theBCLMC     

The Long Island University Brooklyn Campus Library Media Center Newsletter 

 

We love movies, among other things.

October 2009, issue 48

"And his hair was perfect!" --Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), singing along to
Warren Zevon's Werewolves of
London, in The Color of Money (1986).


An American Spooky Monster Midnight Thriller Chiller Halloween Issue in London

John Landis made An American Werewolf in London in 1981, right after the big John Belushi commercial successes Animal House and The Blues Brothers, and just a few years before another big comedy triumph, the Preston Sturgesian Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd.  An American Werewolf In London, while full of humor, is not a comedy, but it is a terrific and disturbing horror film, and one of the very best werewolf films you'll ever see.

The film is the story of two young American guys on an unfortunate backpacking tour of England, and the title is an affectionately mischievous play on one of the first werewolf films, Werewolf of London from 1935, and one of the most highly regarded, brightly colored Hollywood musicals, An American in Paris from 1951.  So right away from the title, it's hard to know exactly where we stand with this film.  Similarly, the film stars David Naughton, a handsome boy next door type who was no movie star, but was instantly recognizable to Americans of the time as the singing Dr. Pepper guy.  Effects and makeup wizard Rick Baker won an Oscar for the makeup which turned the fresh-faced soda-shill Naughton into a ravening hell beast. 

Baker's transformation effects were hugely influential, emphasizing the bone-stretching, sinew-twisting pain of the lycanthropic metamorphosis through hydraulic stretching models that seem to distend limbs and feet and even the human face,  effects that weren't possible with the early werewolf time-lapse transformations of Jack Pierce in films like Werewolf of London and The Wolfman [a movie I still love, as you can see here].  In Pierce's effects, the actor had to remain perfectly still while hair and prosthetics were painstakingly applied to his face.  Lon Chaney Jr. seems almost to sleep as he changes, awakening with a start once the effect is complete.  In Baker's films, however, the unfortunate souls writhe and howl with the physical agony of muscles knotting and bubbling under the skin.  [Look for Baker's effects in the upcoming Wolfman remake with Benicio del Toro in Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot role.] [See also, Landis' video for Michael Jackson's Thriller.]

Landis, as you'll find out with a visit to the Trailers from Hell website to the left, has a deep and loving knowledge of film, with a special place in his heart for grade b--and even grade z--movies, and he works the horror genre here with affection and great skill.  Like a few other filmmakers of his generation--Joe Dante, John Carpenter, and John Sayles come to mind--Landis brought a contemporary sensibility and wicked sense of humor to the horror genre filtered through a strong understanding of horror conventions.  The foreboding scene with the unfriendly locals in the country pub ["The Slaughtered Lamb"--nice] is a time-honored horror scene, for example, as is the scene where the two young Americans are stalked by something unseen as they fail to heed the warnings and stray from the path on the moor -- "David, what is THAT?"  But before this film, it was rare to have the staid proceedings enlivened so well by the brisk and funny dialogue, especially as heard between David and Jack.

Indeed Jack, played by Griffin Dunne, is one of the more original additions to werewolf movie lore: killed by the werewolf that has also wounded, and therefore passed lycanthropy to, David, Jack's soul is trapped in limbo until the last werewolf of the bloodline is dead.  Jack appears to David throughout the film, each time in a worse state of decay than the last, pleading with David to put an end to the werewolf's bloodline.  But while doing so, Jack's smartass personality never wavers, and the dark humor of these scenes are what viewers remember the best about the film.  "The undead surround me.  Have you ever talked to a corpse?  It's boring!"  Here and in other scenes of 'realism,' like when David awakens naked in the zoo after a full moon, help make the film that much more horrifying, grounding the scenes in the everyday [no miraculous pants like Bruce Banner's].  Or in the film's final scenes of mayhem and confusion in the streets of London, as the police try to hunt what they think might be a giant rabid dog, with sirens blaring, brakes screeching; and the ominous, Val Lewtonesque scenes in the Tube, London's shiny and bright subway system.  That's one scary escalator, mate. 

And despite what at the time were state of the art effects, one of the most disturbing scenes would fit well in any low-budget scare flick, when the submachine gun toting, wolf-faced stormtroopers burst into David's happy home life with his family in the states, a terrifying nightmare of warning [in which we also can't ignore the Jewishness of David, as it adds an extra layer of otherness to the story, but that's a topic for a whole 'nother essay].  

Where there is a werewolf, there is also usually a doomed love affair, as in movie lore the lycanthrope is fated to destroy those he loves best.  Jenny Agutter is the fetching Brit nurse who tends to David in a London hospital after the attack, and who takes him into her flat when he is released with nowhere to go and what she thinks, what anybody would think, are delusional ravings about the full moon.

This is a smart, funny, and scary movie that utilizes sophisticated effects as well as low budget ones, that makes the most of horror conventions within a realistic and contemporary setting, and that plays skillfully with our expectations.  It also makes great use of music, slyly inserting various 'moon' pop songs, including three different versions of Blue Moon, Van Morrison's Moondance, and perhaps most famously Creedence's choogling Bad Moon Rising, one of the best uses of that band's music in film--and let's face it, that band's music has been used a lot in films. 

When I was a kid, I admit I was a little disappointed at the werewolf itself when finally revealed in full, but that was partially, I think, a boy's wish for the monster to look more like a man and less like a wolf, more like a monster and less like an animal, like my beloved Universal Wolfman. I was used to a werewolf walking on two legs, and Landis and Baker wanted to take it somewhere different and altogether beastly, and hellish.  And today I believe that everything in this film adds up to make it into the one of the best, richest, and most entertaining, werewolf movies around.  Happy Howling, Scooby Gang.... 

Now I'm going to go get me a big dish of beef chow mein....

  


    "There aren't any coyotes in England."  Jack (Griffin Dunne),
An American Werewolf in London
(1981). 

Wipe your feet and turn off your cell phones, please.  Keep your hands inside the car at all times.  Management is not responsible for the welfare of those with heart conditions.  


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BCLMC  BROOKLYN CAMPUS LIBRARY MEDIA CENTER

Questions?  Comments?  Contact us. 
Media Center Staff:
Patrick Jewell,  Media Assistant  (718) 488-3392  Patrick.Jewell@liu.edu
Lisa Rivera,  Media Assistant  (718) 780-4378  Lisa.Cotton@liu.edu