I love horror movies. To me, there is nothing better than the original Universal version of Frankenstein. It combines the best elements of storytelling, make-up, acting, music, shadow and light to create an unexpected, synergistic element of the unknown. It gives flesh to the promise of cinema in the first place. Unfortunately, when we moved into the color age, and the expectation for ever-more explicit thrills advanced, the art of fear became the act of shock, and much of the appeal of horror went away – at least for me. The modern era has exchanged fright for torture. Watching one human inflict carnage upon others is a different thing than jumping at shadows. It loses the element of fun. While An American Werewolf In London director John Landis does succumb to modern bloodlust, he also manages to make a classic horror film that is hilarious and both honors and advances the genre.
The story begins with two American college students starting a hitchhiking trip of Europe on the moors of Scotland. The action begins almost immediately as they get lost, attacked by a wolf, and one of them is killed. The other, unknown TV actor David Naughton, wakes up in a hospital in London. He is being attended to by a suspicious doctor (John Woodvine) and a gorgeous nurse (Jenny Agutter). He is tortured by horrifying dreams and then he is repeatedly haunted by his decaying dead companion (Griffin Dunne), who warns David that he was bitten by a werewolf and that he would now turn into one himself when the moon is full. This is all in the first 20 minutes of the film. Landis does not screw around. He gets right to the heart of the matter. Before you can say lycanthropy our hero has entered into a love affair with the nurse, is staying at her house, and finds himself alone as the full moon rises. And then comes “the scene.” There are some moments in film history that are so completely new and groundbreaking that they not only define that particular film, they actually come to represent an entire genre. In full, clear, neon light, David strips his clothes off and the camera does not flinch or look away as his body starts to stretch and change in front of our eyes. Hair sprouts from his torso, his limbs morph from arms and legs to haunches and paws, and in a final horror, his face stretches into a muzzle as he becomes a howling hellhound. It is an absolutely amazing scene, and even though 35 years of filmmaking has passed since this film was made, this scene has not been bested. It is a testament to make-up genius Rick Baker’s lasting impact on the genre. Baker represents the last great make-up innovator (the DVD comes with several excellent featurettes about Rick Baker and the special effects processes he pioneered). Shortly after this film, computer generated effects became the de facto method of showing the impossible and something very special about the art of film was lost. But that was AFTER this movie.
For the remainder of An American Werewolf In London however, we are treated to one thrill after another as our hero runs amok in London, killing people, and letting us see exactly what it would look like to have a real monster, fully lit, in a modern city. It is a true thrill. A scene in a deserted tube station is as genuinely chilling as any I can think of. The movie leads to its climax as David finds himself back in human form, sitting in a pornographic movie theatre, once again talking to a now skeletal Griffin Dunne, while a ridiculous porno plays. It is truly one of the more uproariously funny and surreal scenes in the horror genre. The scene ends with the inevitable, however, as David, once again goes through the transition, and wreaks havoc in the movie theatre and then moves out into a mobbed Piccadilly Square for the film’s climax.
All the boxes get checked with this film. It is fabulously entertaining, provides real shocks, breaks new ground and simultaneously pays tribute to the horror tradition. Director John Landis strikes the perfect balance between star-struck fan boy and seasoned insider, making the monster movie he – and we – always wanted to see.
- Paul Epstein