Saturday, October 16, 2010

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #1: An American Werewolf in London

There’s a scene about halfway through John Landis’s ‘An American Werewolf in London’ where American backpacker David Kessler (David Naughton) – the survivor of a wolf attack on barren North English moor and latterly the victim of ghostly visitations by a victim of said lycanthrope – tries to convince kindly nurse and potential new girlfriend Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) that his injuries are coterminous with feral behaviour come the full moon. She responds with the calm rationality of any good healthcare professional (which is to say, she doesn’t believe him). Frustrated, trying to find a way of explaining the situation, he clutches at a filmic analogy: “Have you ever seen ‘The Wolfman’?”

“With Oliver Reed?” she asks.

Shaking his head, he counters that he’s referring to the Bela Lugosi/Lon Chaney Jnr/Claude Raines original, but before he’s two sentences into a plot synopsis Alex is giggling at the absurdity of it.

For me, this moment nails the charm and brilliance of the film. Because I have absolutely no doubt that if David had replied, “Yeah, the one with Oliver Reed”, Alex would have nodded seriously and urged him to continue. For all that ‘An American Werewolf in London’ has “werewolf” in the title, starts with a wolf attack, throws in a totally fucked up dream sequence involving werewolves with submachine guns in German uniforms, and features a full-on transformation sequence followed by plenty of bloody lycanthropic mayhem, what it’s really about is the culture clash.

As a Brit, I often cringe when films by American directors are set in Britain and every fucking shot of London features Tower Bridge, Big Ben, the South Bank, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Dome or the Millennium Eye. It’s akin to someone shooting a film in my home town of Nottingham and every exterior featuring the Robin Hood statue, Nottingham Castle and Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (one of the oldest pubs in the UK). Yes, all of those things are an integral part of the place, but they shouldn’t be taken as utterly representative of it.

‘An American Werewolf in London’ takes a good 20 minutes to even get the luckless David to the capital city, and when it does his first experience of the metropolis is a functional bed in an antiseptic hospital. The only concession to fantastyland is to have a nurse who looks like Jenny Agutter take a fancy to him! (This would normally be the point at which this review veers off into a 2,000 word appreciation of Ms Agutter, only I don’t want to get divorced so I’ll let it go. Suffice it to say, keep an eye out for tomorrow’s Something For The Weekend gallery.)

From hereon in, the London that David moves through – first as a bemused foreigner, later as a feral beast – is a milieu of nondescript terraces, shadowy and litter-strewn alleyways, grubby phone boxes graffiti’d with “Sex Pistols”, seedy adult cinemas and crowded journeys on the Underground, the carriages packed with dour businessmen and aggressive-looking punks. The only vaguely touristy shot in the whole film relegates Tower Bridge to the background while a group of winos in a scrapyard warm themselves around a brazier.

But it’s not all grim locations, lopped off heads and fucking big teeth. ‘An American Werewolf in London’ is often outright hilarious. From David and Jack (Griffin Dunne)’s bickering as they hike across the moors to the (in)hospitality of the landlady and regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb (greatest pub name ever!), from David’s naked escape from a zoo to the inspired absurdity of a group of undead victims confronting their killer while watching a skin flick, Landis keeps the chuckles and the chills in perfect balance.

On the subject of the naked escape from the zoo, and in penance for the shameless amount of cheesecake shots that I fill this blog with when I can’t be bothered to actually write an article, here’s one for the ladies: David in all his zoo-escaping, birthday suited glory.

I always get a laugh out of the wolf looking David straight in the crotch; likewise the moment when David, sequestered behind a bush to preserve his modesty, beckons over a young lad holding a bunch of balloons. “I’ll give you a pound,” he hisses. The lad, quite rightly, shakes his head. “I’ll give you two pounds.” The lad, less wisely, walks over. “Mother,” the boy reports a few seconds later, “a naked American man just stole my balloons.” Balloons nicked, streaking Yank and no two pounds – magnficient!

(Incidentally, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ isn’t the only hirsute and howling at the moon title being featured in 13 for Halloween. If you wanna know what the other one is, I’ll see you next Wednesday.)


Bryce Wilson said...

It's funny, Werewolf is one of those movies that took me a while to warm to. I probably didn't fully appriciate it until my third or fourth time through, but once you get on its wavelength, it's almost impossible not to love.

Here's hoping revisitng English Horror with Burke and Haire helps Landis get some of that magic back.

Oh and not to be that guy but:

"Dante keeps the chuckles and the chills in perfect balance."

I don't think he did ; )

Neil Fulwood said...

The word "oops" springs to mind. Duly corrected!

Fingers crossed for 'Burke and Haire' - there's real potential in the material and he's got two top actors in Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis.

Aaron said...

"Dante keeps the chuckles and the chills in perfect balance."

"The word "oops" springs to mind. Duly corrected!"

Dude, I do that ALL the fucking time. Sometimes I don't even notice it until like weeks later when I go back and read old shit. So embarrassing.

Anyway, nice write-up on AMERICAN WEREWOLF, Neil. Coincidentally I just re-watched this last week. Like Bryce, I didn't really appreciate the movie at first. But in my case it wasn't so much repeat viewings as it was a better understanding of Landis as a director, as well as his influences, that led me to appreciate the movie. And good point about the whole culture clash thing as well.

Not my favorite horror/comedy, werewolf movie, OR Landis movie, but one that I really enjoy watching occasionally. Looking forward to this other mystery werewolf post that you're gonna do, although I think I might have an idea. ;)

Neil Fulwood said...

Yeah, I know what you mean. Sometimes you look back at an old post and think "was I drunk when I wrote that" (which in my case is highly likely!)

'American Werewolf' is definitely a movie that grows on you. I didn't quite know what to make of it first time round, particularly the ending which shows David Naughton's bullet riddled body on the ground and Jenny Agutter looking traumatized and then a ridiculously upbeat doo-wop version of 'Blue Moon' kicks in on the soundtrack.

It's definitely a movie I've come to love more over time and see more in it. And, hey, it's got a Jenny Agutter shower scene!

Bryce Wilson said...

Oh yeah, I mean I'm the king of the typos. I even have a little paper crown somewhere I think.

That's why I find other typos encouraging. ; )

I love that the movie is able to blend scares, laughs, and some real human moment in a way you never really see.

I mean that part where he's trying to basically say goodbye to his sister and family for the last time, and she's just completely oblivious. I mean that has to get you.

Neil Fulwood said...

Good call. That's an almost comic moment until the full emotional import of it catches up with you. It's all the more powerful because Landis underplays it. So many director's would have milked that scene for sentiment. Landis knows exactly how to pitch it. 'American Werewolf' consistently delivers moments like that - some unexpectedly poignant, some patently absurd.