HorrorFest 2009: ‘An American Werewolf In London’

10.07.09 8 years ago 6 Comments

Universal Home Video

Welcome to HorrorFest 2009.

You can blame Belfast, Danny McBride, and Universal Studios for the fact that I’ve gotten off schedule on this one.  I was doing just fine at Fantastic Fest, but this week’s travel has well and truly screwed with my system, and I am barely able to tell up from down at this particular point in time.

When I am back in LA, I will be working to catch up and make sure that at the end of this month, there are 31 entries in this year’s HorrorFest for you to enjoy.  I’ve got at least the first 14 planned out already, and notes are made, and reviews are in progress.  Some of them are films I saw at Fantastic Fest.  Some are new BluRays or DVDs that have been sent for review.  And towards the end of the month, I’ll bust out a few classics that I don’t feel get their fair due, and we’ll discuss those, too.

Today, though, I am inspired both by the recent BluRay release and by yesterday’s tourist drive through the lovely green hills of Northern Ireland to write about one of my all-time favorite horror films, a movie that I have somehow avoided writing about for the last 14 years I’ve been online.  Crazy.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a fan of the film for so long that it feels like a given to me, something so fundamental that explaining it is pointless.  But that’s lazy thinking on my part.  The movie is 28 years old at this point, older than some of you reading this.  So why not take advantage of the moment and this particular series of articles to finally put down some of my thoughts about the film?

[more after the jump]

The horror-comedy, as I’ve written here before, seems to be one of the most difficult hybrids of genre to pull off, which makes “American Werewolf” feel like a bit of a miracle.  John Landis wrote the script for the film when he was 19 years old, and in all the best ways, it feels like it.  There’s a loose sort of inspired fearlessness to the way Landis blends the laughs and the screams, and it feels like a young man, refusing to play by rules. 

There’s a natural, relaxed quality to the comedy between Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton), two American friends on a backpacking trip through England.  Landis takes his time setting up the film, more intent on setting up the friendship first.  It helps that Dunne and Naughton are perfect together, and by the time they find themselves alone on the moors, warned full well by a pub full of people hiding a secret to stay off of the moors, we are invested in them as people, not just as red meat to be butchered for the sake of cheap thrills. 

What happens to Jack and David is awful, and Landis never shies away from the blood.  He also doesn’t seem to revel in it.  It’s one of the few gore-heavy horror films I can think of where the filmmaker never seems to be taking any direct pleasure in the blood.  He plays it for dark laughs a few times (Jack and the dead folks in the porno theater, for example), but even in those scenes, he keeps bringing it back to the reality of what we’re looking at and the ungodly trauma of the werewolf attacks.  Jack is killed by the wolf on the moors, which is shot dead by the locals before it can do more than take a chunk out of David.  As a result, David finds himself cursed, doomed to change into a werewolf at the next full moon, and Jack finds himself undead, unable to move on until the wolf’s bloodline is broken.  As in, David has to kill himself.

There’s not much more to the narrative than that, but Landis isn’t worried about plot so much as character and creating a reality.  He is aided tremendously by the Oscar-winning make-up work by Rick Baker, Super Genius (TM).  Watching the film on BluRay, I’ll admit that some of the small seams in Baker’s work are more visible than ever before, but that doesn’t take away from the amazing artistry of what he did at all.  I sort of wish Landis and Baker hadn’t copied their work in this film for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” because it sort of negates some of the impact of the first major transformation in the movie.  When it was first released, there’d never been anything like it, and even today, what makes it work is how personal it all feels.  The pain of hearing bones realign themselves in the bdy, the extreme heat caused by the metabolic shift… it’s very real, and it makes you consider just how terrifying it would be to be trapped on the inside of a change like this.

The other thing that really helps is the relationship between a nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter) and David, who meets her while he’s in the hospital after his first attack.  She’s not sure why she’s drawn to this American boy, but they develop a quick connection, and when things go truly wrong for David, the toll it takes on Alex is one more way Landis keeps the film working on a human level, and not just as a horror exercise.

I love the left turns Landis takes in the movie, the digressions.  I love the way he carefully paces the movie, making sure to always keep you wanting more.  Even the way he only reveals the werewolf’s full form a wee little bit at a time is very smart, even after the full-body transformation that takes place in front of our eyes.  There’s a subway chase that is terrifying, and there’s only one brief glimpse of the wolf in the entire sequence, but it’s just right.  I love the use of pop songs featuring the world “moon,” and his use of “Moondance” in particular has always floored me.

More than anything, though, I respect and love the ending of the film.  Landis remembers the first and most important rule of a true horror film, one that I think most filmmakers forget:  horror films should horrify.  They are not comfort food.  They should not make you feel better.  They should not wrap everything up in a bow and reset so the heroes all go home happy.  Horror and tragedy go hand in hand, and the ending of “An American Werewolf In London” blew my mind when I was eleven yeas old, seeing it for the first time.  It’s bleak.  It’s unforgiving.  And it’s absolutely right.  And no matter how many genuine laughs there are in the film, there are no laughs at the end.  Just a series of broken people, damaged by their encounters with one another, and a terrible sadness left behind.

I think I just convinced myself to watch it again when I get home.

“An American Werewolf In London” is currently available on DVD and Bluray.

HorrorFest 2009 runs every day of October 2009.

#0: “What is HorrorFest?”

#1:  “[REC] 2”

#2: “Macabre”

#3: “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark”

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