio adaptation that was transmitted the same year as the sequel. Produced and directed by Dirk Maggs, with input by Landis and featuring Agutter, Woodvine and Glover reprising their roles, the play fleshes out some of the scenes and characters, particularly the original werewolf, who we find out did actually escape from a lunatic asylum and is actually Glover’s brother.
So it’s been twenty-eight years ago since Brian Glover told two poor boys to ‘beware the moon’, and like all good monster movies, An American Werewolf In London has never gone away, and still has a legion of fans thirsty for more lycanthropic malarkey, which they’ve slowly been able to get over the years, at least in the form of plastic action figures. But there’s a feature length documentary on its way called Beware The Moon, which will be on the Blu-Ray that debuts in September. So until then, throw some CCR on your iPod, visit a porno theatre with some dead friends, and we’ll see you next Wednesday.
*Landis and Baker quotes from the 20th Anniversary DVD.