By Ron Scalzo
Scary movies can be funny. A little levity certainly never hurts when otherwise subjected to the acts of zombies, vampires, and man-eating Guatemalan cockroaches, no less disturbing scenes of torture and the occasional gruesome death.
“Scary Movies That Are Funny” became a cottage industry with the release of the not-so-funny Scary Movie in 2000 and the much more awe-inspired Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland some years later. But the true golden age of “horror comedy” came two decades earlier with the release of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, the lighter fare of Ghostbusters and Gremlins, and one film that, in spite of its comedic moments, caused a bit of trauma for me, An American Werewolf In London.
Not surprisingly, my father was once again the culprit in turning me on to the film as a kid. But this time he had a co-conspirator: Michael Jackson.
An American Werewolf in London was a bit of an anomaly upon its release – directed by John Landis, whose claims to fame at the time were Animal House and The Blues Brothers – the film was a bold experiment that could easily have gone awry. There were no name actors. David Naughton was most famous for appearing in Dr. Pepper commercials before being cast in the title role.
But Landis’ modern day take on The Wolf Man was a great success, thanks in part to the contributions of makeup artist Rick Baker. The result of the film’s acclaim (Baker won the first Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup) led to Landis and Baker working on the legendary Thriller video with Jackson. I was 8 years old and all in on Michael, Bubbles, Webster, moonwalks, and the now-legendary album.
Thriller‘s title track was my favorite because it was essentially Jacko’s homage to scary movies. It was always on the radio on Halloween night, it featured Vincent Price rapping, and of course there was the video, my first exposure to Landis’ work. Horror may have crept its way into my earlier childhood but raunchy comedies were firmly banned, so I was unaware of the existence of Animal House or The Blues Brothers even if my parents surely were (Mom, in particular, was a big SNL fan).
As with Creepshow, when American Werewolf was released in video stores and on cable, my Dad was eager for me to watch it, but I also had to be prepped. My father was tuned up, describing how a wolf attacks two American tourists, ripping one to shreds and biting the other, causing him to become a werewolf. Dad was particularly jazzed about one of the film’s comedic twists – the dead guy, Jack, keeps showing up as an undead deteriorating corpse to try to convince the survivor, David, to kill himself before the next full moon so he doesn’t change into a beast and kill innocent Londoners.
In front of our living room TV a short while later, the tense buildup of the initial attack indeed resonated. David and Jack are backpacking thru the English countryside and find themselves unwelcome at The Slaughtered Lamb, a tavern inhabited by limeys playing chess, shooting darts, and drinking ale. And what’s that over there on the wall? A candle-lit pentagram scrawled in blood? Well that can’t be good.
Jack gets too inquisitive and the Americans are expelled back to the road during a full moon. Landis’ great use of sound here heightens the tension – the signature howl in any werewolf movie is crucial and I found this one to be a doozy; as does the sound editing – after David falls and Jack goes to help him up, the wolf is upon him mid-sentence, snarling and growling as it overtakes him; and camera movement – the camera acts the part of the wolf, circling the young men thru the fog, following them as they nervously try to get back to the tavern.
I was mesmerized, and I had nightmares for weeks. There is a quick shot where David goes back for Jack and finds a sprawled bloody mess where his friend once was that stuck with me for a long time. The wolf attacks David and is shot down by the limeys, returning to human form, naked and bleeding from his shotgun wounds, and extremely dead – and there you have one hell of an opening.
American Werewolf is probably the first movie I ever saw where a likeable human character is obliterated, no less a few minutes into the movie. I suppose I had a hard time wrapping my head around that at age 8. The fact that Jack returns as a zombie (in a fun performance by the great Griffin Dunne) complicated matters, and this is where disbelief is trumped by parenthood and where “How could that happen?” is defeated by “It’s only a movie.”
The rest of American Werewolf is for adults only, and I recall being told to cover my eyes during the tawdry love scene between Naughton and Jenny Agutter as the nurse who falls for him. Agutter is no joke, a smokin hot British nurse who loves Humphrey Bogart and having her belly button molested by strange American tourists who think they’re werewolves. The film’s setting in Wales and London, plus the use of an all-British supporting cast adds a distinct feel that also made The Wicker Man and Lair of the White Worm effective. The slam-bang soundtrack featuring clever uses of “moon” songs impacted me as a kid too – my Dad was already a big Credence fan, but ‘Bad Moon Rising’ was definitely blasting in our basement more often after American Werewolf came out.
But it’s the fleeting moments of horror that make the film most memorable. Landis veers away from Lon Chaney Land during David’s pre-change nightmares and has Baker flex his special effect muscles in a scene where David is held at knife-point while Nazis in freakish monster makeup senselessly slaughter his entire family without a word – while The Muppet Show blares on the TV, no less – then torch his house and slit his throat. It’s a relentless nightmarish scene, expertly edited, and it’s over in two minutes. David appears as a blue faced, fanged demon in another of his dreams, a split second shot that’s equally nightmare inducing.
It all leads up to the grand finale in which David finally transforms, screaming and snarling over the soothing sounds of Sam Cooke’s “Blue Moon” amongst the quilts, Casablanca posters and ferns in the nurse’s apartment. In the 1980s, being a werewolf is not nearly as glamorous as 40 years before – the transformation is filmed as an excruciating, painful thing, highlighted by Baker’s revolutionary special effects. Baker’s wolf appears as more of a mad dog and the carnage he creates is shown more than the Manimal himself, most prominently when the wolf bolts a theater, biting the head off a police inspector and then causing shockingly real carnage thru Piccadilly Circus.
An American Werewolf In London has its plot holes and Naughton contributes some shallow acting. But the actors are not the focus – we’re not here to see Jack Nicholson become a werewolf (that would unfortunately come later), we’re here for the humor and the beast, and both are blended together perfectly. Undead Jack invites David to meet his victims in a porno theater showing a film called “See You Next Wednesday” and the scene is played for laughs. One of the werewolf’s victims memorably accuses a defensive David of “carnivorous lunar activities.”
As for the film’s love story, however unlikely it may be that a hot nurse in London carelessly decides to take a strange American dude into her home, it adds flavor the film. The fact that said dude keeps mentioning he’ll soon become a monster is probably a bad omen, tho. The police bullets that bring down the beast spare the naive nurse in the end, but not before the two have a quick chat in an alley where the cornered wolf – for a brief moment – appears affected by her words before pouncing. Some cite the ending as cheap and somehow incomplete, as David reverts to his human form in front of his grieving lover, dead amongst a pile of black garbage bags and bleeding to death just as the man who attacked him did at the outset.
But this is how werewolf movies end. The werewolf is killed, and everything else – the nurse’s broken heart, the media outcry, the nameless victims, the culpability of the limeys at The Slaughtered Lamb – it’s all just window dressing. The film is about style, and that’s how it ends – with style. Cue the doo-wop, roll credits. A satisfactory conclusion to one of the great “horror comedies.” Beware the moon.
-Art by Rick Parker
NEXT MONTH: Not a truly great sequel, but one scene where you’re bound to lose your head.