It’s WEREWOLF WEEK on Horror Bound! Why? Because WHY NOT?! Werewolves never get as much love as Zombies or Vampires and we’re here to bring them more attention. All of this week we’ll be pumping out werewolf themed content. Join us all over social media as we celebrate!
How did a young director known for comedy go on to create one of the most iconic werewolf movies of our generation?
It wouldn’t be Werewolf Week without spotlighting some of our favorite classic films starring lycanthropes. So, I wanted to go back and screen one of John Landis’ first and most influential movies, 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. Let’s see how it went, shall we.
You’d have to go back as far as 1941’s The Wolf Man to find a werewolf film as important as An American Werewolf in London. Let’s face it, here at the site, we’re all kind of in agreement that good werewolf movies are hard to find. For every The Howling, there’s a Wolf and a Cursed (again, my opinion, so no hate mail please). But An American Werewolf in London was ground breaking on so many levels. It wasn’t just a good werewolf movie; it was a good movie in general, loaded with all the things one would want in a good motion picture: action, scares, romance, performances, effects, etc. During a time when the slasher was all the rage at the box office, Landis gave us a damn good monster movie.
Let’s start with my favorite subject, the script. Putting two American college students on a hiking trip across a foreign land will always leave them vulnerable to all manner of horrors without the assistance of any other friends or family to offer help or a shoulder to lean on. This storytelling device would later open the doors for the horror road movie genre that would later be found in films such as Hostel and Afflicted. The idea of being a “Stranger in a Strange Land” has always created an instant sense of unease and anxiety; not knowing where you are or where to go for help or who you can trust. All these elements make for a very scary situation.
Then there’s the comedic aspect that runs through the length of the whole film. Of course, this is due in part to Landis’ prior experience in toilet humor comedy like that of Animal House and probably couldn’t help himself. But more significant is how this mix of humor and horror becomes the impetus leading to other uses of comedy in the genre such as the wisecracking Freddy Kruger or the ridiculously hilarious kills that would later be the raison d'etre for attending future Friday the 13th films. Can it even be considered Black Comedy? Maybe. This film’s importance in the history of horror is so far reaching that, yeah, maybe we can call it that as well.
But you can’t talk about American Werewolf’s significance in the annals of horror movie history without discussing the contributions of the incomparable Rick Baker and his revolutionary make-up effects. The transformation in An American Werewolf in London utilized some of the most cutting-edge technology (for the times, that is) and established somewhat of a benchmark for werewolf transformations and werewolf films in general. In a 2001 interview Baker recollects the use of “mechanisms” underneath the various makeup appliances, which we might refer to now as animatronics or even crude robotics. So agonizingly detailed is the transformation that it takes up an entire two plus minutes of screen time from beginning to end. Stranger still, from a plot perspective, this transformation occurs two thirds of the way through the film, which to some filmmakers is unheard of. Rick Baker’s work in American Werewolf would garner him his first (of many) Oscars for make-up during the inaugural year the category was introduced into the Academy.
But, to me, one of the most interesting things about the film and what appeals to me most is the conflict our protagonist faces. You see, there are no hordes of villagers hunting him down, nor some fanatical detective determined to solve some obsessive case. No, the real villain in this movie is our protagonist himself. Once David believes he is indeed this horrible creature that will run rampant on the night of the full moon, he suffers with the moral dilemma of how he can stop himself. He doesn’t want to be a monster; he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Enter his undead besty, Jack, who frequently appears to David in varying states of decay to try and convince David to commit suicide. Jack is David’s Jiminy Cricket, his conscience. Unfortunately, before David can come to this conclusion on his own, he transforms once again and is finally cornered by the police, where he meets his tragic end. I say tragic, because it is. In a last-ditch effort to reach David, in his wolf form; nurse Alex confesses her love to the creature, only to be met with an instinctual death lunge before police can stop David in his tracks with a fury of gunfire. Finally leaving the viewer with the devastating revelation that the wolf was indeed all animal, driven by animalistic urges, with no trace of the human, David Kessler, trapped within.
That’s what makes An American Werewolf in London so special: It’s a horror film that explores the dark side that may lie within each and every one of us. Rarely does the Man vs. Self story work in popular culture, but with horror especially, it seems more of an apt fit than with any other genre.
Of course, we know Landis would go on to have a very successful career writing, directing, and producing a ton of hits, including more genre work in the film Twilight Zone, Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller video, as well as two episodes in Mick Garris’ short lived cable series, Masters of Horror. Rick Baker’s legendary career needs no further mention here as he went on to win six more Oscars after his work in American Werewolf, as well as four Saturn awards and three BAFTA awards.
Unfortunately, a sequel entitled An American Werewolf in Paris was released in 1997, of which Landis is only credited for writing because of the film’s use of characters based on ones he created. Besides that, there really is no other creative staff from the original involved in the sequel. The filmmakers of the sequel also opted for the use of predominantly CGI in its depiction of the title character. I’m sure all of these reasons combined constitute its metacritic.com score of 31.
But enough on that movie. For its groundbreaking makeup effects, sympathetic characters, exotic locale, and dark comedy, we here at Horror Bound salute you, John Landis and Rick Baker, and your tiny little horror movie, An American Werewolf in London, forever etched into the history books of horror.
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