Forty Years On and Werewolves are Still Cool
Posted by marandina on Fri, 19 Mar 2021
Time waits for no man and there’s nothing that marks the advancing years more noticeably than a movie. Some hold up well; others not so much. A genre where this is as relevant as any other is horror. “An American Werewolf in London (1981)” is a seminal offering directed by John Landis. When backpackers Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) and David Kessler (David Naughton) take refuge at “The Slaughtered Lamb” – an inn in the deepest, bleakest part of the Yorkshire Moors, their young lives take a turn for the bizarre. On leaving, they wander off road (despite numerous warnings already to stay on t’road) and into the mist bound wilds where a beast lurks ready to wreak havoc.
Forty years on and the film holds up well. The scene in the pub early on where the two boys enter and the whole place goes silent is now something of a cliché but it’s part of the film making furniture. It’s something of an oddity seeing Rik Mayall (The Young Ones) seated at a table, constantly leering but without a word of script to say as a bald Brian Glover (Kes, Tetley Tea voiceover) gets the sinister, apocalyptic stuff to spout against a backdrop of unhelpful landladies and disaffected darts players. I have thought of this scene every, single time I have entered a rural pub setting for the last four decades expecting all chatter to stop as I walk through the door followed by locals giving each other sideways glances and foreboding stares.
The movie is probably best known for Rick Baker’s award winning creature effects that account for, in particular, a memorable transformation scene where Kessler undergoes the painful process of becoming the titular monster. Moreover, the chase scene in the London Underground now belongs in folklore and accounts for many a lingering fear of being down in a tube station at midnight. As with many effective horror flicks, the threat is largely inferred as the camera tracks the victim through bricked passageways, werewolf howling menacingly. It’s only in the closing frames that the viewer sees the snarling pursuer seen from the top of the escalator using a long shot, the suited City gent now prostrate on his back, briefcase and papers sprawled over the moving stairs as his terrified eyes linger on the camera. Cut!
Horror movies often work best when they don’t take themselves too seriously. Black humour abounds under the crafted guise of Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), often with Jewish overtones. There’s a scene where Kessler, having been on the rampage the night before, wakes in a zoo caged with wolves. Finding himself naked, he hurriedly exits via torn fencing and ends up hiding in a bush beckoning a school boy to sell him the balloons he’s holding. Cue a comic sequence of an American tiptoeing back to sanity, eventually wearing a freshly pinched, lady’s coat that attracts curious looks at the bus stop. In these enlightened times, there may not be such a strong assumption that this is outside the accepted parameters of normality but you can see what the gag was meant to be back then.
Of course, the musical score is now the stuff of legend. Different versions of “Blue Moon” (Bobby Vinton, San Cooke, The Marcels) provide the lunar, lycanthrope theme along with “Moondance” by Van Morrison and “Bad Moon Rising” from Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s inspirational stuff partly covering over the cracks of some pretty ordinary acting (see Leicester Squares sequence with Kessler trying to get himself arrested with forgettable dialogue and some rather lame British-centric/Royal Family orientated insults).
No celluloid creation is impervious to dating. There’s a distinct lack of mobile phones and beat bobbies wear traditional policeman’s helmets that renders the film something of an artefact as the years wear on. The multiple car crash sequence at the finale probably belongs more to the Blues Brothers auto wars from the previous year.
Some of the traditions of yesteryear are dispensed with as the link between silver infused objects as a modus operandi for dispatching werewolves is broken. It’s a far cry from Lon Chaney Junior’s “The Wolf Man (1941)” with a pack of testosterone fuelled shooters with shot guns enough to put down the crazed lupine in this latest incarnation. You could be forgiven for wondering why the hitchers are cast out into the portentous countryside at the start to face their fate when all that’s needed is a few rifles to put down the lunar lunatic but then suspension of belief is integral to many a dark tale.
Things have moved on since this flick was made. Michael J fox took things to a comic level with “Teen Wolf (1985)” and the TV series adaptation with the same name that ran for six seasons from 2011 elevated werewolf lore to yet more complicated strata with a panoply of MOs to mitigate the existential assault on Beacon Hills, California (the town hospital undergoes one, long bloodbath after another).
“An American Werewolf in London” remains a much loved chapter in the ongoing evolution of the creature feature. It might be knocking on a bit now as the years roll by but it’s still well worth a watch. There’s gore a plenty, nudity and a dodgy porn flick towards the end with a small army of the undead watching on in the cheap seats so it’s not one for the kids. Time waits for no wolf but it can advance somewhat slowly with some productions aging like a fine wine wearing peeling prosthetics.
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