Sunday, October 26, 2008

An American Werewolf in London: Lycanthropy has never been so fun

"Stay on the road, keep clear of the moors... beware the moon, lads."

--Unnamed patron of the Slaughtered Lamb, from
An American Werewolf in London

In his non-fiction study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, Stephen King lays out the case that evil in fiction can be broken out into three archetypes--the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name. According to King, the Werewolf archetype includes stories that explore the evil lurking within mankind, "something vicious in the human makeup that has not yet been bred out."

But when it comes to actual on-screen depictions of the beasts themselves, werewolves have received a middle child's neglect--or worse, outright abuse (see most of The Howling series, the miserable An American Werewolf in Paris, etc.). One of the few and notable celluloid exceptions is the terrific 1981 film An American Werewolf in London, for my money still the best werewolf film of all time and a true standout in the horror genre.

An American Werewolf in London opens with sweeping views of the moors of Northern England. The sinister and mist-shrouded landscape is ringed with steep hills that seem to conceal something terrible, a hungry creature watching the land for potential victims. There is nowhere to hide or to run. Civilization (such as it can be called) consists of small towns huddled in vales, points of light in the darkness.

Over this opening visual sequence comes the song "Blue Moon" (with its ominous line, "Now I'm no longer alone.") This juxtaposition of light-hearted music and dread-filled imagery sets the tone for the remainder of this underappreciated horror classic. Director John Landis' skillful balancing of comedy and horror is in large part what makes An American Werewolf in London so enduring and memorable.

As the film opens, Jack and David (played by actor David Naughton), two young American travelers hiking their way across europe on an ill-fated vacation, are hitchiking on the back of a farm truck with a load of sheep, and are unceremoniously dumped at an intersection in the heart of the moors. The two walk into a small village and, seeking comfort from the cold, enter an inn ominously named The Slaughtered Lamb. Jack makes the mistake of asking about a pentagram on the wall and the mood in the inn immediately turns hostile and sour. Finding themselves unwanted, Jack and David prepare to leave into the moonlit light. As they depart a local issues an ominous warning: "Stay on the road, keep clear of the moors... beware the moon, lads."

In a terrifyingly effective sequence, David and Jack are stalked on the moors and savagely attacked by a werewolf. Jack suffers a horrible death and David is left wounded and bleeding... to himself become a werewolf at the next full moon. While recouperating in a London hospital, David and his nurse, Alex, become romantically involved. But their idyllic romance is interrupted by David's horrible dreams, which include sequences of himself running nude through the woods, transforming into something monstrous, as well as visions of wanton destruction inflicted on those he loves. This is the lycanthrope lurking inside David, dark porents of the horror he will soon unwillingly inflict on the people of London.

Once again Landis injects levity back into the story with the reappearance of Jack. Though he's now undead, and horribly mauled to boot, Jack retains his wisecracking, self-deprecating personality (in fact, the two chat about Jack's funeral service back in the United States, with Jack complaining about his grief-stricken girlfriend finding solace in the bed of another man). Jack tells David that the only way the curse of lycanthropy can be broken--and Jack's soul laid to rest--is to end the werewolf's bloodline, of which David is now the inheritor. "Take your life David. Kill yourself--before you kill others," Jack urges.

Like the voice of David's conscience, Jack returns again and again throughout the film, his visage growing worse and worse with each appearance due to the onset of rot, each time imploring David to take his own life. By the end of the film all the flesh has fallen away from Jack's face, leaving a grinning skull. In a memorable scene, David meets the heavily-decayed Jack in a sleazy adult movie theatre along with six other victims of his first murderous rampage in London. Their mauled corpses offer suggestions as to how David can best kill himself as the grunts and sighs of a porno flick drone on in the background.

All in all, this is one of my all-time favorite horror films and one that I find myself returning to annually each Halloween.

I won't spoil the ending, but I'd be remiss if didn't mention at least a few other of my favorite scenes/elements from the film:

The werewolf transformation sequence. Done prior to the advent of CGI, this is a masterpiece of latex, fake hair, and camera tricks that, 27 years later, remains the best werewolf transformation ever put to film. Naughton does a great job of conveying the agony of changing into a werewolf as his body is wracked with unnatural growths, including lengthening leg bones, a snout bursting through his face, and hands and feet that stretch and sprout claws.

David's attempt to get arrested. When David discovers to his horror that he is a werewolf and responsible the murders of six London civilians, he attempts to get arrested and thrown behind bars to prevent himself from killing again. He runs up to a policeman and begs to be taken to jail ("I want you to arrest me you asshole!"). When the officer refuses, he shouts at the growing crowd, "Queen Elizabeth is a man, Prince Charles is a faggot, Winston Churchill was full of shit, Shakespeare was French!" This is laugh-out-loud funny.

The subway scene. In his werewolf form David pursues a businessman in the subway tunnels beneath London. Landis wisely takes a cue from Jaws and keeps the werewolf largely off-screen, which proves very effective: Its deep, bestial growl echoing in the cavernous mouth of the subway tunnel is terrifying, as are the few glimpses we get of hate-filed eyes and gray fur. In the businessman's panicked looks over his shoulder we can see the approach of his own horrible death (I note that when Landis does show the werewolf in the full light of the London streetlamps at the end of the film, it's not nearly as scary).

I also have to give props to the soundtrack, which includes the aforementioned "Blue Moon," as well as other appropriate werewolf songs (Van Morrison's "Moondance" and "Bad Moon Rising" by CCR).


Anonymous said...

My Dad was an extra in this movie! An unpaid extra, but still... I believe it's during the Piccadilly Circus scene where you can see him in a blink or you'll miss it moment.

Falze said...

for my money still the best werewolf film of all time

Aw, c'mon...better than Teen Wolf 2?

Brian Murphy said...

Arcona: No way! That's pretty awesome. I almost included the Piccadilly Circus scene in my list of favorite moments from the film--the massive traffic pile-up is unbelievably gory and brutal. Was he someone thrown through a windshield, perhaps :)?

Falze: I don't know how I forgot! I of course should have written "still the best werewolf film of all time, excepting, of course, Teen Wolf 2."

Anonymous said...

Ha... no, he was just one of the boring people in the background.

I'd love to get killed off in a horror movie. One of those really brutal dead-on-impact kills too. Something people would remember. I guess some would think of that as a completely twisted thing to say, but... well, I guess I'm completely twisted.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and I forgot to add about your post: That song "Moondance" is pretty good. Despite my preference for metal, I likes me some Van Morrison too. I especially enjoy some of the recent stuff he's done.

Max said...

Your review prompted me to watch this for the first time tonight. Excellent - spooky but smart and funny. Thanks!

You cover all of the high points in your review and your comment regarding the Picadilly Circus pile-up (What a great twist on expectations that the movie's most violent scene is really only tangential to the monster.)

Amusing trivia: according to the tail end of the trailer this flick got a Meco disco soundtrack a la Star Wars. Couldn't find an MP3 except via a sketchy looking blog, but here's a mash-up incorporating the Meco, a cover of "Hounds of Love," and some old spoken word records.

Brian Murphy said...

Wow Max, I got you to watch this film? My work here is done. Glad you enjoyed it.

Yeah, the Picadilly Circus pile-up is easily the most violent portion of the movie, which is saying something. Obviously a deliberate choice on the part of the director...