My Favourite Films #41: An American Werewolf in London

As it’s October I thought I’d write about a couple of horror movies I love, and I’m kicking off with this more comedic entry. Directed by John Landis at the height of his powers, and it’s successful as both a horror and a comedy.

The movie starts off with backpacking American students David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, respectively) wandering the moors. They stop off at The Slaughtered Lamb, a rural pub but after Jack makes a joke about a pentagram on the wall the mood sours and they leave, with the locals warning them to keep to the road, stay off the moors and “beware the moon”.

Should have stayed off the moors, lads

Distracted by chatting they lose the road and are attacked by a vicious beast, which mauls both of them. The beast is shot and David sees a bullet riddled naked man before he blacks out. 
Awaking three weeks later in hospital David discovers that Jack was killed and the attack is said to have been done by an escaped lunatic. His recollections of a beast are put down as shock. Shortly after Jack appears, still bearing his injuries and fills David in- they were attacked by a werewolf, and David is now infected. Jack is cursed to remain a zombie until the bloodline of the werewolf is stopped, and urges David to kill himself, not only to release him but to avoid harming others.

This is quite dark, and Jack’s increasing decay over the course of the film is done extremely well by the effects team, but it’s to the credit of all involved that the laughs keep coming, even if the humour is pretty black in places. A large part of this is Dunne and Naughton’s chemistry and the writing, which feels easy and natural, the two joking and chatting like real friends.

Jack, not looking his best

Convinced he is going nuts, David pushes it from his mind and is discharged, awaiting a flight home. He’s offered a place to stay by his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who he begins a relationship with. Every cloud…

Alex smashing through the therapeutic boundary

Jack warns him again, but David tries to block him. But when darkness falls he changes. This is the film’s most famous scene, where Rick Baker’s practical effects make the transformation a bone crunching, intense watch all soundtracked by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”. Watching it now it’s dated but the make up effects are still damn impressive and it seems far more “real” than. Lot of CGI which can often look utterly separate from it’s surrounding.

Here there’s a weight to it all and it has a physicality that still holds up.

What follows is a werewolf rampage, and then a flip to almost goofy comedy as a naked David wakes up in the zoo. He flees and realises that he is a danger, phoning home to say goodbye his family and contemplating killing himself. He then spots an even more decayed Jack and follows him into a porn theatre where he meets his other victims.
This is one of the blackest moments of the film as, to the background of a deliberately naff adult film, the recently dead argue over the best way to kill himself. Unfortunately they take too long and David turns as night arrive, running amok through Piccadilly Circus. This part is gleefully chaotic, even if prolonged shots of the beast highlight it’s flaws. The panic is captured well and then David is cornered, Alex tries to calm the beast but he is shot by the police, and reverts to his human form.

This for me is one of the best moments as Landis flips the downbeat ending by launching into the end credits backed by the inappropriately upbeat “Blue Moon” by The Marcels (he soundtrack features many songs about the moon). It’s such a jarring shift in tone that the first time I saw it I burst out laughing.

It’s a scruffy film in some ways, and the shifts in tone are quite big, but Landis handles them grace and it all clicks together, although David’s nightmare halfway through is genuinely disturbing, featuring monstrous Nazis and a cameo from the Muppets, and could throw the whole thing, but it pulls back.

What makes it work is that Landis puts in the time between the horror to develop the characters a little, and the leads are all likeable. Far too many horror movies don’t do this, but by making us care about David it makes this film be more effective.

The film has developed a cult following, and there’s a lot to love here. I watched it as a teen, but every time I see it I still enjoy it immensely, and of all the genres horror is the one that doesn’t usually hold up to repeat viewings.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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