Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An American Werewolf in London

It's easy to forget that director John Landis is still alive.  After a string of truly fantastic work, his production fell off sharply, with the hits becoming smaller and the jobs seemingly getting harder to come by (presumably because of his involvement in The Twilight Zone fatal accidents).  Nowadays, he directs odd television episodes, but that's about it.  An American Werewolf in London was made during his string of hits, but it doesn't bear much similarity to his more famous comedies.  If you watch this movie with the assumption that it will rival Kentucky Fried Movie's slapstick or The Blues Brothers' all-around awesomeness, you're going to be pretty disappointed.  However, if you look at this as the horror film from the director of Michael Jackson's Thriller, then I think you'll be in the right mindset for this movie.

The story begins with two American students walking through the moors of England on a cold and wet night.  They agree to take refuge at the first pub they come across; the pub they find is called the The Slaughtered Lamb.  Inside, they find locals unused to travelers.  When the boys try to make small talk and ask about a pentagram on the wall of the pub, the room gets silent and they are more or less forced out of the building.  They are given the cryptic advice to stay on the road, off the moors, and to beware the moon.  Some of the patrons are glad to be rid of the boys, but the matron bartender is distraught that the boys are out on the moors during the full moon.  Soon enough, the boys are walking and talking, trying to find the next town, when they hear a terrifying howl.  They then notice that the moon is full.  And they have accidentally left the road and are lost on the moors.  Well, they were warned.  Sure enough, they are attacked by a savage beast; Jack (Griffin Dunne) is torn to pieces, but the Slaughtered Lamb patrons kill the beast before it can do more than bite and scratch David (David Naughton).  Before David passes out, he sees a naked old man dead next to him.

It's a werewolf story, what do you want?  You know what's going to happen next.  Somebody's going to tell David that he was bitten by a werewolf, which makes him a werewolf.  David isn't going to believe that, because it sounds crazy.  And, at the next full moon, David will transform into a werewolf and kill people and/or animals.  An American Werewolf in London mixes things up a bit, though.  By setting the story in modern times, the Gothic horror and superstitious element that are usually included in werewolf tales is gone.  Instead, David is treated by doctors and nurses, who assume he has some sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome (which I know I would have, in his place).  A love interest is also added to the story in the form of his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who lets him move into her apartment after being discharged from the hospital; normally, werewolf love interests tend to be virginal women with an implied, but not lusty, relationship with the wolf.  The biggest change to the formula is definitely the person who tells David that he's a werewolf.  David sees the mangled corpses of his victims, starting with his buddy Jack; Jack and all of the werewolf's victims are wandering around in a state of limbo, trapped between heaven and hell.  Jack's advice to David is to commit suicide and release all the innocent victims to their destined afterlives.

Obviously, this is a fresh take on the werewolf movie, and it is a welcome change.  Setting the film in modern day England allows the characters to be sarcastic and occasionally funny, something rare in most over-serious werewolf movies.  This also allows the actors a little more range.  Instead of just being a tragic figure, David Naughton is allowed to be charming and romantic, as well as a tortured monster.  Griffin Dunne does a great job in a difficult role; he manages to be sympathetic and funny, despite having the goal of convincing David to kill himself.  Jenny Agutter is pretty good, too, as a well-meaning woman that has no idea what she's gotten into.

The real star of the show, though, is the special effects.  The work done to Jack throughout is fantastic.  When he first shows up as a talking corpse, he looks pretty awesome.  In most movies, this would be the special effects scene you would be talking about.  But, in each successive appearance in the film, his body continues to rot, giving him a progressively more shocking appearance each time.  He's not the only one, though.  All the victims look awesomely gory, and they all come back to haunt David, although some are more polite than others.  This movie was made in 1981, so the effects are entirely done with make-up and prosthetics; the scenes where David transforms are obviously done with a lot of special effects.  These scenes don't look particularly realistic, but they are obviously high quality.  Despite the movie's age, I would put these effects at least on par with the recent Wolfman remake.  It's also nice to see that, in wolf form, David looks like a scary beast.

This movie isn't really scary, but it is definitely gory.  I liked the little touches of humor throughout and like the modern twist on this classic tale.  The soundtrack shows some dark humor, with tracks like "Blue Moon," "Bad Moon Rising" and "Moondance," but I was disappointed that "Werewolves of London" was not included.  Yes, it's obvious, but it's still awesome.  And his hair was perfect.  The humor doesn't detract from the grimness of the tale, with David's death seeming to be the only possible ending to the tale.  While I haven't done extensive research in the werewolf film sub-genre, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is the most entertaining werewolf movie of the past thirty years.

For more opinions on Landis' work, check out the link to some LAMB reviews:
Large Association of Movie Blogs

No comments:

Post a Comment