Thursday, June 2, 2011

"An American Werewolf in London" a horror film worth its salt

TITLE: "An American Werewolf in London"
DIRECTOR: John Landis
STARS: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dune
EDITOR: Malcom Campbell
AWARDS: Best Makeup (Oscar)
BOX OFFICE: $30,565, 292
RUN TIME: 97 min.

"An American Werewolf in London" is a heavily praised work that revolves around David, an American backpacking through England, and his friend Jack. David survives an attack by some sort of large animal, while Jack dies. David wakes up in the hospital, only to be greeted by strange visions and dreams that lead him to believe he is a werewolf. Is he an animal, or is he under some sort of delusion due to the stress of his best friend's death?

The werewolf genre is as old as film. Many entries have helped the masses know one thing: werewolf films will almost always disappoint. Of course, there are some that do not, and among those, "An American Werewolf in London" is almost consistently rated as the best. A strong, character driven story, a new take on the werewolf legend, and the best werewolf makeup ever achieved on film, all give the viewer an unforgettable experience.

John Landis had sat on the script for this film for over 10 years before having the clout to get a budget behind it. After the success of "Animal House" (1978) and "The Blues Brothers" (1980), Universal decided to give Landis' pet script a chance. It was hard to get backing over the years, because his script had been considered too funny for a horror film, and too scary for a comedy. Landis himself has declared that the film is not meant to be a comedy, as it is in fact a horror film, but he hopes there are some funny parts within.

The werewolf legend, which is well known to many a cinema-goer, was rewritten for this film. The werewolf still only appears during a full moon, and is still a somewhat sympathetic monster. This beast has less of a magical quality, with an aversion to silver being written off as a silly idea within the film itself. The big change is that the wolf is haunted by those it kills, whose souls inhabit the Earth in limbo until the wolf is dead. This gives the audience even more reason to care about the main character, who is in fact a murdering monster. The dead, some sympathetic and cordial, some pissed off and angry, continue to give the poor soul more reason to hate itself, and dread the oncoming moon.

Landis called up Rick Baker, who had agreed years before to work on the make up effects for the project, once he got funding. Baker was working on "The Howling" (1981) at the time. Landis was noticeably upset, and Baker left in order to work on Landis' film, leaving his protege, Rob Bottin, in charge of the make up effects for "The Howling."

The make up is where this movie stands out from all other werewolf films. The Academy Awards had previously given out one honorary Oscar to a make up effects artist, William Tuttle for "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" (1964), but 1981 was the first year the Best Makeup category was awarded, with Rick Baker winning for his stunning achievement. The beast is rarely seen in the film, but when it does grace the screen, every second is worth the wait. The transformation sequence is golden, unforgettable, and almost painful to watch. To this day, it is unmatched.

All these parts add up to what is considered by many to be one of the best werewolf, and best horror, films ever made. Its biting dialogue, likable characters, incredible visual effects, and legitimately scary moments guarantee that this film will continue to haunt movie-lovers the world over for generations to come.

"An American Werewolf in London" is not a film I immediately fell in love with. My biggest critique of the film upon first viewing was the lack of monster. It is a monster movie, after all. After watching again, more than a few times, I kept realizing that I was coming back to the movie for more than the wolf.

I think the magic of the film rests in the relationship between David and his dead best friend, Jack. This is not only where the bulk of the humor lies, but also gives the film the perfect way to explain the werewolf lore without sounding forced.

Ultimately, a werewolf film relies on its wolf. The beast in this film is positively frightening. The drawn out transformation is horrifying, and the brutal attacks are well choreographed, photographed, and cut together in a cohesive fashion. Watching it on a 35 mm print this week, I saw so much more than I had ever seen before, and I fell in love with this film even more.

If you are a horror fan, this is an absolute must see. If you don't care for horror, try this one out. It is stand out in the genre, and is a classic in every sense. It is not overly scary, but has enough chills to suffice. Its reliance on characters also puts it high above the tired "slasher" and "gore porn" genres. "An American Werewolf in London" is more than worth your time.

MY IMDb RATING:  8 out of 10

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