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!
Growing up in an era before streaming and high speed internet, I took my horror wherever I could get it. That usually meant renting a VHS tape from my small town’s corner store, or staying up to watch whatever was on late-night TV. This lead to me starting off a lot of horror franchises with the second installment. I saw Scream 2 before Scream, my first Halloween movie was Resurrection, and one night I ended up watching An American Werewolf in Paris without knowing it was a sequel. It would be over ten years before I finally saw the original, An American Werewolf in London, and it is now one of my favourite horror movies of all time. A movie, I will argue, is one of the best horror movies ever made.
For those who don’t know, An American Werewolf in London is about two American college students who are on a backpacking trip through Europe. Things go awry for them when they are attacked by a werewolf in the English countryside. The lone survivor, David Kessler (played by David Naughton) is brought back to a hospital in London. He is haunted by the spirit of his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne), who did not survive the attack, as well the spirits of his other victims who urge him to commit suicide and break the curse of the werewolf. It’s a wild ride to say the least, and if you haven’t seen it please do yourself a favour: stop reading. Stop reading right now, go find this movie, and watch it. You’ll thank me for it. I certainly regret sleeping on it for so long and I feel it’s my duty to make sure no one else does.
When a friend of mine was selling me on watching American Werewolf, he brought up two key moments as selling points. Moments that I now believe to be two of the greatest in cinema history. They’re up there with the shower scene from Psycho, the reveal of Luke Sykwalker’s true parentage, and whatever it is that makes Citizen Kane so great… Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but they’re wild and turn things up to 11, as Nigel Tufnel would say.
The first moment, obviously, is the Nazi Werewolf massacre of David’s family. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when this scene was written, or pitched, or shot. It blows my mind that this scene exists and I can’t get enough of it. Up until this point you think you’re in a typical werewolf movie, then these SS Nazi Werewolves blast away the typical All-American family who are just chilling in their living room. It turns out to be a dream, a symptom of David’s fragile mental state as he questions his own sanity, but it’s still amazing. It’s really gift to the world that this scene exists at all. If you can’t tell, I love this scene and how it just comes out of nowhere. After that, all bets are off. All you can do is strap yourself in and go along for the ride.
The next moment, the one that elevates American Werewolf into the upper echelons of the horror genre, is David’s initial transformation into the beast. Most monster transformations you see in horror movies are cheated in some way, especially before CGI became commonplace. They use fades and cuts, or have the character obstructed from view in some way. There are plenty of tricks of the trade to make the view believe they are watching some Lycanthropic metamorphosis.This transformation is different though. There are no tricks involved. We aren’t made to believe anything...we see the whole thing. We’re given the entire visceral experience, we feel the pain that David feels as he becomes the creature. It makes you uncomfortable, and it makes you stew in that discomfort as the scene goes on longer than you want it to. That is great horror.
One of the reasons it’s so successful is because of Rick Baker’s masterful work. So masterful, in fact, the Academy essentially created the Best Makeup Oscar so they could give it to him. An award he’s won 7 times now, by the way. Director John Landis wanted to show everything, requiring a huge amount of work to produce, in the end, a fairly short sequence. They shot for six days, five hours a day in the makeup chair for David Naughton, giving them time to only shoot one set up a day. All of that work for two minutes of screen time. But, again, it elevates the entire film and heightens the experience of what comes after. There are just so many cool elements to it too, and you can tell how much work probably went into it. His hands and feet extend, his hair grows, and it all ends with my personal favourite part of the entire sequence, the extending stout completing the transformation. Apparently that shot was done with a puppet after production had wrapped, but it looks cool as hell even if it may be a little dated by today’s standards.
I’ve seen conflicting reports that John Landis regretted showing so much and spending so much time on the scene, but he seemed proud of it on AMC’s History of Horror. Maybe his opinion has changed over the years, or maybe his regrets are just rumours. Either way, the scene is pivotal to making the whole movie work. Without it, a great movie would just be okay and I wouldn’t be writing about it right now. So, there’s at least one person who’s glad he decided to show the entire transformation.
There are many things about An American Werewolf in London that make it a classic. The practical effects, not just during the transformation, but throughout; Griffin Dunne’s performance as the decaying corpse of Jack is on point; the perfectly placed humour compliments the horror elements and lulls the viewer into a false sense of security at the beginning of the movie. I could go on. It all comes together to create one of the best horror movies of all time. Take away the transformation scene though, and you lose a lot of what makes it a great movie. That scene shows just how horrible it is for David to become a werewolf, and informs all the events going forward. We sympathise with him because of his pain. There’s also a bunch of awesome shit like people getting their heads bitten off, prey being stalked through a subway tunnel, and the aforementioned Nazi Werewolf massacre. So, there’s lots of great stuff on the surface, all of which is elevated by the stuff going on underneath the blood and gore. That sympathy we feel for David adds something to the kill scenes, like we’re tormented along with him as he loses control of his actions. That’s just my opinion though, and some may not agree. I don’t really care That being said, its influence on the genre and pop culture in general is undeniable.
An American Werewolf in London led to the creation of an Oscar category, which Rick Baker has dominated over the years. The American Werewolf team also went on to do the music video for Thriller because Michael Jackson was so impressed with the movie, and it’s probably the most iconic music video of all time. Then there’s Rick Baker, who went on to create some of the best practical makeup effects in cinema history, both in the horror genre and in more mainstream movies like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Men in Black, and The Nutty Professor.
Now that you’ve read this all the way through, go watch the movie. Whether it’s your first time or repeat viewing, I think you’ll have a new appreciation for it and just how much hinges on the two minute transformation sequence.
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