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An American Werewolf in London Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    165

    An American Werewolf in London Review

    As the opening entry in a second Full Moon Frenzy series of “wolf man” movie reviews, the horror classic and landmark genre milestone, An American Werewolf In London's Blu-ray debut provides plenty to sink your fangs into. I've already covered John Landis' cult favourite twice before, but this will be a greatly extended write-up.

    "Beware the moon, lads ...”

    Sage advice indeed from Tetley Tea-man, himself, Brian Glover to the two unwary American backpackers traipsing across the soggy, desolate moors of rural England. They should've stuck to the main road, too ...

    "Oops.”

    Werewolves are my absolute favourite monsters from both folklore and literature, but they have not been treated too kindly by Hollywood despite several valiant attempts over the decades. Oh, Lon Chaney Jnr's effort was commendable, though stately, as was Oliver Reed's in Hammer's only foray into the moon-beast story, Curse Of The Werewolf, but their pack mates' cinematic reign of terror has been overwrought with either tragic characters that are as much victim as they are beast, or more-recently, as gun-toting martial artists in the dire Underworld films, or statuesque CG titans that just leap around a bit in the likes of Van Helsing. Dog Soldiers had a go, all right (see BD review), but, like all the rest, still falls far short of American Werewolf's full-blooded and often ruthlessly savage approach. Unlike their over-used vampiric cousins who simply won't die either as mythical creatures or as a genre at large, the werewolf should be an utterly terrifying creature, full of cunning, strength and a totally remorseless ferocity. Just like a Terminator in a furry suit, it cannot be bargained, or reasoned with, and “it absolutely will not stop” ... well, until sun-up, at any rate. And, although John (The Blues Brothers) Landis pays homage to the lycanthropes that have gone before, with fatalistic love, a conscience-wracked hero/monster and the whole full moon frenzy shenanigans, he still imbues the legend with enough modern-day trappings and subversive humour to elevate the concept and place it on a pedestal that, to this day, has not been equalled - although I still have high hopes for Benecio Del Toro's oft-delayed remake of The Wolf Man. Where The Howling had, admittedly, more iconic monsters and a rich vein of black humour and genre homage, it was still a little slapdash and trashy. Funny, perhaps, in some places where it shouldn't have been. Landis, for all of the humour and the zaniness he brought in, still came up with a hauntingly classy film as well that worked, despite the odds, on practically every level.

    “What's that star on the wall for?”

    You know when you've said the wrong thing, don't you?

    In David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), we have two unique characters. The pair of immediately likeable American students take an unwise detour across the Yorkshire moors (often credited as being Welsh by writers and promo blurb and, in actual fact, are in a few shots), straying not just off the beaten path, but deep into the realms of dark adult fairytale, the two becoming far unluckier than Little Red Riding Hood, that's for certain. Attacked by a werewolf on the bleak, rain-swept dales just beyond the decidedly shifty country enclave of East Proctor, Jack is killed and David, cursed with a bite, survives to become the next in a long line of doomed hairy howlers. Both are victims, both become monsters. Well, David becomes a monster. Jack, when he returns from beyond the grave with sinister news of what's in store for his buddy, just comes to look more and more like one as he steadily decomposes throughout the film. Love that bit where he scratches a nose that is no longer there, the lidless orbs of his eyes rolling about sarcastically above. But both are wholly sympathetic. Jack may not get the simplest knock-knock joke, but he can still tickle the funny bone ... even when he's dead. Their now-famous visit to The Slaughtered Lamb has gone down in pop-culture history, but then, who hasn't stumbled into a rural pub and been met with the same hostility as our luckless travellers? It is tempting to think that the locals in some regional watering-holes perhaps shift a little uncomfortably if they happen to spy their fictional counterparts on some late-night broadcast of American Werewolf.

    You... made me miss,” says a pock-marked yokel dart player who points at them with a talon-like finger of accusation after they foolishly blunder into a place where they clearly do not belong. Seriously though, this back-of-beyond hostelry must appear in the Places Not To Visit Brochure right underneath the Bates Motel and a certain ramshackle old farmstead deep in the heart of Texas. Even the young, spiky-haired Rik Mayall does little to allay our fears, and what a macabre turn from Brian Glover. Despite his racist joke, there is a damn sight more to this guy than meets the eye. The whole they-know-something-we-don't scenario is played right up to the hilt with a delicious, dialect-rife frisson. Watching it now, it is easy to believe that these locals regularly hide themselves away in the relative sanctuary of their tavern whenever the full moon rises, nestling safe in their numbers as they huddle beneath the occult symbols of protection daubed on the walls.

    “Then murder it is. It's in God's hands now.”

    Landis perfects the dread and unease of what is actually one of Horror's most powerful opening sequences. The unearthly howl that scratches across the hills, the cryptic warning to stick to the road and the plaintiff look of fear playing about the landlady's face still have that comic element to them as the two unwanted visitors make their way, reluctantly, back out into the cold and the dark - because most frightening situations you find yourself in, and actually have time to ponder on as they unfold, are intrinsically amusing, if even only because we use the humour as a defence mechanism. But the dynamic of East Proctor works on so many other levels, too. The landlady regrets sending the two lads away because, deep down, she knows that they will definitely not be safe in the rain. Not tonight. Brian Glover and David Schofield (the darts player) are clearly as psychologically cut-up about the veritable sacrifice they are making as the two Yanks literally will be, yet their traditionally kept secret marks an impasse that they cannot navigate. The scene of the boys being stalked ranks as one of my all-time favourite sequences in a horror movie and, even after so many viewings, it still sends a shudder down my spine. The snarling close by, the sense that the unseen beast is circling them, and then the short-lived respite when the howling sounds far away (“Yeah, not far enough!”) is such a marvellous succession of beats and filmic tricks that, to this day, I still think that they might get away with it. Landis, not a traditional horror director by any stretch of the imagination, pulls out all the stops here and somehow rewrites the rulebook for building suspense. Tonally, he's hauled us off our feet. Our own lurching sense of apprehension, temporarily softened by the mock village customs we've just experienced, is soon wrenched back into our faces and, as Jack Goodman lies in a shredded tangle of waterproof jacket and exposed gizzards, we are reminded of Brian Glover's Alamo joke, because now we are all contemplating jumping out of this doomed flight, ourselves.

    Pretty soon after this heart-stopping scene-setter, we're getting deeply traumatic dreams-within-dreams - involving some incredible, and surreal, imagery (like the hospital bed in the middle of the woods) - as David, recovering in a London hospital gets the hots for his nurse, played by former Railway Child and close friend of John Landis, Jenny Agutter, and begins to succumb to the lupine blood now flowing in his veins. Acute observations about the NHS, hospital food and petty bureaucracy run rampant alongside the spasmodic knee-jerk shocks, Landis ensuring that we never quite know if the next shot will crease us up or freak us out.

    “Have you ever talked to a corpse. It's boring!

    With ominous hints of what is to come, Landis keeps teasing us with little licks of comedy, trying to convince us that everything is okay, his knack for absurdity - as in Animal House and Kentucky Fried Movie - the ace up his sleeve. There is a vague hint of Terry Gilliam about the strangely fitting overlap of reality and the otherworldly, David's reactions to his escalating sense of paranoia startlingly credible. Even mouldy old Jack, who keeps popping up at the most embarrassing of times with nothing but bad tidings for his still-living buddy, has his rotting tongue wedged firmly in what's left of his cheek. But, with a full moon just around the corner, we just know that something pretty bad is going to happen, and such flippant asides can't quite quell the unease. Of course, when the big moment finally comes, it's not entirely what we were expecting. In fact, it's far, far worse ...

    “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.”

    The Oscar-nabbing transformation is just as fantastic now as it was back in 1981 when it reduced popcorn-munching audiences to apoplexy. Given the choice of style, I always prefer the prosthetic approach for fx, rather than CG - they look real and organic, don't they? - and Rick Baker's work here is exemplary. The elongating bones and muscle-gain, and the wince-inducing spine-rise are still incredible today, definitely standing the test of time. David's agonies are heart-stopping in the extreme - “I didn't mean to call you a meatloaf, Jack!” - his sinew-popping, snout-stretching plight an intricate metamorphosis that is painfully shocking, yet wondrous to behold. Having taught Rob (The Thing) Bottin the tricks of the trade, the pupil then beat the master to the post by nicking the concept and applying it to The Howling, which came out a hair's breadth before American Werewolf. But with Joe Dante's enjoyable approach to his own reference-heavy werewolf yarn, Bottin's admittedly fun accomplishments are veiled by darkness and, as immensely exciting and scary as they are, go on for way too long. (Think about it, if you were stood there watching an already psychotic sexual deviant change into a seven-foot tall monster, would you hang around for a full four minutes until he'd finished, as Dee Wallace does in the celebrated rival fang-fest?) Baker's, however, take place in a well-lit room and are over in roughly half that time, allowing your imagination to fill in a lot of blanks - like just how this shaggy beast got out of Alex's flat without ripping the door off its hinges and nobody noticing? And would the beast actually retain his fillings in its gruesome jaws? Hmmm.

    “Heathcliffe didn't howl.”

    “No, but he was on the moors.”

    I have to admit, though, that the halfway point in the transformation, with David lying there on his back, full-frontal - all hairy bones and wobbling paws - does look a bit daft. The sight of David's afro-cum-mane, and his furry muzzle gurning at the camera, just about manages to avoid causing a giggle-fit. But with American Werewolf's ground-breaking transformation there is an element that is far more unique than just the eye-popping FX showcase. At the end of it, when we are confronted with the sideways body-shot, and the very brief yellow-eyed glare, there is a genuine sense that David is no more, and that the beast has taken over. We have literally seen a man turn into a wolf before our very eyes ... and only at the very end of the sequence does that fact really hit home. This does not feel like a man in a rubber suit, pretending to be a werewolf like it does in The Howling. This feels disturbingly real. Ladies and Gentlemen, Humanity has left the building. And you'd better watch out.

    “Life mocks me even in death.”

    The film is also merrily full of claret, too. Finally, the cinematic lycanthrope has been permitted to do what comes naturally ... and literally shred his victims. Lon Chaney Jnr., Oliver Reed and David Rintoul (from The Legend Of The Werewolf) just opted to strangle and, perhaps, take a little petite bite - but Naughton's full-throttle monster has a ripping time of it, chowing down on his prey with glee. And he thinks nothing of the class divide, either, with tramps, yuppies, stuffy and officious civil servants and the odd cinema attendant getting chomped with greedy and very noisy gusto. The stuffed-shirt police inspector's head bouncing splashily off the bonnet of a car recalls an almost identical scene in Wolfen (also reviewed ... but when is that BD release?), but Baker's effects are, if anything, far nastier. His Nazi dogs of war on the rampage in David's vivid nightmare might be wearing the Halloween masks you always wished you could buy, but just look at the butchery they inflict - while The Muppets are on the telly, as well. Agutter's improvised convulsing as a dog-soldier's knife repeatedly plunges into her, shock cuts of enormous jaws clamping onto vulnerable shoulders from madly off-kilter angles, a viciously slick slit throat and the shreds of flesh strewn about the cinema floor all bring home the gorehound's bacon, as it were. And, as for poor Jack's tremendously grim dissolution ... well, let's just say that the icky flap of waggling skin hanging off his gouged throat deserves an acting credit, too.

    “There's a monster in there! Tell 'em to bring rifles!”

    But Landis proves to have a deft hand at constructing scenes of much larger chaos and terror, coupled with in-character humour - a sort of grim larkery in the face of danger - that fans of Animal House must have been caught off-guard by, since his skill at depicting truly ferocious violence sure-as-hell wipes that smile off your face. Jack's frenzied screaming during the initial attack really cuts to the bone, and the scene ends with such a stunned silence, amid the steaming entrails, that you are almost afraid to breathe, lest you break the horrified spell of David's shock. The vicious carnage that ensues in Piccadilly Circus, when the beast is on the loose, is a riot of hyper-intense bodily destruction. That poor guy who gets flung out of the upstairs window of a bus, only to get audibly squished under a speeding car, is truly sickening. Landis, himself, getting bounced through a shop window, and that unlucky copper sandwiched between two unyielding vehicles marks a radical departure from the conventional secluded victim style of most werewolf flicks. Great stuff, though. You didn't get this with Hammer, did you? And, the thing is, you haven't really had its like since, either. Landis takes his beast out of the shadows and out of the mists of legend, placing it right in the heart of a thriving modern London. I like the almost forlorn detachment with which he shows us the full moon appearing from behind a cloud, or rising above the city just before this ghastly set-piece takes place. Only occasionally does the gleaming silver catalyst seem sly and mocking of the grave situation it has wrought about. In the main, the full moon takes on the role of sober and, perhaps, reluctant onlooker. The director, again, twisting the conventions of the genre. With Lon Chaney Jnr. getting all hairy and morose, we pitied him more or less because his performance dictated that we should. In Landis' film, the entire world around David, that is the real, everyday world and then the darker, more surreal limbo-land that he has one paw in already, seem to swoon mournfully about his plight.

    “The supernatural. The Undead. It's all true ...”

    Landis's addition to the werewolf mythology, of having the beast's victims wandering within this limbo until the wolf's bloodline is severed, is an interesting one. Clearly intending to recapture some of that gypsy superstition from Universal's classic The Wolf Man from 1941, and also from his own experiences in rural Europe during the filming of Kelly's Heroes in 1969, he creates an unsettling sense of a much greater occult power at work. But really, what we enjoy seeing most are all of David's mangled victims sitting beside him in a porn cinema devising ways in which he can kill himself and end their continued torment. In script form, this departure from convention must have sounded insane, but in the film it works marvellously. The rich vein of grim, gallows humour is thoroughly milked, though never to the point of overdose. And, once again, for an American to be able to translate what is essentially a British brand of dark comedy is nothing short of miraculous.

    “David ... is it you? They're going to kill you ...”

    Landis has a keen eye for social and cultural observation, too. British TV may have many more channels now, but they are still as bland as the hospital food that Alex force-feeds to David, Naughty Nina exclusives notwithstanding. Inflation still soars. Rural pub-life may not usually revolve around the monthly cycle of lycanthropy, but it does revolve around the dartboard. The London Underground back then, and perhaps especially now, remains a dangerous place - with or without the presence of punks or werewolves. And seedy Soho cinemas will always have drooling beasts lurking within them and getting frothy on the back row. I mean, if you were to ever actually meet the undead - then surely that would be the place that they would congregate. Not a shopping mall. His direction was never better, nor more confident. It's a difficult trick to keep the comedy funny, and the horror straight and strong, without getting the two mixed up, yet he achieves the perfect cocktail with consummate ease. American Werewolf is, aptly enough, the best hybrid movie, the two opposing ends of the wild spectrum complimenting one another with no rough edges showing. He makes weighty stabs at authority - the bumbling Inspector Villiers and his even more bumbling subordinate, Sgt. MacManus, the mellifluous-voiced Dr. Hirsch, played exquisitely by John Woodvine (“Just tell him I'm dead!”) and the sheer lack of any official to lend aid to the quick-tempered Gerald Bringsly (Michael Carter) on his much celebrated last trip on the Underground. In fact, his one true gesture at an efficient authority is the depiction of the nightmarish Nazis laying waste to the Kessler household. And, of course, the real wolves in the zoo, whose vast superiority puts the confused and exhilarated man-wolf that has snuck into their pen, well and truly in his place. Whiny-voiced Frank Oz makes a great cameo as Mr. Collins, the man from the US Embassy and, if anything, with this uncaring character Landis implies that American patience and understanding is in even shorter demand than our own.

    “A naked American man stole my balloons.”

    That's a headline that would probably garner more readers than the news of several mutilated bodies found around London!

    The only misstep in the film I feel is, unfortunately, the delectable Jenny Agutter's superfluous character of Alex. The romance between David and Nurse Price is pure male fantasy-trip. Their whistle-stop love affair is all rather lame and unbelievable. Alex's naff resume of her prior lovers is a fairly pathetic moment that is virtually Landis thinking out loud about why he has to throw some spice into the story - “I'm not sure why I'm telling you this,” she stammers, hammering home the pandering to formula that the writer/director may have felt at introducing a love-interest into the pot. Although I'm all for the animal-in-man being revealed in many of its guises - the werewolf, more so than the vampire, is a horny beast, after all - but this death-laced relationship actually matters very little in the true course of the story. David's belief that he can only be killed by someone who loves him (a direct homage to the werewolf pictures of old) becomes completely null and void during the exciting police shoot-out down that fateful dead-end. I just love seeing those old SLR's letting rip, though! But, having said all that, Agutter's heart-rending anguish at the end is almost enough to paste over the narrative gaps with regards to their doomed affair. You've had fun, you've had scares aplenty, but this scene, along with the tragic final call that David makes to his family (amusingly played but lingeringly poignant because his message falls on deaf ears) grips the heart in a more emotional and memorable way. Thing is though, their sex scene (which is nowhere near as much fun as the one playing in the cinema - “Not you, you berk ... her!”) plays practically as long as David's transformation which, in the scheme of things, surely can't be right. Can it?

    Perhaps even more so, the film's heartfelt undercurrent is guided by Woodvine's eminently intrigued physician. His trip to East Proctor to “look into the boy's story” about werewolves - our second visit there - is almost as powerfully disturbing as David's was. Woodvine, who has been, by turns, straight-laced, business-minded, comical and charmingly theatrical in the role, comes to evoke the one character who we really feel could uncover the mystery and possibly even save David. At times, his performance seems arch, but the amazing thing is that when we hear his voice, even when he is spouting the wrong diagnosis about David's condition - “Oh, I don't mean running about on all fours and howling at the moon,” - we tend to feel reassured. It is a well-written character that seems superfluous at first, but keeps on cropping up to win us over and, even if he ultimately achieves nothing - and, let's face it, he doesn't - becomes one of the pivotal elements in the drama. He must have felt stupid asking for a Campari and soda in The Slaughtered Lamb, though! Then again, in the company of those furtive wolf-harbourers , even “a small Guinness” wouldn't suffice.

    “It was a mistake ... to let him leave here. It's almost full moon! Others will be killed. There's something wrong with this place ...”

    “That much I can tell.”

    No sh*t, Sherlock!

    Although Landis recruited the celebrated Elmer Bernstein, who had scored his earlier Animal House, to compose the film's music, there is remarkably little of his work left in. With plentiful Bad and Blue Moon-flavoured songs punctuating the action - Sam Cooke, Creedance Clearwater Revival, The Marcels, Van Morrison - Bernstein's approach was still thoroughly entrancing. Built around only a couple of themes - one for the mysterious East Proctor and one for the eerie, spellbinding aura of Jack's undead appearances - he nevertheless creates a wonderfully dark and lyrical milieu that is, at once, spooky, ethereal and tragic. Bernstein also composed a staggeringly dynamic and full-throttle cue for the transformation sequence, but Landis ultimately opted to go for Cooke's Blue Moon - he couldn't get the rights for Bob Dylan's version, or Cat Stevens' Moonshadow - and this is something of a shame as the orchestral variant is an aggressive and frightening tour de force and one of the composer's most neglected and overlooked gems. Even most of the score's bootleg or promotional editions - American Werewolf's admittedly brief score has never had an official release - lack this one powerful track. It can be found, however, on Silva Screen's The Essential Elmer Bernstein Film Music Collection 2-disc release, for those fang-fan completists out there.

    Landis would, of course, go on the direct Michael Jackson's epic Thriller video - itself featuring a man-into-wolf transformation - as well as a terribly ill-fated segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie and the rather lacklustre Innocent Blood, in 1992, which took a French vampire to America, but he hasn't, so far, matched the genre heights that he attained with this landmark and hugely influential movie. An exceedingly poor semi-sequel called An American Werewolf In Paris was feverishly anticipated back in 1997, but utterly failed to recapture the spirit, the terror and the unique atmosphere of the original, its monsters left hideously under-served by woeful CG, and its plot simple dreadful and hackneyed. Landis' dark adventure still reigns supreme.

    “Puts you in mind of the days of the old demon barber of Fleet Street, don't it?”

    A couple of interesting sidelines for fans. There is a BBC Radio dramatisation of American Werewolf featuring Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine and Brian Glover reprising their roles from the film. With superb sound fx and a remarkably spooky atmosphere, it fleshes out the story quite considerably with regards to the secrets of East Proctor, and the identity of the initial werewolf. Well recommended, folks. And secondly, see how many familiar faces you can spot in the film. It's the American Werewolf Spot The Future Celebrity Game. Okay, we all know about Rik Mayall and Brian Glover, but can you find Coronation Street's Maude Grimes (yep, it was a while back, I know) and the first Chief Inspector from The Bill? Clue, he was back on the beat in this film and sporting a beard.

    With Autumn now upon us and those nights beginning to draw in, An American Werewolf In London is the perfect midnight movie to settle back and shudder all the way through. It feels chilly and windswept, even when the action relocates to London, and Landis makes it clear that although fogbound backlot sets worked extraordinarily well for Universal's earlier horrors, terror can just as easily be evoked in the bright lights of the big city. But, even with this in mind, I'm sure we all cannot wait to see the re-fanged take on The Wolf Man lope and stalk through misty woods and shadow-draped mansions before he, too, tears up Old London Town.

    In the meantime, all I can say is ... keep clear of the moors now, and I'll See You Next Wednesday.