Wednesday Editor’s Pick: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

by on November 23, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Nov 30 at 6:30 and 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

Get over the post-holiday blues as the John Landis series wraps up at BAM with a deliciously deviant double bill.

Oh for those pre-CGI days…


As Scott Wampler says for Collider:

If you’re not a rabid fan of An American Werewolf in London, well… what can I say? I can’t even begin to imagine such a person, and I wouldn’t want to know them.


Tom Huddleston for Time Out (London):

It’d be interesting to see polling data on how many Brits recall John Landis’s hysterical gore-spattered masterpiece as that all-important rite of passage: their first 18. Well, the folks at the BBFC have ruined all that: in reclassifying the film, they’ve made all our childhoods seem that little bit less dangerous. Which is no reflection on the film: horror-comedy is overfamiliar nowadays, with diminishing returns, but this only makes Landis’s achievement more impressive. Not just gory but actually frightening, not just funny but clever, the soundtrack is astounding, the characterisation is marvellous and the one-liners are endlessly memorable (‘a naked American man stole my balloons!’). A classic, no less.


Mekado Murphy talked to Landis recently for the New York Times:

How do you see “An American Werewolf in London”: Horror? Comedy? Horror comedy?

It still bothers me when people call “Werewolf” a comedy. It’s very funny, and it’s meant to be funny. But it’s not a happy story; it’s a monster movie. And the reason it’s funny is a part of my attempt to make it realistic. Because I discovered that when you are educated and fairly sophisticated, the supernatural does not exist. So what do you do when you’re confronted with it? What people do is they laugh. Their reference is pop culture. But my intention was for the humor to emphasize the scary.


Dan Aries for Lounder Than War:

After a number of portentous visits from his undead friend Jack, David Kessler sits nervously in the living room of his girlfriend’s London apartment, trying to concentrate on the book in his lap.Bobby Vinton’s slow and soothing version of “Blue Moon” plays over the scene as David tries to keep his mind off the warnings Jack has brought him from beyond the grave. Suddenly David clutches his head in agony and falls to his knees, screaming… What follows is two-and-a-half minutes of the most visceral horror cinema ever made as David’s body stretches, contorts, pops and creaks into the form of a bloodthirsty werewolf. His muscles bubble, his bones crack and elongate, and his skull extends into a canine snout as he writhes in the terror and excruciating pain of his own curse.


Amazingly, three decades after Rick Baker’s make-up and special effects set a new benchmark for on-screen lycanthropic transformation, the pivotal scene of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London remains the standard that all other man-to-wolf metamorphoses are judged by. It can be argued even today, as the landmark film celebrates its 30th anniversary, that advances in computer technology would struggle to replicate the authenticity and startling nature of the straining skin, rancid sweat and coarse hair of Baker’s Oscar-winning turn.

“Even by today’s standards, the picture is very, very gory and violent,” Landis says proudly. “At the preview we had about 1000 people show up thinking ‘this is the guy who did Animal House and The Blues Brothers, it’ll be a riot…’ When Jack is killed by the wolf on the moors, about 150 people walked out. Another 200 or so left when he first turned up as a talking, rotting corpse. By the end of the film, there was about 300 people left. So the next night, I addressed the audience and told them that this isn’t Animal House, it’s a shocking, gory horror movie with lots sex and violence so…be warned. And it was a huge hit. The audience just needed to know what to expect.”


The blog CultureSlap:

What we’re left with in surprisingly intelligent comedy with our shocks and horror moments. Instead of cheesy one-liners, the humour comes about via the increasingly terrible moments that David experiences as he begins to realise his new werewolf self. A highlight of the film also comes about via the reappearance of the very dead Griffin Dunne as Jack, who is decaying throughout the film and just sticking around in a bid to get David to kill himself. But of course the big attraction here is the eye candy, special make-up and set piece moments. Whether it’s the transformation sequence (which still looks outstanding today) the increasingly falling apart Jack, the bizarre dream sequence creatures, or the growing list of dead victims, the film just keeps on giving in the looks department. Because of this the film flourishes, with the Piccadilly Circus finale scene still setting a high water mark for any film in the horror genre.


Roderick Heath for Ferdy on Films:

As if deliberately trying to put aside the raucous excess of The Blues Brothers, whilst still invoking some that film’s sheer delight in anarchic forces upturning the status quo, American Werewolf is as tight a piece of moviemaking as any made by an ‘80s Hollywood figure, as Landis wraps the whole thing up in an hour and half. Yet he makes that running time count in evoking powerful atmosphere, jolting brutality, strong characterisation, and a dualistic sensibility that swerves between blackly comic farce and gothic tragedy, in a film that works on several levels. Part of what makes it work is the rigour with which it employs the conceit of placing his haplessly charming, glib, very contemporary young protagonists David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), into a situation that reproduces knowingly familiar clichés of the genre. With the Hammer-esque collection of rubes, including eye-catching Brit character actors like Brian Glover, Rik Mayall, Lila Kaye, and David Schofield in an inn, the film seems geared for satire with the traditional bug eyes, hard glances, and mysterious intonations.
The way Landis alternates between drollery, suspense, and finally bloodcurdling gore seems the result of a curious artistic schism of impulses. On the one hand Landis is well aware of the silliness of the classic horror movies he’s referencing, something his comic side can’t resist lampooning a little, and yet he loves them too, and seeks to recharge their power and validity. He does this by first evoking classical tropes for building atmosphere – the blasted locale, the enveloping weather, the xenophobic tension of the villagers, the roaming unseen beast – and contrasting it with the sceptical sensibility of the young Americans for whom everything is a bewildering, absurdist trial, and the exaggeration of the alienating locals. Then we get a dose of modern movie violence far beyond the reach of George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) and Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), both referenced in the course of Landis’ film. Consistently humor is used to anticipate and disarm our prior knowledge of the genre and the situations; to gain a deeper sympathy for the characters (their humorous reactions are ours); and to aid the anticipation of the reversion to violence. The jokey pop music alternates with an ornately swooning score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Landis sustains it for the most part. Landis wasn’t actually the first to try it: the previous year’s The Howling, made by Dante and his screenwriter John Sayles, had made a similarly dualistic hash of the werewolf mythos. Where Dante’s film jokingly undermined psychiatry and New Age philosophy with its eruptive emanations of the primal, however, Landis uses the werewolf motif rather to evoke a distress based in ethnic identity and lingering anxieties of history, as well, of course, as the traditional fear that within a good man might dwell a destructive monster.


One of Landis’ most cunning touches is to make the werewolves, glimpsed in darting, rapidly edited lunges, properly terrible in their ferocity, and indeed they remain, in my experience, the most genuinely ferocious lycanthropes ever glimpsed in a movie, with the innovative idea of rejecting anthropomorphism and rendering them instead as massive beasts utterly inimical to any human presence. This edge of the genuinely implacable gives the horror a frisson that properly offsets the comedy. There’s also a certain thematic rhyme with Taxi Driver, a different kind of marauding beast in the big city still nonetheless feeding on a diet of porn and rage.



Craig Hubert talks to Landis, who is even incredulous BAM is screening his ultra-obscure trailer reel Coming Soon, for BOMBblog:
CH I wanted to ask you about this thing they’re showing in the program called Coming Soon (1982).

JL I’m shocked they are showing it. That was the very first thing ever made specifically for home video. It’s just a bunch of trailers and making-of’s cut together.


CH I saw bits and pieces of it, and I saw it has those classic Hitchcock trailers that he is featured in, where he walks through the set.

JL The thing about trailers is they were an art form. No longer—now it’s all down to marketing. Also, the studios, many times, they would use alternate takes for the trailers. Did you know that? They used to use unprinted takes because they didn’t want to fuck with the negative.


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