Wednesday, October 5, 2011

31 Days of '81 Horror: An American Werewolf in London (John Landis)

One of the more intriguing aspect of the werewolf character is not only does it make external the burrowed malicious desires (both of a violent and sexual nature) deep inside men, but it often deals with the consequences when the lycanthrope affected comes to the realization of what he has wrought. John Landis mines subversive laughs, genuine pathos for our lead and real terror in An American Werewolf in London, his best film and my favorite of the three wolf centered films released in 1981. Seeped in cinema history, Werewolf is full of visual, verbal and audio references to werewolves, never to a point of distraction, but to provide brief glimpses of levity in what is at times a truly heartbreaking film.

Being a tourist in your own skin is another central metaphor of the werewolf genre and Landis externalizes this by making the man behind the beast, an actual tourist, away from the safety of his home. On a backpacking trip across Europe with his best friend, our lead, David Kessler (David Naughton), is actually a well brought up Jewish boy which we learn through dialogue and frenzied dream visions that serve the purpose of providing backstory (screenwriters take note), and allowing for both a scare and a laugh. Struck in the moors by a werewolf, and losing his best friend in the process, David is completely alone in a part of the world divorced from comfort and family. He’s a stranger, even in his own flesh.

Naughton and Griffin Dunne as his best friend and rotting conscience have a chemistry and rapport that is believably genuine. Naughton is great as the everyman American college student, stuck in the age between being a child and having real life responsibilities, so confident in safe environs, and so lost outside of his comfort zone. His final call home is sad in its verisimilitude awkward and elliptical nature. Jenny Agutter as David’s nurse and keeper post infection transcends the typical “love interest” with a gentle warmth and humane spirit. And Rick Baker’s make-up and effects work throughout, but especially on David’s first transformation, and transmit the same painful reaction to the viewer as it does to the slow bone cracking metamorphosing werewolf. Still to this day one of the best effect scenes in the history of cinema, Baker was rightly awarded with an Oscar for his work.

Balancing genres like comedy, horror, and a tragedy is a difficult task, often times if the jokes are too self referential, it sours the tragic implications or lessens the suspense. And transitioning disparate tones can be jarring if ineffective. John Landis succeeds in every way with An American Werewolf in London, and the result is not only one of the best horror films of 1981, best one of the best films of the year, period.


le0pard13 said...

Nailed it, Colonel. Still one of my favorite horror/werewolf films of any year. Wonderful write-up. Thanks for this.

Mummbles said...

Yes! I just watched this one last year at this time and I bet with more viewings it would become a favorite of mine. Love the humor when done right, and they nailed it with this film.

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