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.

1 comment:

samria fordin said...

I love zombie movies and I really enjoyed this movie. Did you know that Universal Studios featured a maze based on this movie in their Halloween Horror Nights event? I would love to see that.