1981 was the year of the werewolf, with An American Werewolf In London and The Howling using ground-breaking, spectacular effects to transform the subgenre forever. Rick Baker and Ron Bottin each worked their respective magics to advance the werewolf transformation in leaps and bounds from the techniques that had preceded them. No longer did a character flop down into a chair and remain motionless while a series of static shot dissolves changed them from average man to snarling beast.
Now there was a vibrancy long missing from the werewolf film, as bones broke and elongated, skin stretched like taffy, and tooth and nail became rending tools to accommodate the lupine shift of persona.
While the debate could be endless over which transformation was more effective, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Rick Baker with the very first Outstanding Achievement In Makeup for his work in An American Werewolf In London.
And while I enjoy both films, I definitely have a preference for An American Werewolf In London.
First of all, that is one of the GREATEST teaser trailers of all time. I've always loved trailers which are original pieces of work, instead of assembled footage of the final film -- and this one is perfect -- creepy and iconic.
Because of its special effects, An American Werewolf In London will always be remembered for its place as the starting line of modern special effects (not that The Howling's Rob Bottin should be considered the loser in the two man race. Only a year later, his stunning work on John Carpenter's The Thing broke even more new ground -- and I consider the film to be the greatest special effects movie of all time), but the film is a great one because of the invention of its director, John Landis.
While Landis is always referred to as a Master Of Horror, only 8 of his 41 listed credits as director on IMDB fall into the category of horror. The rest are primarily comedies, with films like Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places featuring prominently on his resume. And despite AAWIL's place as a classic (Empire Magazine named it the 107th greatest film of all time in 2008), the film initially had trouble securing financing because of Landis' comedic skills -- as executive considered it simultaneously too funny for a horror film, and too scary for a comedy. It wasn't until after the releases of Animal House and The Blues Brothers that his box office success earned the film a green light.
Ironically, it is the comedy present in the film that makes AAWIL such a terrifying experience.
David Naughton's character of David Kessler is absolutely likable, his upbeat demeanor (even in the aftermath of his nightly killing sprees) a far cry from Lon Chaney Jr.'s morose Larry Talbot.
From the opening scene, we immediately like David and Jack, two Americans backpacking it across Europe. It's immediately evident that it's a much colder and dreary experience than the two of them anticipated, but they keep in good spirits with the ball-busting banter of good friends.
Following an awkward encounter in a local pub, cheerily named The Slaughtered Lamb, the two are quite literally thrown to the wolves, as the locals cast them back out into the night, well aware that something is prowling about on the moors.
And only fourteen minutes into the film, Jack is ripped to pieces. Only a few seconds before, he and David (as us as well) share a laugh as David trips and goes sprawling on his ass. And as Jack reaches out to help him up...
I'm a big fan of movie scores. Just ask my love, Amanda -- who will happily tell you that all I listen to are movie scores and Black Sabbath and 50's Rock and Roll. I would love to tell you she's exaggerating...but she isn't.
And I mention this only because, even with the great Elmer Bernstein at his disposal, Landis chose to present that scene sans score. There are only two sounds of great note -- one is the iconic cry of the werewolf, unlike anything heard before or since; and the other is Jack's bloodcurdling screams. There's no need to accentuate anything with score (although the film has it's share of Bernstein's genius -- one that has been criminally devoid of an official release. Come on, La-La Land Records, I'm looking at you again). In lesser hands, the lead-up to Jack's demise would have been punctuated by musical hand-holding, with a score telling us to get ready...something scary is about to happen.
But without that prompting, while the scene has its more than fair share of suspense (after all, it has two guys out alone on the moors, while an unseen, snarling thing circles closer and closer), when the thing suddenly knocks Jack to the ground and starts mauling him, the initial reaction is one of absolute shock.
One of the things that AAWIL is famous for is the following dream sequence --
You think it's over...and then it's not.
Landis does the same thing much earlier on, with the death of Jack. David falls down. Ha-ha, nothing to worry about, then...WHAM -- and Jack has one of the most visceral, gun-punching deaths in all of horror.
But the good news...is that it's not the end of Jack --
"Can I have a piece of toast?"
Jack is back, and (with the equally brilliant, but less heralded work of Rick Baker) is a fucking mess.
Now, I'm not going to get into a debate over wether Jack is real or a figment of David's guilt-ridden imagination (I'll let the Film School Did Alfred Really See Bruce Wayne At The End Of The Dark Knight Rises Circle Jerk handle that one). I think he's really there for David to see, but ultimately, who cares?
The key is that the banter continues. Jack is literally gallows humor in the flesh -- a flesh that will continue to be in a state of further putrification each time we see him.
So David thinks he may be a werewolf. Who's he going to talk to about it? And who's going to believe him? Dr. Hirsch? Alex Price? (who, for those of you keeping score, was played by the stunning Jenny Agutter. I first saw the film on home video, probably around 1982 or 1983, and for a thirteen year old boy whose body was just dipping its toes into the pond of hormonal change, a transition that equals if not betters any lycanthropic transformation, Jenny Agutter was a HOLY GODDAMN epiphany)
Dr. Hirsch slowly comes around to it, after his own expedition to The Slaughtered Lamb. But Alex likes David too much to think that he could be anything else other than the charming man she's smitten with.
But Jack is a big fucking believer. David is certainly preaching to the converted, so to speak.
So Jack is gallows humorist/confidant/sponsor, as he spells it all out for David. We don't need an Abraham Van Helsing of Dracula, nor a Maleva of The Wolfman to grimly explain the nitty-gritty dressed up in science and superstition. David has his best friend to do it for him.
Well, he has Jack and the ever-expanding members of the David's Killings Bloodline Club to do it --
In the end, the end the bloodline option is out of David's hands. After his final transformation, David goes on the prowl right through the heart of Picadilly Circus, a rampage that starts with an awesome beheading of werewolf of the douchebag police inspector -- one of the only characters that we really don't like.
The creature is cornered in a dead end, with an army of armed police waiting to gun him down. But Alex breaks through their barricade, and confronts the beast, who she now knows is David.
She implores him to let her help him, and tells him that she loves him.
The beast's fearsome expression softens. Perhaps she has gotten through to the man inside, and there is a way to--
And the creature, snarling, leaps at her...
The cul de sac is filled with the thunder of gunfire, and the beast falls, once again David -- and before we can absorb this, to get over the shock, to perhaps mourn the loss as we look on the stricken Alex...
As the Marcels launch into Blue Moon -- credits...
Landis has knocked us right out of our fucking chair, hit us in the face with a pie, sprayed it off with a blast of seltzer water, and as we stare up at him in horror, he exclaims --
"Come on, that was fucking hilarious!"