Saturday, December 27, 2014

#197: The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920)

The Penalty, based on the novel by Gouverneur Morris, is a not-quite-obscure but not-quite-as-famous-as-it-should-be silent gem with a great cast, brisk storytelling, and one of the craziest plots I've had the pleasure to come across. This is a fantastically weird movie I can easily recommend to silent movie buffs and genre fans, and even as the ending veers toward moralizing and wrapping things up too neatly in a mild betrayal of what came before, another twist on top puts things back in the land of the weirdly dark. I really enjoyed this one.
The movie opens with a boy in a bed at the home practice of a young doctor. The boy has been hit by a car on a nearby street, and the doctor has amputated both of the boy's legs below the knees in an emergency decision to save the child's life. An older mentor doctor arrives and realizes the younger doctor has made a terrible mistake. The amputation was unnecessary. To save the young doc's reputation, the older man lies to the boy's parents. The boy, meanwhile, has overheard the whole thing and is understandably distraught.
The movie then jumps forward 27 years. Our young amputee is now known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney Sr.), and he's the evil kingpin of the San Francisco underworld. Despite moving around on crutches and wearing what appear to be pails on his stumps, he's an intimidating guy who runs the gambling, prostitution, burglary, and nightclub trade in SF's Barbary Coast neighborhood. He's not above murdering people to get what he wants, and he's got some big, big plans he's secretly putting into place.
The young doctor who mistakenly amputated his legs, Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary), is now a big shot with a clinic of his own and a young doctor he's mentoring, Dr. Wilmot Allen (Kenneth Harlan), who is also engaged to his sculptor daughter Barbara (Claire Adams). The doctors both think Barbara should give up that art junk and become a housewife, like all respectable women, but she won't marry the boring Dr. Wilmot unless she fails as an artist. I don't think she should marry that twerp at all, but what can you do? Barbara is planning a sculpture about the fall of Satan and she needs a model who can capture some nice devilish scowls. Blizzard, in an attempt to get close to Dr. Ferris for part of his revenge plot, becomes the artist's model.
While the sculpture business is going on, things are also happening at police headquarters. The police chief needs an undercover operative. He's wanted to take down Blizzard's empire for years, but he knows the bust has to be big to end the whole shebang at once. For some reason, Blizzard has forced all his nightclub showgirls to move into his compound and make hats. Thousands and thousands of hats. What's Blizzard's angle? This hat thing is bananas. He asks his chief undercover agent Rose (Ethel Grey Terry) to get a job with Blizzard, get on the inside, make the hats, and find out what the hell is going on. He tells her he almost wishes she'll turn down the assignment because it's so dangerous, but Rose nonchalantly replies, "All in the day's work, chief." Rose has moxie.
Soon, we have nefarious plots involving secret underground lairs, leg transplantation, piano playing, the looting of San Francisco, disgruntled immigrants, murder, revenge, surprise declarations of love, and thousands of straw hats. There's even time for a little redemption, brain surgery, and the old double-cross, all in 90 minutes.
The wackiness and unpredictability of the plot go a long way, especially as Wallace Worsley is not a director who will awe you with beauty or stunning shot composition. He's a naturalistic director who emphasizes story and actors over personal style. Though my favorite directors are strong visual stylists, I can respect the honorable, modest craftsman, especially when the story and actors are as great as they are here. On the other hand, I don't want to imply that the visuals are clunky or perfunctory. Worsley is graceful in his own subtle way, and the film is a pleasure to look at.
Lon Chaney gets a meaty role as Blizzard, performing on his knees with his legs bound, in a physical performance that must have been extremely painful. His face captures the swirl of conflicting emotions and motivations behind his actions, and he makes it plausible for a guy on crutches with no legs to be the intimidating ruler of a criminal empire. The doctors are all stiff bores, but Claire Adams and Ethel Grey Terry get to bring interesting, complicated women to life, and Blizzard's criminal underlings are delightfully sleazy.
This is a strange film, capturing elements of horror, the gangster film, science fiction, comic book supervillainy, and melodrama without being dominated by any of these genres. The Penalty is its own weird thing, and I'm glad I saw it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

#196: Alligator (Lewis Teague, 1980)

Alligator is one of the most likable and most entertaining of the '70s/'80s wave of low-budget, post-Jaws giant killer animal movies, and I recommend it to anyone who likes character actor-dominated exploitation movies with witty, campy screenplays. I also recommend it to anyone who enjoys big-ass alligators chomping down on lots of people who deserve their comeuppance, which is all of us, right? They just don't make them like this anymore, and that really sucks for humankind. (Insert rant about modern genre and Hollywood filmmaking from many past reviews here.)
Alligator was an early film for director Lewis Teague, who went on to make the Tom Skerritt vigilante movie Fighting Back, Cujo, Cat's Eye, the Romancing the Stone sequel The Jewel of the Nile, Navy Seals, and a TV movie that reunited the original cast of The Dukes of Hazzard. To be honest, Teague is the weak link of Alligator. Before he became a more conventional director-for-hire, he was a bit rough and tumble, and Alligator is visually lacking in finesse, personality, or any kind of signature directorial style. You don't watch Alligator for its visual beauty or panache. Fortunately, Alligator has a very funny, silly, tongue-in-cheek screenplay from John Sayles, who at the time augmented his more serious independent directorial career with screenplays for smartly campy B-movies like Piranha, The Howling, Battle Beyond the Stars, and this film. You also get a cast that is loaded with some of the most enjoyable character actors of the '70s and '80s, including Robert Forster, Michael V. Gazzo, Henry Silva, Robin Riker, Sydney Lassick, Dean Jagger, and even Lolita herself, Sue Lyon, in a cameo as a TV news reporter.
Alligator begins with a prologue set in 1968. A middle-aged couple and their young daughter are watching an alligator-wrestling exhibition, which ends badly when the gator wrangler trips on a wet log and gets his leg chomped by the gator. The girl is captivated by the reptile despite the gore and buys a baby alligator, which she puts in an aquarium at home. She plans to donate it to a zoo when it gets too big. Her angry father doesn't want a gator in his home, no matter how tiny, so he flushes it down the toilet while his daughter is at school.
Fast-forward to the present. It is now 1980 and we are still in the never-named Missouri city where the gator was flushed. (In a triumph for authenticity, Los Angeles stands in for Missouri here.) The alligator did not die in the sewers in its youth. Thanks to an unscrupulous millionaire who is financing illegal scientific research, hundreds of dogs are being kidnapped and subjected to highly cruel animal testing in an attempt to make them grow much larger much faster. This all has something to do with ending world hunger, but that part never makes any sense. The dead dogs are disposed of in the sewer by an unscrupulous pet store owner (Lassick) who is selling the kidnapped dogs to the unscrupulous millionaire. The chemically embiggened dog carcasses are a great food source for the alligator, who grows insanely huge in his sewer abode.
Soon, the gator is not just chomping on dogs. He eats some city workers, and the police think they have a serial killer on their hands. Homicide detective with a troubled past David (Forster) is assigned to the case by Chief Clark (the awesomely eye-browed and gravelly voiced Gazzo), but when he discovers their murderer is actually a giant alligator, his story is greeted with ridicule. He wins over the initially skeptical herpetologist and internationally renowned gator expert Marisa (Riker), who teaches at the local university, and the town finally comes around when a journalist gets some photos of the monster reptile. The police attempt to flush out the beast and kill it, but the gator gets loose and goes on a hilarious and awesome rampage. David starts poking a little too much into the illegal scientific research and runs afoul of the corrupt mayor, who takes him off the case and installs a hilariously sexist and racist big game hunter from out of town named Brock (played by the legendary Henry Silva) who thinks he's America's number one badass and who tries to seduce a TV reporter by wooing her with his impression of the gator's mating call.
This is all pretty entertaining stuff. The gator chomps down on sleazy journalists, racist macho dicks, corrupt politicians, and millionaire fat cats, interrupts a stickball game, crashes a wedding reception, swims in a pool, swims in a lake, and even manages to eat a little kid. (They actually kill a child in this movie, something that is horribly tragic in real life but pretty hilarious in B-movies, for some reason.) Finally, David and Marisa, who are also falling in love, decide that enough is enough and go after the gator themselves. A pretty sweet finale ensues, and fun is had by all.
What more can I say? I don't have much in the way of critical, historical, or social analysis here. This is, after all, a film about a giant alligator going nuts on a fictional Missouri town. However, the script is full of clever nods to other movies and funny jokes, and the actors give their characters neat little beats and details that make them feel like real people even though the story is intentionally ridiculous. It's also nice to see the kind of creeps who bring shame to our country get eaten by a giant alligator. This will probably never happen in real life, but we can always dream that one day a gator may eat Dick Cheney, the Walton family, Rupert Murdoch, etc. I like this movie a lot. It's a feelgood romp that beats the pants off other feelgood romps like The English Patient and Alligator II, and I recommend it to those who share my sensibility.

Friday, November 28, 2014

#195: The Amityville Horror (Stuart Rosenberg, 1979)

One of the most financially successful horror films of the 1970s and a staple of late-night television until the mid-1990s, The Amityville Horror inspired several sequels and a remake despite not being all that great. I've seen it several times due to its cultural ubiquity, and I have fond memories of watching it in the dark on Denver's KWGN station on late weekend nights as a grade school kid in the 1980s, wrapped up in an afghan blanket my grandmother made, eating cookies, the only one in the family still awake (my siblings were younger and my parents are not the night owls I am and always have been), freaking myself out by the sounds of our house at night. Subsequent viewings as an adult, however, have not been as memorable. The film suffers a little more each time I watch it, and it's mainly of interest to me now as a Hollywood period piece and a chunk of nostalgia.
The film's popularity is in large part due to its dubious "based on a true story" origins. Adapted from Jay Anson's supermarket paperback bestseller by screenwriter and future director of cult weirdo horror film Pin, Sandor Stern (whose day job until the '90s was his family medical practice), and directed by old Hollywood pro Stuart Rosenberg (whose credits include Cool Hand Luke, The Pope of Greenwich Village, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), The Amityville Horror purports to tell the true story of the Lutz family's terrible experiences living in the haunted Long Island home. Though the Lutzes divorced in the 1980s, they remained on good terms, insisting on the truth of their story until their deaths in the mid-2000s from emphysema and heart disease. They were also lawsuit-happy, suing anyone who publicly doubted the veracity of their story.
The (mostly) undisputed facts about the house are that Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his mother, father, two brothers, and two sisters there in the mid-1970s, and the Lutzes bought it cheap shortly afterward. Several different families lived in the home both before and after the DeFeos, and the Lutzes were the only ones who claimed the house was haunted. Spookily, the owner of the home from 1987 to 1997 was later killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, though that's a matter of geography and coincidence in my skeptic's view. The house has since been dramatically remodeled and the address changed to protect the homeowners from the constant barrage of uninvited tourists, which sounds to me like a much greater burden than any paranormal shenanigans, though I'm a bit disappointed the spooky upstairs windows have been altered.
Now that they're both dead, I have no problem saying that I think the Lutzes were opportunists and hucksters looking to cash in on the house's reputation, but I don't have a problem with that. They weren't hurting anybody, and it's fun to believe in haunted houses when you're a bored small-town kid. What I do have a problem with is their barrage of lawsuits, but that has very little to do with this movie, and I'm getting off the subject.
In the film, the Lutzes are portrayed by the very '70s-looking pair of James Brolin and Margot Kidder, and the rest of the mostly wasted cast includes such veteran character actors as Val Avery, Don Stroud, Murray Hamilton, James Tolkan, and the supremely hammy Rod Steiger. The film opens with the DeFeo murders and then jumps forward a year to the day George and Kathy Lutz buy the house. They know about the murders, but the gorgeous lakeside house is a bargain for the working class family, which includes three young children from Kathy's previous relationship. Soon, however, weird stuff happens. You probably know all this already. Black gunk comes out of the toilets, a chair rocks by itself, the house yells "Get Out!" in a spooky voice, blood oozes down the walls, flies swarm Rod Steiger's face, a nun throws up, a friend is scared to go inside, James Brolin can't stop chopping wood and gets all strung-out and crazy-looking, a weirdly piggish red-eyed thing looks in the window at night, a library book is stolen for no good reason, and the house is always freezing.
The Lutzes put up with this nonsense for several weeks. Then they get in their car and get the eff out of Dodge, in a dramatically anti-climactic finale. And here's something I've never understood. You have a house that is the site of a gruesome mass murder. This house also drives the priest played by Rod Steiger completely insane. Instead of focusing on the murders or the crazy priest, we spend the bulk of our time with a family that moves in for a few weeks, freaks out, and leaves. That is easily the least interesting story here. This situation was rectified in the much-maligned prequel, Amityville II, which is a far stranger, more kick-ass, much sleazier quality horror movie.
Another problem with the film is Stuart Rosenberg's pedestrian visual style and lack of feel for horror. The Amityville Horror was the only horror film Rosenberg directed, and it shows. His pacing is sluggish, the framing of his shots TV-movie generic, and his character development poor. I may get kicked out of movie town for saying this, but I have a lot of the same problems with his most beloved film, Cool Hand Luke. That film benefits from a much better script and more charismatic performances, but Rosenberg is a dull director with a bland visual palette.
There seem to be some editing problems as well. Val Avery's detective character has a few scenes that don't make much sense in the context of the existing movie, leading me to believe that the bulk of his part was cut from the final product. The storyline involving Rod Steiger's priest character also never intersects with the main story, though you do get a few of Steiger's patented epic freakouts. That guy chewed so much scenery he had to have his teeth replaced every month. Also, what's with Margot Kidder's sexy workout attire consisting of an unbuttoned dress shirt, underwear and one leg warmer?
I have a lot of complaints and amused bafflement, but I also have a lot of nostalgic affection for this movie. And as my wife pointed out last night, the film depicts the very real horrors of homebuyer's remorse. I love the little house my wife and I bought a few years ago, but our first handful of months in the home were a constant battle with the rats that had taken up residence in our attic. It was a stressful time that drove our exterminator around the bend (shades of Steiger) and was finally figured out by our plumber. For a while, I felt like Brolin in the movie, yelling "What the hell do you want from me?" to the rats in the attic instead of the demonic entity in the walls, and we were tempted a few times to just get in our car and drive away. Unlike the Lutzes, we finally kicked out our unwelcome guests and won the battle for our home. Where's our highly exaggerated bestseller and movie?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

#194: The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)

This beautiful Swedish silent film is one of the few horror classics that would be right at home in a Sunday school curriculum. At once a melodrama with horror elements, a Dickensian ghost story, and a Christian morality tale about faith, repentance, and forgiveness, Victor Sjöström's silent mini-epic is also about storytelling and how a story is framed when it is told from multiple points of view. The film takes a straightforward narrative and transforms it into something complex and strange by shuffling the pieces around and having different characters relate them in flashback. This is not a cheap gimmick, as it all too often becomes in modern cinema (especially during the late-'90s wave of Pulp Fiction knockoffs and the mid-2000s wave of Short Cuts and Magnolia wannabes). Instead, this narrative strategy shows how one person's actions and point of view affect the community of people around that person, how the same story's focus can change when the storytellers are different, and the resonance and complexity of experience that are added to a story when it isn't so single-mindedly devoted to one character. 
The Phantom Carriage begins with a young woman on her deathbed. The woman is a Salvation Army worker and devout Christian who is dying of galloping consumption. Attended by her mother and a fellow Salvation Army sister, the woman, Edit (Astrid Holm), shocks them both by asking them to summon a man named David Holm to her dying bedside. The audience doesn't know why yet, but both women are reluctant to perform this task. Edit's mother even begs her coworker not to summon David Holm. Edit's demands are too persistent, however, and the search begins. The audience is then told in the intertitles that it is New Year's Eve. 
Next, we are introduced to three homeless alcoholics ringing in the new year by drinking in a graveyard next to a clock tower. One of the men tells a story about an older man he once knew to pass the time. In flashback, we see the relationship between the two men. The older man is kindhearted and comes from an academic background, but he's fallen into the seedier side of life through his alcoholism. The men are drinking, smoking, and gambling buddies, but the older man grows somber and afraid every New Year's Eve. The younger man asks him why New Year's Eve disturbs him so much, and the older man tells a story that we see in yet another layer of flashback. The older man is terrified to die on New Year's Eve because he believes the last person to die that day is doomed to drive Death's carriage for the year, collecting the souls that have died. We see some eerie footage of the phantom carriage in action, collecting the souls of a suicide victim and a man who drowns at sea. 
When we return to the trio of drunkards, we learn the connection between one of the men and the dying Salvation Army worker, but we don't yet know how that connection was made. In the remaining 90 minutes, the various strands of the story come together to tell the singular tale of Edit, David Holm (played by Sjöström himself), Holm's wife and children, the phantom carriage, and the poor soul doomed to drive the carriage for the year. What follows is a sophisticated approach to storytelling and visual presentation that feels classic, not dated.
The visual style is complementary to the narrative approach. Using few effects other than super-imposition, colored tinting, costumes,  and a handful of iris shots, Sjöström has a simple, direct style that is understated and naturalistic compared to many films of the era. The actors use small gestures instead of large, overstated ones, and Sjöström avoids flashy angles and camera tricks. At the same time, the organization of elements within the frame and the photography are elegant and imaginative without calling too much attention to themselves. It's a good-looking film that doesn't overwhelm the viewer with claustrophobic beauty. Despite its supernatural story, Sjöström's style is closer to the naturalism of the Lumieres instead of the fantasy worlds of Melies. 
Victor Sjöström has been called the father of Swedish cinema and was a Renaissance man of silent film. He worked as an actor, screenwriter, and director, and was often all three at once. Born in 1879, he made his first film in 1912. As a director, his most well-known films are The Phantom Carriage and The Wind. He only directed a few films after the end of the silent era, but he continued acting until shortly before his death in 1960. Film buffs most likely know him as an actor in one of Carl Dreyer's greatest films, Ordet, and a couple of Ingmar Bergman films, To Joy and Wild Strawberries, the latter his final and most famous film in which he played an aging professor coming to terms with the choices he made in his personal life. If you only know him as an actor and like silent films, check out The Phantom Carriage. Criterion released it on DVD and Blu-Ray a few years ago in a pristine print with your choice of scores by Mattie Bye or KTL. I'm now kicking myself for not noticing which score was set when I watched it last night because it was a great piece of music.   

Saturday, October 25, 2014

#193: Prey (Norman J. Warren, 1978)

Also known as Alien Prey, Norman J. Warren's 1978 low-budget sci-fi/horror film is probably the weirdest British-Canadian werewolf-alien lesbian-sexploitation man-who-fell-to-earth gender-bending cannibalism film I've seen this year, or ever. This is such a bizarre film and a prime candidate for cult-film discovery. Any movie with mostly negative responses from the partially illiterate bores who dominate the Netflix user reviews section has to be doing something interesting, and Prey is in that company. I feel it is also important to note for the 10-year-old boy in us all that three of the crew members have the following names: Nigel Goldsack, George Boner, and John Chubb.
Prey begins with flashing lights and the transmission of a message back to space, its consequences unknown to us until the end of the film. The lights awaken Jessica (Glory Annen), a childlike and occasionally childish young woman who has inherited the stately country mansion she lives in with her older and more experienced lesbian lover Josephine (Sally Faulkner, whom you may remember from another '70s lesbian sexploitation/country-set horror film, Vampyres). We soon learn that Josephine has an unhealthy control over Jessica, and she doesn't let Jessica go anywhere alone or even use the telephone. There are insinuations that Josephine may be responsible for the deaths of Jessica's parents and a male friend who doesn't come around anymore. Josephine is almost a right-wing construct, a man-hating, militantly vegetarian, predatory lesbian who exploits the younger, submissive, naive woman for her own carnal pleasures, which the film takes great enjoyment in showing in a few lengthy sex scenes, but the tone is so strange and the course of events so wild that it's unclear whether Warren's film is a reactionary bit of gay panic or a sly parody of those attitudes.
The flashing lights, of course, herald the arrival of a werewolf-like alien (of course!) who quickly kills a young couple making out in their car in the woods. The wolf-alien assumes the form of the man he kills and wanders the countryside until he ends up in Jessica's barn. Josephine tells him to get lost, but Jessica begs her controlling lover to let the man stay awhile because he seems dazed and injured. Josephine unhappily relents, and the confused alien gets an earful, eyeful, and mouthful of human customs, most of which confuse the hell out of him.
The alien, who is in way over his head with the pretending-to-be-human thing, tells the women his name is Anders Anderson and is quietly but hilariously gobsmacked by everything from the couple's pet parrot to iced tea, water, games, plants, rocking chairs, and salad. (However, he quickly takes to champagne and guzzles about 10 glasses of the stuff.) Barry Stokes is great as the spaceman/wolf in human disguise. He doesn't overplay the inherent comedy in the situation and gives a dry, natural, subtly funny performance as a deeply confused being trying to play it cool as someone who isn't confused and failing badly. The women guess that Anders is an escaped mental patient, but they keep him around for a few days anyway. Jessica, starved for a glimpse of life outside the country mansion, is desperate for company, while Josephine is simultaneously fascinated and threatened by his presence.
What follows is a thoroughly strange unraveling of the power balance in the house. Josephine begins losing control, and Anders learns some interesting things about behavior, relationships, and the protein content of humans. This process includes intense parrot-staring, a lengthy game of hide and seek where Anders is put in a dress and makeup by the women, a dead fox, a cake to commemorate the fox's death, dead policemen, a slo-mo near-drowning set to some crazy analog synth music, gratuitous nudity, physical altercations, sex, and flesh-eating. Also, this line of dialogue: "What do they call you?" "Jessica Anne. But everyone just calls me Jessica."
Warren has made a compellingly odd, unique little film on a shoe-string budget. This is a deeply strange film, and I'm glad I saw it even as I don't know what the hell to make of it. I am also now intrigued to see what else Warren has given the world, which includes such titles as Loving Feeling, Her Private Hell, Evil Heritage aka Satan's Slave, Terror, Spaced Out aka Outer Touch, Horror Planet aka Inseminoid, Gunpowder, and Bloody New Year. I have the feeling I'm missing out on a treasure trove of insanity.

Friday, October 10, 2014

#192: An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

I don't think it's possible for me to watch An American Werewolf in London with a detached, critical, fresh eye. This is a beloved film from my childhood that continues to make me happy, one of those standbys that I would say feels like a warm hug from an old friend if that weren't an incredibly corny thing to say (some of the other ones are Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dawn of the Dead, and pretty much anything from Joe Dante, if that helps explain the man I am today). I saw the trailers on television when it first came out, saw stills from it in magazines and newspapers, pined for it before I got to see it (my parents were very strict about R-rated movies, even though they were pretty lax about lots of other things), fell in love with it at age 11 when I finally watched it for the first time, and periodically rented it over the next 25+ years when I needed a pick-me-up. It's not above criticism, and it's not without flaws. I can recognize its limitations and stumbles, but who cares about that? For me, it's damn good, massively entertaining, smartly and skillfully directed, thoroughly enjoyable, and a sad reminder of a long tradition of genuine Hollywood craftsmanship and visual storytelling that has been discarded in the last decade and change.
It's funny that American Werewolf looks like such a shining model of classical Hollywood style when it was dismissed by many critics at the time for being a soulless spectacle, an effects-driven piece of style over substance in the New Blockbuster Era ushered in by Jaws and Star Wars. In today's climate of CGI, spatial incoherence, bland green-screen acting, lightning-fast shot lengths, no sense of place, humorless bombast, and a lack of both style and substance, it's much harder to find those objections plausible. John Landis was, and remains, a movie lover with a deep appreciation of the classic tradition, and he successfully married old-school techniques and contemporary sensibilities in his comedies and comedic horror films. There was substance in his style, in his long takes, in his choice of camera placement, in the plethora of background detail, in the way he caught gestures, looks, and movements from his actors and let them interact with each other in the frame. You can see it in his visual choices in Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, the sadly neglected Innocent Blood, and the video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller," among many others. He even fought with the studio, successfully, on Animal House, using long takes and a slow or stationary camera to capture the comedy instead of the frenetic, screwball pace and fast-moving camera the studio executives wanted.
That mastery of screen space is especially evident in the film's first half hour, and while I love the whole film, I especially admire the opening scenes. After some establishing shots of the Moors, we see a sheep farmer driving down an isolated stretch of road. He stops, opens the back of his truck, which is full of sheep, and lets out two young American men who slowly materialize out of the herd. The men, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), have hitched a ride and are taking it on foot the rest of the way. David and Jack are college students doing the backpacking thing, and Naughton and Dunne make us believe these guys have been friends for a long time. They have a genuine chemistry.
The weather is chilly and it's getting dark, so David and Jack decide to stop at a pub when they reach a small village. The pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, is packed with locals, played by a roomful of great British character actors, including a pre-Young Ones Rik Mayall. The locals are suspicious of the goofy young Americans, but things loosen up when an offhand remark about the Alamo leads to talk of John Wayne movies. Soon, dirty jokes are exchanged and camaraderie is in the air. Jack makes the mistake of asking why a pentagram is on the wall, and things get nice and frosty again. Uncomfortable, the men leave and wander the Moors in the dead of night. The rain starts falling, things get miserable, and then a damn werewolf shows up. David wakes up in the hospital, where he is receiving care from a nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter). He quickly falls in love with her, which is totally plausible because how could you not fall in love with Jenny Agutter? (By the way, Naughton and Agutter have great chemistry, too. This whole movie feels like people who had fun hanging out with each other. I have no idea if that's actually the case, but it sure feels like it.) And you know the rest. If you don't, get to the video store or its inferior equivalent.
Landis creates a rich atmosphere in these opening moments, helped considerably by the location shooting in Wales and London. The filmed landscape has both an eeriness and a seductive quality that perfectly complements this film's mixture of comedy and terror, sweetness and brutality, and the moonlit rural walk to a village pub full of locals keeping a dark secret is such a beautifully handled nod to the classic horror tradition. Landis seems like he's having a blast, and that good time is infectious. It feels like what "the movies," as a concept or mythology or symbol, should feel like, if that makes any sense. What I mean, I think, is that this movie is like a security blanket for me, a representation of how the movies looked when I first started paying attention to them, a bittersweet few hours of my childhood preserved forever. Instead of Proust's madeleine, I have a horror comedy about werewolves. What I'm saying is that I have a strong sentimental attachment to this film, and while nostalgia usually gives me the creeps, sometimes it feels nice and a little heartbreaking when experienced through a movie or a song.
Alright, enough of that. Time for my thrice-weekly bashing of CGI. I don't know how you could watch Rick Baker's effects for this movie and still think CGI is not the worst thing to happen to American culture since 24-hour news channels. Hyperbolic? Yes, but also maybe no. CGI sucks. They spent a week filming the werewolf transformation scene, and I suppose Hollywood doesn't want to spend a week on those kinds of things anymore, but damn, it's a shame. Handmade special effects in genre films in the late 1970s and 1980s blow everything after out of the water. Now, the textures don't match. Now, you're mixing live-action with animation, but not in the cool Roger Rabbit way. Now, special effects are a monotonous, crushing, inhuman, boring eyesore. CGI is bullshit, and this movie is one of the strongest of at least 84,000 pieces of evidence that prove it. Long live the craftsmen and women who worked with latex and goop in the golden age of effects. I realize I'm not going to change any studio executive's mind, that the war has been lost, but I feel it is my duty to be the cranky guy who complains about this several times a week because I have fire in my belly about this issue. I was born a goop and latex patriot, and I'm going to die a goop and latex patriot.
Wow, I'm really all over the place with this review, but that's the kind of mood I'm in as I write this in a more limited time frame than I usually have. I don't know what else to say. I love this movie too much. I can't write about it without sycophantic blabbery, which isn't even a word. I love it. I love the look of it. I love the feel of it. I love that every song used in the movie has the word "moon" in the title, and I love how those songs are placed in the context of the action. I love The Slaughtered Lamb. I love the Moors. I love werewolves. I love that Frank Oz is in the movie twice, once as an American embassy employee and once as Miss Piggy on a television in a dream sequence. I love zombie Griffin Dunne. I love all the nods to other films. I love the poster for Cassavetes' Gloria in the tube station and the UK Subs graffiti. I love the hilarious fake porn film Landis shot and incorporated into the action during a scene that takes place in a porn theater. I love that the porn film is called See You Next Wednesday. I love Jenny Agutter, one of my super-crushes. (I'm excited to find out that she is in the latest Werner Herzog movie.) I love that David Naughton makes a collect call home, and he uses a real prefix, not the movie-standard 555. I love this line of dialogue: "Mommy, a naked American man stole my balloons." I love this movie, and I better shut up now because gushing enthusiasm is not exactly a fun thing to read.
I didn't even get into the whole thing about this movie being an indictment of the ugly American going to a foreign country and fucking it all up with his ignorant destructive ways, but I'm not sure I buy that popular reading. For one, everyone is too damn likable. And I'm outta here.