There's a full moon tonight. It's June 13th. A Friday. I'm told by social media that the next full moon to fall on a Friday the 13th will be August 13th, 2049. I'm sure this blog will be long forgotten by then, a distant echo on the electronic aether, assuming human beings are even still alive by then. Friday the 13th is a date so linked with horror films anymore that it seems a shame to let one pass without watching and writing about one. Given the lunar rarity of this date, I chose An American Werewolf in London (1981, directed by John Landis), a film with a more than passing acquaintance with the cycles of the moon.
My relationship with An American Werewolf in London is long and complicated. It came out when I was fourteen and deep into horror movies. I wasn't able to convince my parents to take me to see the film when it was in theaters and it never showed up at the drive-in. I had to wait for cable. There was a HUGE "want to see it" factor for this movie among my playground friends at the time, and once it was available on HBO, arguments broke out about the relative merits between American Werewolf and The Howling. This had the perverse effect of pointing out which local families had HBO and which had Showtime. The two channels had begun to war with each other and part of that war was exclusive deals for some movies. My family had HBO. We had to wait a while to get The Howling. Meanwhile, I stayed up way late on the nights when American Werewolf was on HBO, sometimes so late that the sun began to rise as the credits rolled. My cinemania started young, and American Werewolf wasn't the first horror film to hook me late at night by any means.
And yet, I'm curiously indifferent to An American Werewolf in London. It's not a film I ever thought was great or even particularly good. There were parts of it that I loved when I first saw it, sure. I loved every minute of the undead Griffin Dunne scenes and I had a huge crush on Jenny Agutter left over from Logan's Run (which I did see at a drive in in its "R"-rated version before it was cut to a PG for cable). I never thought the combination of humor and horror worked very well and I hated the werewolf.
The story follows hikers David and Jack, who are backpacking across the north of England. As the film begins, they've arrived at the dreariest part of the country, it seems, and they stop in for some warmth and at a local pub, the ominously-named Slaughtered Lamb. The locals are hostile to them, and, feeling unwelcome, they head back out into the rain, but not before hearing dire warnings about the moors. They're told to stick to the road. They wind up ignoring this advice to their sorrow. They're attacked by some kind of large animal. It kills Jack and David wakes up in the hospital three weeks later. Upon waking, he discovers that the details of the attack have been fudged. The locals up north maintain that the attacker was an escaped lunatic. David disagrees, but his sanity is beginning to unravel as he experiences a series of vivid dreams. Jack's ghost begins to visit him to tell him that he's now a werewolf and that he needs to kill himself in order to prevent further deaths. Meanwhile, David embarks on a romance with his nurse, Alex, who takes him in after he's discharged from the hospital. Unfortunately for David, the full moon returns...
The genesis for An American Werewolf in London dates as far back as 1970, when John Landis witnessed a Roma burial designed to prevent the the deceased from walking the earth as the undead. This was near the set of Kelly's Heroes, on which Landis was working as a gofer. The idea was further incubated by Landis's first collaboration with make-up artist Rick Baker. During the making of Schlock, Landis and Baker hashed out the kind of werewolf transformation they'd like to see in a movie. This led to the "rules" Landis ultimately imposed on the effects in American Werewolf, which insisted that the scene be well-lit, that the actor and character be nude, and that it all be performed in-camera without any lap dissolves or other optical cheats. In spite of hashing this out between them, Landis and Baker ultimately had very different ideas about the werewolf design, and Baker eventually became so frustrated by the lack of movement on the film in the eight intervening years that he signed on to do the effects for The Howling. Bakers ideas of what a movie werewolf should be are in that movie: bipedal, partially human. Landis wanted a quadruped, with very little humanity left. A hound from hell, as it were. When the money became available for American Werewolf, Baker was already into the production of The Howling, which he handed off to his protege, Rob Bottin. The fact that Baker chose not to wait is apparently a source of friction between Landis and Baker to this very day. It can't have helped things that The Howling beat American Werewolf to the theater and in many ways upstaged Landis's film. Still, American Werewolf was a bigger hit and it took home the first ever competitive Oscar for special make-up effects.
The schism between Baker's ideas and Landis's ideas creates an awkward tension in the film itself. The werewolf--mostly Landis's conception--looks a bit like a big stuffed dog. In only one shot is it really convincing as a monster. Baker was given his head for the design of the undead Jack, whose appearance gets progressively worse as the film unreels until he's the epitome of an E. C. Comics revenant, and for the dream sequence involving the massacre of David's family. These are the best special effects scenes in the movie. The transformation scene, while convincing, is artless, full of clinical details rather than mystery and terror (the two are not mutually exclusive, by the way, as anyone who has seen one of David Cronenberg's early films can attest).
The film's (im)balance between horror and comedy makes for an awkward narrative. The comedy is often too low-key to really carry its scenes. The interview between Dr. Hirsch and the police, for instance, is as flat as they come, with the audience siding with the bumbling Sergeant McManus demonstrating that he's a better cop than his superior even as he sublimates this fact to the Inspector's authority. In theory, this scene pays off later in the film when the werewolf decapitates Inspector Villiers, but in truth, this scene doesn't establish a connection between the audience and any of the three characters in it. The comedy is on better ground when it lampoons both American notions of fun and their British counterparts. When David channel-surfs the TV, he finds a test pattern, a laughably tasteless ad for The News of the World, and a dart championship. I don't know if the BBC has ever lived this down. "See You Next Wednesday," Landis's "signature" movie within a movie is incarnated in this film as an awful skin flick at the theater in Piccadilly Circus, and underlines less seemly elements of British culture of the 1970s. It has some fun with some punk rockers on a subway, too, much to its detriment. Punk won that culture war; it's David Naughton's seventies-era dudebro that seems the freak in this scene. The funniest part of the movie is Griffin Dunne's undead Jack, who is ceaselessly cheerful as he tries to convince David to kill himself. This is undercut somewhat by the gore associated with these scenes. Indeed, the film is more violent than you would expect of a comedy, and it's not the slapstick gore that would enliven the horror/comedies that come after it.
The romance between David and Alex is the kind of thing that vanishes from movies after about 1983 or so. It's a lingering sexual fantasy from the 1970s. It's fun to watch because Jenny Agutter sells it, but David Naughton isn't an actor who's up to his half of the bargain. Agutter is the heart and soul of the film in much the same way that Geena Davis is the center of The Fly, but the film around her does her no favors.
The soundtrack of An American Werewolf in London is famous for its assemblage of "moon" songs. One of Landis's hard rules was that all of the songs in the film had to feature "moon" in the title, hence various versions of "Blue Moon," Van Morrison's "Moondance," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising." And yet, this hard rule precluded using Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," a song that might have been written specifically for the movie. I admire Landis's discipline even if I question his judgement.
The end of the film has always bothered me. This is a film that suggests a mythology of werewolves, but fails to play by that mythology (in contrast to Landis's formal intransigence). Do werewolves have to die by the hand of love? It's suggested, but not put into practice. Silver bullets? Dismissed with a hand wave. The big action sequence at the end of the film seems like a darker version of the car chase that ends The Blues Brothers, with car crashes aplenty in Piccadilly Circus and logic be damned. Roger Ebert once described the end of American Werewolf as "unfinished," and I don't think he's entirely wrong. It's a frustrating film.
In spite of all this, the film manages at least one sequence that's worthy of Val Lewton, as a business commuter is stalked by the werewolf through the corridors of a tube station. The finale of this scene, shot from above with the victim on an escalator and the werewolf stalking forward, is genuinely nightmarish and reflects a different kind of film that's not so in love with its special effects, or, at the very least, one which employs its effects more artfully. There are enough moments like this one--David's dream of approaching himself on a bed in the woods is another one--that the film elbows its way into the conversation when discussing the horror films of the late seventies/early eighties. It's NOT a classic because it's just not a good enough movie to carry that designation, but I understand its cult among the teen gorehounds of the day. I was one of them, after all.
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