Tuesday, February 23, 2016

From the Rental Vault: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis wrote the first draft of his An American Werewolf in London script in 1969, before he had accomplished much in the movie business. The story was thought to be too funny to make for a good horror movie but too scary for a real comedy, and Landis didn't have the pull to get it on the table.

Fast forward to 1981, after Landis has put together a couple of little movies called Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Suddenly Universal Studios has enough money on hand to help Landis film his "horror comedy" and do it with state-of-the-art production and effects.

David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are two American college students hiking in England. While crossing the North York Moors, they become lost and are attacked by an immense wolf. Jack is killed, and David hospitalized in a coma for three weeks. The police think a deranged killer attacked them, but David remembers a wolf instead. He develops a whirlwind relationship with a nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and goes home with her when released from the hospital. Things seem OK until a ravaged and definitely dead Jack appears to him and warns him: They were attacked by a werewolf, and David will begin transforming with the full moon and continue the deadly cycle. David dismisses the warning as a hallucination. Until he can't any longer.

Landis demonstrates a good deal of wit in his script and dialogue, and Dunne's deadpan (sorry) performance as Jack's decaying friend helps nail down much of the humor. He also takes full advantage of the stereotypical British cheerfully unruffled demeanor -- David's London victims aren't noticeably perturbed by their undead state when they begin to haunt him too, although they do want him to kill himself and release them from their limbo.

Naughton hits a great groove as a man at sea in a different culture -- and then even more at sea when he learns of his lycanthropy. Agutter is sweet, strong and intriguing as Alex. Landis also took the effort to secure the rights to good soundtrack music, acquiring three versions of "Blue Moon" as well as "Bad Moon Rising" for certain scenes. And no few men of a certain age will forever associate Van Morrison's "Moondance" with the love scenes featuring the lovely Ms. Agutter, seen at the appropriate time in life to leave the maximum impression.

Rick Baker's transformation effects, with many techniques shown onscreen for the first time, earned the first-ever Academy Award for Best Make-Up. Werewolf had an OK reception on its release, but has shown itself to have long legs and is one of Landis' most popular movies.

Other aspects of its impact are less impressive, including the 1997 CGI-heavy and character-light sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris. And though Landis successfully mixed horror with comedy by not watering down the horror to get the laughter, dozens if not hundreds of movies exist today that lay claim to both of those genres but lack nine-tenths of Werewolf's wit. Werewolf has laughs in the middle of horror, most of these later movies try to earn their laughs from their horror. The former is edgy; the latter is a condition in the DSM-IV.

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