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An American Werewolf in London Review

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by Chris McEneany Oct 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    An American Werewolf in London Review
    ”Beware the moon, lads ...”

    Sage advice indeed from Tetley Tea-man 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, but they have not been treated too kindly by Hollywood. Oh, Lon Chaney Jnr's effort was commendable, as was Reed's, 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, or statuesque CG titans that just leap around a bit in Van Helsing. Dog Soldiers had a go, all right, but, like all the rest, still falls far short of American Werewolf's full-blooded and often savage approach. Unlike their over-used vampiric cousins, 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, 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.

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

    In David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), we have two unique characters. Attacked by a werewolf on the moors just beyond the shifty country enclave of East Proctor, Jack is killed and David, bitten, survives to become the next in a long line of 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 like one as he steadily decomposes throughout the film. Love that bit where he scratches a nose that is no longer there. 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? “You ... made me miss.” Seriously though, this back-of-beyond watering hole must appear in the Places Not To Visit Brochure right underneath the Bates Motel. Even the young, spikey-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.

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

    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. She regrets sending the two lads away because, deep down, she knows that they will definitelynot be safe in the rain. Not tonight. 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, pulls out all the stops here and somehow rewrites the rulebook for building suspense. And pretty soon afterwards, 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 Jenny Agutter, and begins to succumb to the lupine blood now flowing in his veins.

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

    With ominous hints of what is to come, Landis keeps teasing us with comedy, trying to convince us that everything is okay. Even mouldy old Jack, who keeps popping up, at the most embarrassing of times, with bad tidings, 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 transformation is fantastic. Given the choice of style, I always prefer the prosthetic approach for fx, rather than CGI - 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, his, admittedly, fun accomplishments are veiled by darkness and, as immensely enjoyable as they are, go on for way too long. (Think about it, if you were stood there watching a psycho change into a seven-foot tall monster, would you hang around for four minutes until he'd finished, as Dee Wallace does?) 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? 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 Naughton 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 groundbreaking 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.

    “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 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 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 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, as well. And, as for poor Jack's tremendously grim dissolution ... well, let's just say that the icky flap of waggling flesh hanging off his gouged throat deserves an acting credit, too.

    “There's a monster in there!”

    But Landis proves to have a deft hand at constructing scenes of 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. 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. Great stuff, though. You didn't get this with Hammer, did you? And, the thing is, you haven't had its like since, either.

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

    Landis's addition to the werewolf mythology, of having the beast's victims wandering in limbo until the wolf's bloodline is severed, is an interesting one. Clearly intending to recapture some of that gypsy superstition from 1941's The Wolfman and also from his own experiences in rural Europe, he creates an unsettling sense of a much greater occult power at work. But really, what we enjoy seeing is all of David's mangled victims sitting beside him in a porn cinema devising ways in which he can kill himself. 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.

    “David ... is it you?”

    Landis has a keen eye for social and cultural observation, too. British TV may have 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 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. I mean, if you were to ever meet the undead - that would be the place 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 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 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.

    “A naked American man stole my balloons.”

    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 rather lame. Alex's naff resume of her prior lovers is a fairly pathetic moment that is virtually Landis thinking out loud - “I'm not sure why I'm telling you this,” she stammers, hammering home the pandering to formula that he must have felt at a studio-inflicted love-interest. 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, afterall - but this death-laced relationship 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 dead-end. Love seeing those old SLR's letting rip, though! But, having said all that, Agutter's heartrending anguish at the end is almost enough to paste over the narrative gaps with regards to their doomed affair. 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 surely can't be right, in the scheme of things. Can it?

    A couple of interesting sidelines for fans. There is a BBC Radio dramatisation of American Werewolf out on double cassette (and probably CD by now, too) 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 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 the film.

    Anyway, Happy Halloween, and See You Next Wednesday.

    The Rundown


    8
    AVForumsSCORE
    OUT OF
    10