Monday, 10 March 2008

An American Werewolf in London


In 1981, two werewolf movies were released --- The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Both were directed by talented genre directors (American Werewolf by John Landis; The Howling by Joe Dante), both successfully mixed comedy and horror, and both featured state-of-the-art special effects (Rick Baker won on Oscar for his Werewolf FX, and a young Rob Bottin created the metamorphoses for The Howling on his way to blowing everyone’s minds with John Carpenter’s The Thing). Everyone who was into horror movies at the time seemed to prefer one over the other. Fact is, they still do. While my preference is for The Howling, I nonetheless think that American Werewolf is a terrific flick.

As a teen-ager, I saw American Werewolf during its initial release. I was visiting a friend who had just left P.E.I. to return to Ontario. My visit to his hometown, Waterloo, became a movie marathon with the two of us taking in everything from Annie (honest to God) through Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing. The highlight, though, was American Werewolf. It doesn’t take much of a trip in the Wayback Machine for me to recall the state of suspense I was in for most of its running time. It’s one of the few instances I can think of when a film’s humour was a welcome relief from its tension.

American Werewolf follows two American backpackers across the moors of England where they are attacked (in a suspenseful scene) by a werewolf. One dies and becomes a fully cognizant zombie (or maybe a ghost?); the other lives and becomes a werewolf. Zombie/ghost (Griffin Dunne) visits werewolf (David Naughton) with dire warnings of what’s to come, eventually trying to encourage the werewolf to commit suicide. Werewolf falls in love with British nurse (Jenny Agutter), complicating things as the body count rises.

Smoothly mixing horror and comedy (no mean feat), there are several outstanding set pieces, a tight script, well-cast affable actors, effective mood-inducing music, and knockout 80s-style special effects. My only negative reactions to the film were that it plays with the concept of the outsider (i.e. foreigners) in interesting ways, but doesn’t really have a pay-off for the concept, and the ending is too damn abrupt. Both minor gripes.

Reflecting on American Werewolf and The Howling, I have to wonder: Are these two films responsible for the way horror films changed at the onset of the 80’s? Did their mix of humour and horror create a whole generation of less successful hybrid? Thinking back, it seems for every Evil Dead and Re-Animator there were ten Troma-style flicks that just couldn’t find the conviction to trust in their fear-generating abilities.