Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Saturday, October 31, 2015
He Was On The Moors
It was a moment of truth. There I was, doing the dishes late one night when suddenly the realization entered my head out of nowhere. “AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON really is better than THE HOWLING.” And that was it. Since I hadn’t even been thinking at all about either film I paused to consider this and accepted the thought as correct. Maybe I felt conflicted about the decision since the game of which werewolf film was the better one was something I had long turned around in my head for the obvious reasons—each released in ’81, each at least as much of a comedy as a horror film and the two of them containing what were at the time somewhat revolutionary werewolf transformation effects. Not to mention that the directors of the two films, John Landis and Joe Dante, are both friends so who knows what sort of joking rivalry has occurred because of this. I feel a little bad because Joe Dante has always been supportive of this blog. My feelings for his films don’t diminish, they never will, but nevertheless in this case I had to accept the truth.
Backpacking through Europe, friends David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are in a desolate area of Northern England when they receive a chilly reception in the very small town on East Proctor. Leaving fast, they are warned to stay on the road keeping clear of the moors and they soon learn why when they are attacked by a giant wolf. Jack is brutally killed with David only injured by the time the townspeople show up to shoot the presumed wolf and he doesn’t learn what really happened until he wakes up in a London hospital several weeks later. But it’s not the whole story and as he begins a relationship with sympathetic Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) he soon finds out what really happened when the undead Jack pays him a visit, telling David that he’s bitten by a werewolf and unless he takes his own life he’ll turn into one himself upon the arrival of the next full moon. David of course doesn’t believe this and as his curious doctor (John Woodvine) investigates what really happened in East Procter the arrival of another full moon gets closer.
Part of the surprise of the revelation I had was how AMERICAN WEREWOLF has been, for no particular reason, one of those films that I’ve always liked but just haven’t seen very much over the years. Hey, it happens. I’ve returned to multiple Joe Dante films frequently and maybe I’ve just lumped the Landis in with all his others of the ANIMAL HOUSE school. INTO THE NIGHT may always be my favorite (sentimental reasons and all) but AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, released in August 1981, plays like his best film now, as arch and scary as it should be while still maintaining a genuine feel of unpredictable danger over thirty years after its release. There’s really no point in comparing the two but it’s still interesting--THE HOWLING has jokes all over the place but takes the situation Dee Wallace is going through totally seriously. WEREWOLF, on the other hand, takes the plot seriously as some of the characters do but in addition to the wisecracks coming from the characters offers a fatalistic sense of humor regarding Jack’s situation that sets it apart. It’s absurd, of course, just as absurd it would be if you or I heard that an old college friend had suddenly turned into a werewolf but Jack doesn’t really deserve anything more than that anyway.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was conceived and written by Landis long before he actually made it, probably when he was around the same age as the characters. Since he was just a kid and at that age you have very little idea of, well, anything, (not that I have much more of an idea now) it makes sense that the main characters and a certain portion of the film itself is that way. “Eventually it becomes less comic than callow,” said Janet Maslin in the New York Times but this seems to be part of the point already, that David barely can comprehend what he’s going through—it’s a second puberty for him—and he has no awareness of what’s really going on beyond just enough self-deprecation to rightly think of himself as a schmuck so when his dead friend turns up in a zombified state he naturally just jokes with him. Even when he calls home late in the film and only speaks to his little sister, when he tells her to pass along a message to their parents that he loves them she doesn’t even think he’s being serious. It’s not an intellectual approach, like Mike Nichols would at least attempt with WOLF over a decade later, but David isn’t an intellectual guy.
The film is at a reserve as John Landis films often are, with what could almost be called a pure apathy toward humanity. But the DRAGNET-like aesthetic of many of his other films isn’t as prevalent here, he almost seems that much more insistent about the material maybe because it was his own. You could call it a world view: whether you deserve it or not, shit’s gonna happen, you’re gonna fuck up because of that (“Whatever happens, it’s your/my fault.”) and other people are going to get hurt in the process. As soon as Jack gets attacked David runs away (so much for Save the Cat, but who cares) and it’s not exactly noble but it is human. Soon after both likable characters are introduced at the start one of them is killed off just like that, complete with a look at the body that in a very flat way removes all ambiguity whatsoever which is almost more shocking than the brutality of the attack itself. Since we lose a few weeks in the narrative the character is buried before we ever realize it, not time for Jack to mourn since he’s missed it already. It’s a heavy concept (and, considering we’re talking about John Landis and what happened to him in subsequent years, one that goes considerably beyond the scope of this film) and it makes sense for it to be about a character who is in no way prepared to grasp that.
That ambivalence towards the lead character goes perfectly next to the balance of comedy and horror along with a form of guilt still feels dangerous; those Buñuel-inspired nightmares begin to seem more and more unnerving so even something about the clip of THE MUPPET SHOW in one of them comes off as slightly sinister. The arch jokiness with the use of songs that have “moon” in the title and the recurring Landis joke of using SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY as a film title, here turned into a porno, contrasts nicely with the dry English drawing room humor of the two investigating officers (reminiscent of Donald Pleasence in the underappreciated RAW MEAT which was also partly set in the London Underground). With the only sense of majesty and fate coming from Elmer Bernstein’s brief but effective score there’s no sage wisdom coming from any experts so all anyone knows is what they half remember from old movies that starred either Lon Chaney, Jr. or Oliver Reed, except for course for the secrets being kept by the denizens of the Slaughtered Lamb in East Proctor where there’s no food to be had. Of course, the bravura scenes that you probably remember years after your last viewing are still spectacular; the legendary (and Oscar-winning) Rick Baker transformation which clearly shows just how painful it is, with no one to witness Jack’s plight except for that smiling Mickey Mouse figurine watching, sort of this films version of the Happy Face in THE HOWLING is still a triumph. And the attack scene in the deserted London Underground with some of the showiest camerawork Landis ever used is still genuinely unnerving in how quickly the tension escalates. The balancing act of comedy and horror is of course no big deal anymore but the deadly dark blackout humor (“That’s not Winston”) of Jack’s first night out still feels relentless. The film keeps insistently moving forward, unapologetic for the nastiness maybe because it’s confident there’s not going to be an easy out. There’s really only one way for all this to end.
When Jack makes a brief, aborted attempt to kill himself (right after calling home to a 516 area code; come to think of it, he does seem more Long Island than Westchester) it’s a moment so thrown away you might forget it was even there; as guilty as he may feel he still can barely comprehend the thought. Stanley Kubrick once named AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF one of his favorite films and maybe part of the reason was that in spite of its willful immaturity because it seems to subscribe to his famous quote about the universe being not hostile but ‘indifferent’. And the film is indifferent to what any of the characters are going through, whether David or one of the unlucky extras in Piccadilly Circus near the end, since it has to be. It even offers its own version of Kubrick’s Grady sisters from THE SHINING in two girls who appear out of nowhere to incessantly giggle at David for no apparent reason. But there’s no one around to explain it to him. As always, the world doesn’t care.
By this point no doubt remembered for this film more than being a DR. PEPPER pitchman (not to mention the short-lived SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER-inspired sitcom MAKIN’ IT) David Naughton brings just the right spirit to the part, likable and confused, partly knowing and of course partly baffled all the way to when we last see him in human form. More likable than I can imagine the character was on the page, he turns him into an everyman, just one who happens to be irrevocably fucked. The forever cheerful Griffin Dunne plays off him beautifully and, yes, it’s hard not to wish that we could see the version that has David and Jack touring Italy without tragic incident. As for Jenny Agutter, this film may be only one reason why people of a certain age like me have been in love with her for decades but she always plays it totally grounded. Even if she is a device in terms of how perfect she is, the dream girl who throws herself at the lead, it somehow feels true coming from her. On revisiting the film John Woodvine gives maybe the most underappreciated performance in it, almost for reasons that have nothing to do with the plot; he’s a character who has reached the breaking point of English politeness and it’s as if the mystery of David feels tangible, even if it is ludicrous, and his full commitment brings a genuine sense of gravity to it all. There are too many bit performances to single out—Brian Glover and David Schofield as two Slaughtered Lamb patrons are favorites as well as Frank Oz in his dual role as both the unfeeling consulate representative and, thanks to the MUPPET SHOW stock footage, Miss Piggy. I imagine he may have filmed this during production of THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER and that sounds like a great idea for a double bill to me.
Now, I may be a schmuck myself and there may be a degree of identification that led me to the conclusion I arrived at. But AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON still has that feel of danger mixed in with the humor in every scene, all respect to Joe Dante and THE HOWLING of course. In a way it feels like other John Landis films but maybe it’s the only one that feels like more than that. Maybe one thing I flashed on when I had that thought while doing dishes was the famous ending, as abrupt and jarring (in the best way) as you can imagine. David’s happy ending was Alex trying to help and declaring her love for him which at least was more than Jack ever got, or probably was ever going to get, from the legendary Debbie Klein. Maybe things just tend to reach a point where someone cries for you but that’s the best you’re going to get. You’re fucked and there’s no way out of it. Cue the music. And beware the moon.