MOVIES EVERYBODY SHOULD SEE – AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
Regularly here at TWBT we will be discussing a movie we agree everyone should see at some point in their lives. For the most part we will try to avoid the really obvious choices (The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Die Hard, etc) as their reputations are such that if you are at all interested in film you’ll already have seen them, or you will be aware you probably should. In certain cases an obvious classic may be discussed if we think we have something new to say, or just really want to talk about it, but by and large we are looking at films the casual film fan may not have seen. This list will run the gamut as we’ll be looking at older films, foreign films, genre films, cult films, exploring the whole diverse world of the movies.
This weeks entry is…
An American Werewolf in London.
I could listen to the argument that John Landis’ best film is The Blues Brothers. I probably won’t come away agreeing, but i’ll listen all the same. Animal House? I like it, but no. Maybe Trading Places. Maybe. I’ll go as far as to nod if you try and tell me his video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller is his most culturally important work. Beverly Hills cop 3? Get out. No, for me John Landis’ greatest, most lasting work is An American Werewolf in London. And the reason for that all comes down to two scenes. Yes, the two scenes that more than likely immediately spring to mind when the film is mentioned.
American Werewolf… is an all timer, and a movie everybody should see, simply for the transformation scene, and the scene in the porno cinema.
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two nice American boys who are backpacking across England for their vacation. One night, whilst walking across the moors they find a quaint little pub named The Slaughtered Lamb. Eager for food to fill their empty stomachs they hurry in, and are greeted with hostility from the locals. There are ominous warnings and the Americans feel safer on the moors, so they hurry out into the night. That night, lost in the fog, David and Jack are attacked by a huge beast. Jack is killed horrifically. David is mauled. The beast is shot and killed by the locals and the wolf turns back into a man.
David wakes up in hospital weeks later, only to be told there was no beast. He was attacked by a lunatic. But we saw what bit him, and David remembers all to well. He starts having vivid nightmares, which provide the film’s most startling jump scares, and soon starts seeing the decaying visage of his old buddy Jack. Jack tells him what we already know, at the next full moon David will turn.
And then he does. In a scene that remains mind blowing, despite featuring special effects work that is almost thirty five years old. What Landis did sounds obvious in hindsight, but at the time had not been done. He made transforming from a man into a wolf look excruciatingly painful. Bones crack, snap, and reform. David’s back bends almost to the point of breaking as it restructures itself to go from supporting a creature that walks on two legs to one that hunts on four. His head elongates. His joints bend the wrong way. Thick, rough hair forces itself through tender skin. It is as grotesque as it is marvelous.
The transformation is so impressive that werewolf movies to this day don’t really try to top it. They are happy to let it happen off screen because they won’t better American Werewolf…’s iconic scene. The only film to try and come close is Joe Dante’s The Howling, and it is crazily similar (also came out around the same time).
It is worth noting that the transformation doesn’t occur until about an hour in to the movie’s 97 minute run time. Yet at no point does the film drag it’s feet. The time we spend with David as he gets close to Jenny Agutter’s nurse Alex is hugely important. We come to like David, root for him. He’s just a normal dude who was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it is going to cost him everything. Which leads to the next best scene in the movie: The porno theater.
After wolfing out and taking the lives of six innocent people David is confronted with the inescapable truth of what he is. He tries to get himself arrested but the police don’t believe what he is telling them (in kind of a shaky plot point, admittedly – even if they don’t believe he’s a wolf, he’s clearly nuts). But even if he was to get arrested that won’t protect the people locked up with him. Or the souls doomed to limbo until the bloodline of the wolf that killed them is dead. It’s at this point that David sees Jack across the street, waving him over to the porno theater, the See You Next Wednesday.
David heads in and takes a seat beside Jack, who has decomposed to the point of being unrecognisable. But they aren’t alone. All of David’s victims are here. All bloodied and torn to shreds by David the night before. They plead with David to kill himself and then start rattling off the numerous ways he could do it. It is both hilarious and stomach turning-ly unsettling, and goes to show how adept Landis was at mixing horror and comedy. The setting, the awful, stilted porno playing in the background, and the blankly matter of fact way the corpses talk about suicide all add up to laugh out loud moments of black comedy, but David’s very human reaction to all he’s confronted with is heartbreaking. David tries to argue but it’s clear he knows this is the end of road, that he’s out of options. He tries to put a smile on things in front of his friend, but his despair is palpable.
And that is the strength of An American Werewolf in London, it takes these ridiculous, horror standards, the werewolf transformation, and the visit from the ghosts of your past, and forces you to feel the pain and emotion of the moment, while also acknowledging how weird it all is. The closest response to pure horror is hilarity, in that both often result in a total loss of control on our part, and few films understand this better than American Werewolf…
The greatest werewolf movie of all time, and John Landis’ masterpiece.
Further viewing – If you liked An American Werewolf in London then you should check out…
Dog Soldiers (2002) – Neil Marshall’s werewolf movie is one of the better examples of the genre in recent years. It revolves around a group of British soldiers on a training mission in the Scottish highlands who find that the group they expected to rendezvous with has been massacred by something extremely vicious. Guess what it was?
Ginger Snaps (2000) – One of my favorites. Canadian comedy horror (almost all werewolf movies seem to lean towards the comedic) from one of the guys behind Orphan Black. On the night of Ginger’s first period she is attacked by a wolf and soon starts going through serious changes, most notably being her newly found aggressive sexuality. An extremely metaphorical film that deals with puberty, and the bonds of sisterhood in a fun and interesting manner. Little seen but worth seeking out.
The Company of Wolves (1984) – Another largely allegorical film, although this one has even less of a plot than Ginger Snaps. Company of Wolves is largely a dream like series of vignettes revolving around a young girl in red riding hood like attire awakening sexually. This is very much a love or hate it type of movie, but the heightened atmosphere the movie creates is undeniably potent.
Come back next time when we will be discussing another movie everybody should see with Annie Hall.