Saturday, June 6, 2009

Film #132: An American Werewolf in London

In the early 1980s, there were few American directors whose style was as crunchy as John Landis'. It's difficult to explain what I mean by the term "crunchy"--I just know it's the correct word to describe many of the movies Landis made from 1977 to 1992. The only times he failed us were with the unbearable Spies Like Us, the equally awful Sly Stallone vehicle Oscar and his merely bland but hugely costly episode for Twilight Zone: The Movie. But the period's good stuff far outweighs the bad: Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Michael Jackson's Thriller, Into the Night, Three Amigos, Coming to America, and Innocent Blood. All are primo American comedies of the 1970s and 80s. Actually, along with Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Albert Brooks and maybe Zucker/Abrams/Zucker (Airplane, Top Secret) and Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Ghostbusters), he's one of the era's top comedy autuers. But, honestly, if we're to look closely at Landis' work, he's as much a director of musicals as comedies. Of course, Michael Jackson's Thriller is his purest musical, and now with the death of the King of Pop, it may be his most pored-over film. But then consider Otis Day (in real life, he's Lloyd Williams) and the Knights singing "Shama-Lama-Ding-Dong" and "Shout" in Animal House; James Brown rocking the cathedral, Aretha Franklin tearing apart her diner, and Ray Charles moving the crowds in The Blues Brothers; the tuneful Randy Newman numbers Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase perform in Three Amigos; and the energetic African dance number in Coming to America. With this, and the colorful music-based sequences in many of his other films (including American Werewolf), Landis is very much a musically-minded director.

I guess if I'm to look into my heart, the word "crunchy" really refers primarily to Landis' cutting methods. Whether working with editors George Folsey Jr. or Malcolm Campbell, his films always display the unmistakable branding of post-production expertise. Landis' editing, more so than that of most directors, has a palpably mathematical quality about it. It swiftly gets us in and out of scenes, often with a barely registered punchline or an extra shock to the system before we go. And it thrives on juxtaposing chaos with calm. Look at the insane ending to The Blues Brothers--that off-screen clicking of a hundred guns, and then we cut to that quiet shot of Jake and Elwood at the firing end of an impossibly well-placed number of gun barrels. Or look at Animal House, where we have all this wackiness ensuing outside and then we get a quick, calm look at Flounder (Stephen Furst) asking a store cashier "Can I have a thousand marbles, please?" Or how, right in the middle of the horrifying transformation scene in American Werewolf, Landis humorously cuts to a short insert of the scene's only witness: a grinning Mickey Mouse figurine.

There are a lot more moments like this in American Werewolf, a movie that registers as Landis' best. It's funny, but it's also extremely terrifying--often very much in the same frame. Length-wise, at 97 minutes, it's the director's most economical work (his movies tend to run a little longer than necessary). American Werewolf tells a simple story, effectively, and then gets right on out of there. With its dismaying final shot, and the bouncily-scored credit crawl that instantaneously follows it up, it's a movie that delightedly sucker-punches us and then darts laughing down the street.Perhaps American Werewolf's most surprising element is its sweetness. In fact, one could say that Landis movies often take us aback with moments of unexpected sentiment. My favorite scene in The Blues Brothers has Jake, recently released from prison, falling instantly asleep on Elwood's tenement bed. Elwood hollers "Hey, you sleaze! That's my bed." And then Elwood, glad to see his brother again, covers him up and continues cooking toast over a Sterno flame. And I'm always soothed by how much I adore the romantic elements in Animal House, Coming to America, and Trading Places. However, even within this pantheon, the connection enjoyed by the American Werewolf leads is really something special.

Former Dr. Pepper spokesman and star of ABC's disco-themed sitcom Makin' It David Naughton plays an average guy wandering through the British countryside with his best friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). They're first seen getting off a truck with a bunch of sheep on it ("Goodbye, girls!" Jack says as the truck pulls off). It's telling--thought the boys sadly don't get it--that the only establishment they spot to duck into is called The Slaughtered Lamb. Taking refuge from the cold moors, David and Jack instantly suss out that they're unwelcome outsiders here, particularly when they ask about the creepy pentagram painted on the walls. This stuns the rowdy crowd of British townies into silence, and the two friends feel prodded into escape (after they're gone, the pub's patrons argue about whether they should have insisted they stay, even though they DO warn them to keep to the roads).

It's after they start hearing pained howls underneath the light of a full moon that David and Jack notice they haven't stayed on the roads ("Oops," Jack says). In a sickening, disorienting sequence, the friends run round directionless for a few minutes before realizing they've been spotted by something (the camera eerily sets itself in front of them). And then the carnage begins. For a movie that's billed as a comedy, this scene--like many more that will follow it--is brutal and unsettling, and gamely lets the horror movie element take hold. (SPOILER ALERT!) Jack's death is sudden, bloody, and frantic. But David survives, passing out after the townies pump buckshot into this gigantic wolf that's attacked them.

David wakes up in a London hospital with Alex (Jenny Agutter) as his instantly smitten nurse. He is feverish and slashed up, and drifts in and out of fitful sleeps where he has some potent nightmares (these are some of the film's best scenes, and if you haven't seen it, I'll do you a favor by shutting up). David also starts getting visits from the dead and decaying Jack (to me, Rick Baker's oozing, meaty work on Dunne's once-pretty face is really what won him the Oscar, the first competitive one for makeup, in 1981). Jack pleads with David to off himself, to spare the lives of others he's bound to kill, because now he is a werewolf, and we all know what that means. But David thinks he's merely going crazy, and he doesn't take Jack's advise to heart. In fact, upon his release, David finds he has something more to live for when Alex saucily invites him to stay with her for a while. This sparks a relationship that's tender and sexy--we like these two people together--and this inclusion of a bit of heart in the story pays off later in unexpectedly touching ways. David Naughton only appeared in a few more forgettable movies after American Werewolf, but he makes an brave impression here as a complete innocent to whom fate has been unkind. This may be the best portrayal of a lycanthrope ever (his piercing screams during the demanding transformation scene--set incongruously to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising"--convince us that turning into a werewolf is quite a bit more painful than the serene lap-dissolves we were once familiar with from movies like the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man of the 1940s). Of course, Baker's work here is magnificent, and inventive (the close up of the hair sprouting from David's skin was achieved by pulling on the strands from behind the patch of flesh-like latex and then running the footage backwards). But it's Naughton's performance that terrifies us (I love it when, in mid-transformation, David's human side makes a final appearance when he apologizes to the dead Jack for calling him "a walking meat loaf"). There are many amazing set pieces strewn about here: the stalking of a London businessman in a deserted tube station; the lovely, lathery shower David and Alex take together, set to Van Morrison's "Moondance"; the convention of the dead in a Leicester Square porno house (which plays a funny sex film called "See You Next Wednesday," a title phrase that's strangely appeared in numerous Landis movies); the aformentioned nightmares; the morning after, when David finds himself in the buff and penned up with a pack of wolves at the London Zoo (a scene that culminates with the immortal line "A naked American man stole my balloons"); and, perhaps most stultifying, the visceral car-crash chaos that erupts when the werewolf hits the busy British streets. These scenes, plus the perturbing, over-too-quick finale and the gorily amusing moments featuring the rapidly rotting Dunne (who should have gotten a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), help insure An American Werewolf in London won't be sinking into obscurity any time soon.


MovieMan0283 said...

I am making the rounds to remind everyone about the "Reading the Movies" exercise I started. I'm going to compile everyone's lists into one master list in a week or two, so jump in! The original post can be found here:


Dead Pan said...

I have actually yet to see this classic, enjoyed your thoughts on it though. In the beginning, however, when you mention the era's comedy autuers, wouldn't you be missing out on Mel Brooks and Ivan Reitman?

Dean Treadway said...

You're so right Dead Pan. I feel dumb forgetting both those names. The correction has been made! Thanks for the reminder!

Must Love Movies said...

picture #5 is great!