Monthly Archives: April 2017

Underworld (2003)


*. Underworld was the directorial debut of Len Wiseman, who got his start in the business working as a property assistant (a mainly managerial role in the art department dealing with the physical design of a film). He worked on such blockbusters as Independence Day, Men in Black, and Godzilla. He then worked in advertising and directing music videos before coming to this project.
*. I don’t bring this up as a way of knocking Wiseman but only to indicate that if you knew all this beforehand you’d probably have a pretty good idea what kind of a movie Underworld was going to be and what it would look like. And you might think that what it looked like was the kind of movie it was going to be. Wiseman says at the beginning of his DVD commentary that he set out to make a comic book: “a living, breathing, graphic novel come to life.” It seems like this is something every filmmaker of his generation has aspired to.
*. You would not be disappointed in your comic book expectations. Roger Ebert: “Underworld is all surfaces, all costumes and sets and special effects . . . This is a movie so paltry in its characters and shallow in its story that the war seems to exist primarily to provide graphic visuals.”
*. Things still might have been saved if there’d been something interesting in the production or artistic design of the film, but it all looks so generic it’s almost numbing. And so uninteresting.
*. There was more colour in Sin City. Everything here is blue. The city (unnamed, but the film was shot in Budapest) looks like every other generic grotty urban location in a comic book movie. I suppose it’s Gotham. The buildings are all large and empty. The streets have nobody in them. Indeed, after the opening battle sequence, do we see any characters aside from Michael’s doctor friend, who isn’t an immortal? And did I mention everything is blue?
*. I had some hopes that something interesting might be made out of the premise. Werewolves vs. Vampires. The werewolves are grungy gangsters living underground. The vampires are hoity-toity types who live in a mansion. Class warfare?
*. No. Not really. In fact, not at all. Nothing as interesting as that. Or as interesting as a toothy version of Romeo and Juliet. Just the usual monster brawl, which was not a new sub-genre. Apparently the working titles for House of Dracula (1945) were Dracula vs. the Wolf Man or The Wolf Man vs. Dracula. But those ensemble monster movies were never that interested in having the monsters actually fight each other. We had to wait for that.
*. Some people enjoyed the fantasy mythology. I thought it seemed canned and Young Adult in the worst way. Have you noticed how the word “mythology” is now used for any movie like this that really doesn’t have anything you might think of as a story? It’s like the Alien mythology or the Marvel Universe.
*. After about thirty minutes I was bored out of my skull. There are no surprises. What? You mean Kraven is a traitor as well as a wimp? Well, I never would have guessed with a name like that.
*. For a straight-up action movie I didn’t think the combat scenes were very impressive. Lots of expensive ammunition is fired off (ultraviolet bullets to kill vampires, silver nitrate for the pack), but neither side are much good at hitting anything. There isn’t a lot of hand-to-hand fighting and what we do get tends to rely on harness work. Wiseman also seems to want to still be doing music videos given how some of the scenes play out.
*. Kate Beckinsale looks like a fetish model. Scott Speedman looks like a male model for just about anything sexy (fashion, cologne, hair products, whatever). They are obviously meant for each other because they have lovely long locks of hair that fall over their faces in the same way.
*. Bill Nighy went from playing Viktor here to playing Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. I wonder if he enjoys spending that much time in a make-up chair.
*. Hard to believe it’s two hours long for so little material. And they didn’t even wrap things up at the end! All this sound and fury just to set up a bunch of sequels!
*. The only place for Universal to go after the chaos of House of Dracula was into parody with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Underworld instead took as its selling point its seriousness. This allowed it to become a franchise that is, as of this writing, still going strong. Will the vampyres and lycans keep fighting each other for another thousand years? Damn their immortal hides.


Dog Soldiers (2002)


*. We’ve never gotten over our fear of the forest. And to be fair, it’s hard to imagine urban werewolves. They tried it in Wolfen, and it sort of worked, but at the end of the day these furry guys belong in the woods. In the movie Howl (2016) it seems like we’re going to get an at least semi-urban werewolf story, but then the train stops out in the middle of, you guessed it, a dark forest and we’re back in the pack’s happy hunting grounds.
*. So here we are in Dog Soldiers, heading off to the highlands of Scotland, where the nearest phone, or even house, is fifty miles away. One suspects no one can hear you scream. Certainly no one can hear all the gunfire.
*. As an aside, I was wondering when I heard them say this if there really is anywhere in Scotland this remote. Apparently not. Kevin McKidd, who plays Cooper, was struck by this too because he’s Scottish and knows that there is no place that is a four-hour drive from anywhere in that country. But he didn’t want to say anything to the producers.
*. I’d like to tell you that this is a movie that delivers on its promise of doing something a little different with the werewolf genre, but in the end it’s really quite conventional. A team of regular army soldiers go on a training exercise in the highlands, where they find out that they’re basically being used as bait so that a special forces unit can capture a lycanthrope. The wolf-men are ahead of this game, and after a quick run through the woods things settle into a standard siege picture, with the squaddies hunkering down in the classic cabin in the woods.
*. You could compare a plot like that to a lot of horror movies. I was mainly thinking of Predator, where the team of soldiers is set up by the CIA and stuck in the jungle having to fight off the alien bad guy: the predators having become the prey. But whatever the borrowings, it all plays as very generic stuff. Writer-director Neil Marshall would go on to make The Descent, which was quite an original horror movie, but here he was still spinning his wheels and churning out formula fare.
*. In some places the clichés get to be annoying. Whenever you see a guy turning his back to a window or door you know something’s going to break through and grab him. And why are they turning their backs to the windows anyway? It’s an idiot-plot move. And the old dropping-below-the-table to do a (remarkably rapid) werewolf transformation takes us back sixty years.
*. Alas, transformation scenes in werewolf movies are expensive if you want to do them right. If you can’t afford them, better to go with a finesse. As it is, this was a cheap movie (budget estimated at around $2 million), released direct to cable in North America, and they did at least manage to blow that house up real good.
*. Another plot point that comes as a stretch: If they’re fifty miles from the nearest house (not town, house), then what sense does it make to try and hotwire a vehicle that’s parked in the shed? The risk/reward calculation here escapes me. Surely, even if they’re running low on ammunition, the thing to do is to barricade themselves and try to hold out. I also don’t know why they attempt to defend the entire house right from the start. The smart thing to do would be to try to defend a smaller area with only a couple of (perhaps smaller) access points.
*. I understand that you can’t kill a werewolf with normal bullets. And I understand that these werewolves have spectacular self-healing powers (a bit of lore that goes all the way back to the disappearing scars on Larry Talbot’s chest in The Wolf Man). But just considering basic physiology and physics it seems like these creatures should need a bit more time than they take to get over the amount of bullets pumped into them. I mean, they’re not zombies.
*. Or are they? This is really more of a zombie movie, at least in terms of its structure and the pattern of the plot, than it is a werewolf movie. It’s more bite than bark. A zombie outbreak would also have made more sense, as the basic premise here is insane. The government knows about the werewolves and so sends in a small group of special ops soldiers, with no back-up, to capture one, by using a team of unsuspecting regular soldiers as bait? This is so ridiculous it doesn’t even pass horror-movie muster.


*. I wonder why the werewolves have a dog, since clearly Sam doesn’t like them. Everybody knows that dogs and werewolves don’t get along.
*. I wish there was more here on the whole werewolf pack. The idea of a messed-up or dysfunctional family could have allowed for some interesting play. But as noted, this is a werewolf movie that really isn’t interested in the werewolves, or the idea of lycanthropy, at all.
*. There are a number of film references dropped throughout (Marshall has a thing for this), but I had a hard time buying Cooper saying that they were going to blow up the shed and make it look like Zabriskie Point. That’s a bit obscure for his character, isn’t it?
*. I couldn’t figure out exactly what Megan’s game was, though this may have been partly the result of studio meddling. Apparently they demanded that Marshall connect her up to Ryan in some way, which made the back story a bit of a hash.
*. Though it’s very conventional and without any real twists or surprises (aside from the obligatory), I still thought this was a fun movie. The werewolves look OK and the action sequences are well handled. In particular, the big fight where Spoon throws everything in the kitchen but the kitchen sink at the werewolf is great. There are also a few nice little touches like the clouds of breath coming from the back seat of the jeep and the dog tugging on Sarge’s intestines. That might not seem like a lot, but in a movie like this it’s such moments that last.


Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)


*. Henry James famously described Victorian novels as “loose baggy monsters,” and I couldn’t help thinking of this when watching Brotherhood of the Wolf. Not because of the appearance of a loose baggy monster but because of what James was being critical of: the plot.
*. The story here is long, cumbersome, and full of pointless detail. The starting point for most of the initial reviews was to highlight how much of a mongrel it was. David Edelstein thought it “a movie that endeavors to moosh together every successful cross-cultural action picture ever made.” Roger Ebert: “Brotherhood of the Wolf plays like an explosion at the genre factory. When the smoke clears, a rough beast lurches forth, its parts cobbled together from a dozen movies.”
*. There are two problems with such an approach. In the first place, the movie risks turning into an anthology of clichés, as only the better-known elements from the various genres are quoted from. Everything is borrowed and nothing is new.
*. The second problem is that of coherence. How well do so many disparate parts fit together? Here: not so well.
*. I don’t mean in terms of not making logical sense. I have no trouble believing in a Native American who knows kung-fu, or even crediting the existence of whatever that creature is that they supposedly dragged back from Africa. What I can’t abide are the jumps from romance to horror to historical costume drama to political conspiracy thriller to action flick, with none of these genres being used to inform the others.


*. Then there is the problem of length. The version I saw ran to 140 minutes, which I think is the shortest version out there. There’s also a 150-minute director’s cut. It must be awful. At 140 minutes I came away thinking that at least half an hour, and maybe as much as 45 minutes, should have been cut.
*. Am I just against long movies? No. But there were whole chunks of this one that were unnecessary. Monica Belluci is always easy to look at, but has almost no function here. And even though they had all the time in the world to explain it, the plot itself remained a mystery to me. At the end I still didn’t know what the Brotherhood were up to, or who they were. The fight scenes were overlong, repetitive, and gratuitous. Making things even worse, or giving another turn to the rack, director Christophe Gans can’t resist grinding things down into slow-motion every few minutes, for no reason at all that I can see.
*. I didn’t care for Gans’s direction at all. He seems to have only two strings to his bow: (1) the aforementioned slow motion and (2) crane shots. He indulges both over and over again. Like everything else in Brotherhood of the Wolf, they get old in a hurry.
*. As for the beast, I thought that it was an interesting and somewhat original-looking critter, but the CGI is terrible. Then again, it was 2001.
*. It did well at the box office, for being a foreign film, but aside from looking pretty in a fittingly fairy-tale sort of way I can’t think of anything to recommend it. It’s a cheeseburger of a flick, covered in “the works.” I didn’t come away impressed by the fact that they can make cheeseburgers like this in France. A royale with cheese, I heard someone once say.


Ginger Snaps (2000)


*. Is there anybody who doesn’t like this movie? And by that I really mean is there anybody who doesn’t like Ginger (Katharine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins)? I guess there are such curmudgeons out there, but (for once) I’m not among them.
*. According to director John Fawcett the two girls “began as caricatures [like] . . . sticky Edward Gorey girls . . . or a Tim Burton drawing.” But they both outgrow the role of Goth girls, becoming a unique clique of two: sharing a deep bond but playing well against each other. Ginger is sexy and aggressive, Brigitte withdrawn.
*. It’s important that we like Ginger and Brigitte because Ginger Snaps is a human werewolf movie. Which is a label I’ll try to explain.


*. We can think of werewolf movies as forming a continuum running from man (or woman) to wolf. At the far end we have the werewolf as pure creature. Think of the pack of wolves in Wolfen or the Beast of Gevaudan in Brotherhood of the Wolf. Or, if you don’t think those are real werewolf movies (and technically they aren’t), think of movies like Dog Soldiers or Howl, where we barely see the original beasts in human form.
*. At the human end of the continuum the focus is on the person who’s infected with the curse of lycanthropy. At the extreme edge of the continuum I’m drawing we have movies where it may not even be clear if the character is turning into a wolf or if it’s all in their head. Cat People, which isn’t a werewolf movie but very much fits the model, is a good example, or She-Wolf of London, where lycanthropy is just a psychological ruse being played on the heroine.
*. In the middle are most of the movies we think of as the classics of the genre. Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot, done up in Jack Pierce’s original make-up, for example, is both a tragic human character and a monster.


*. The reason I bring all this up is because Ginger Snaps is definitely more of a human werewolf movie, meaning it’s more interested in the characters than it is in the monster. So it matters that the Fitzgerald girls are so likeable, and it’s less important that Ginger’s werewolf make-up is pretty awful and the werewolf itself moves awkwardly and looks more like a wild pig than a wolf. (On the plus side, at least it isn’t CGI.)
*. What’s so scary? A girl turning into a monster? Yes, but there are a lot of other scary things going on as well. I’ll number a few.
*. (1) Life in the ‘burbs with all its conformity and going nowhereism. On the DVD commentary writer Karen Walton puts the matter rather forcefully: “I hate suburbs, I think they’re awful places, I think they do awful things to people” Wow. That’s strong stuff. I mean, I don’t like suburbs either but I don’t know if I’d go that far.
*. (2) Sit-down family dinners. These have long been a horror film staple and here they are presented as almost a form of torture for the girls. Though I think this may just be part and parcel of a more general dislike contemporary horror movies seem to have for the traditional family.
*. (3) The fear of growing up and turning into your mother. Understandable, I suppose, when she’s made up like Mimi Rogers. Though it’s interesting that, as with Ginger and Brigitte, the stereotype characters in the movie (like Mimi Rogers’ Mom or the Cool Girl Trina at school) have an extra dimension in this movie, giving them a bit of reality. It may not seem like a lot, but it really helps give the movie a special texture.
*. (4) Menstruation, a.k.a. “the curse.” Yes, that can be scary. As are all of the teen rites of passage here, like boys, piercings, drugs, peer pressure, and even acne.


*. Further to this final point, I found it interesting listening to the commentaries that the link between lycanthropy and menstruation was apparently an afterthought, or at least not part of the original conception of the story (which was apparently more of something in the Cronenberg body-horror vein). Initially Fawcett and Walton hadn’t seen the connection with transformation of the body and adolescence. I think most people see this as being what the movie is all about, and indeed a number of critics found it too obvious and intrusive.
*. Is it a feminist horror film? I don’t think so. I think it’s just a horror film concerned with female characters, and that it doesn’t carry any particularly feminist message. It is “female-centric” (Fawcett), but aside from wanting to stress the point that the boyfriend doesn’t save the day I’m not sure there’s more to it than this. Slightly troubling is the moment at the end when Mom suggests that she and the girls just blow up the house and run off on their own. “Just us girls.” I don’t know if the plan is to blow up Dad with the house, but Mom doesn’t seem too concerned about him either way. Men don’t understand.


*. Fawcett mentions on the commentary that he thought this would be the first werewolf film in history without a shot of the full moon. Actually, it’s a well-known bit of movie trivia that The Wolf Man doesn’t have any shots of the moon.
*. As with most great little movies, the crew really come through. Most of the names are mentioned by Fawcett in his commentary, and for many of the same things I flagged in my initial set of notes, but they’re worth repeating. It’s very nicely photographed by Thom Best, and terrifically lit, giving the effect of washed-out days and orange nights. Best really makes a little go a long way. Wardrobe by Lea Carlson is great, as the girls don’t just look like Goths but dress with a realistic and individual sense of style. Mimi Rogers is also very well turned out in her domestic-eccentric outfits, including jack-o-lantern earrings on Hallowe’en. The score by Mike Shields is resonant and moody, and the sound design by David McCallum works really well. I thought the noises the werewolf makes tearing apart the house at the end really stood out, which is a point that Fawcett remarks on as well.


*. Ginger Snaps is not the best werewolf movie ever, but the fact is that it came at a kind of trough in the genre. I think Walton says on the commentary that the last great werewolf movie before this was An American Werewolf in London, which had been nearly twenty years earlier. Since then the Howling franchise had played out, but there hadn’t been much else going on. Perhaps Silver Bullet (1985), Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994), and Bad Moon (1996) might be mentioned. But that’s not a lot of activity. In the twenty-first century things would take off again with CGI transformations and new monsters, but I don’t think this was progress. In most of these movies werewolves became something like zombies: less characters than a kind of stock prop.
*. They made a couple of sequels, neither of which went anywhere. Given all the difficulties involved in the business of film production (movies are as conformist as the suburbs) you have to accept the success of movies like this as something rare and impossible to duplicate. So enjoy it. Chances are you won’t see anything else like it for a while.


An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)

*. Maybe this was just ahead of its time. Yes, An American Werewolf in London was a horror/rom-com too, but the story here seems bending toward the twenty-first century and YA romantic horror. Think Twilight and Underworld. An American Werewolf in Paris might have just been jumping the gun.
*. It was also jumping the gun with its use of CGI for the werewolf effects. But you don’t always want to be an early adopter of technology. By today’s standards, the CGI looks really bad.
*. Or maybe it was behind the times. I had to keep reminding myself while watching it that it came out in 1997. It seems so 1980s, right from the opening scene on the train introducing the three buddies. Surely one of them must be Ferris Bueller, right? And the soundtrack . . . were we listening to music like that in the ’90s? I wasn’t listening to much music in the ’90s so I don’t know.
*. This is a good example, perhaps the perfect example, of a sequel that has suffered badly because of comparisons to the original. In fact it has almost nothing to do with the original, and was so belated (a reported six years in development hell) that comparisons are almost useless. The actual link between Serafine and Alex Price is, for legal reasons, only implied. There are a couple of nods to An American Werewolf in London — the double-fake dream, the ghosts of the victims following the hero around — but it’s really a stand-alone effort and I think needs to be approached as such.
*. It has enough of its own problems. Aside from Julie Delpy the cast is forgettable. Tom Everett Scott seems too goofy for his part. The direction, by Anthony Waller, is just workmanlike. The plot is full of wild improbabilities, beginning with the dive from the Eiffel Tower. The werewolf effects, as already noted, are terrible. But I think the biggest problem is that there’s just too much going on. All the business with Serafine’s back story, the clan of werewolves led by Claude, the two ghost victims, the buff bro Chris (Phil Buckman) hanging around in a dungeon (couldn’t they have at least given him a shirt to put on?), a police investigation, the old ambivalence in Franco-American relations, the attempt to find a cure for lycanthropy . . . all of this and a boy-meets-girl werewolf story too. It’s hard to keep focused on what’s important.
*. This is a shame, as there some things to like here. I know most people didn’t find it funny, but I thought it had its moments. The condom-bubblegum bit. Andy’s animal instincts being activated by the hottie in the zebra-print skirt. The cop, upon being asked by Andy what he’s being arrested for, replying dryly that “the possibilities are limitless.”
*. But instead of staying light on its feet with witty banter and letting the two leads work together (admittedly, without any trace of chemistry between them), the film gets bogged down in a lot of extraneous matters and predictable action sequences.
*. An American Werewolf in London got a lot of flack when it came out for not knowing what it was about. I don’t think that was a fair criticism of that movie, but it really fits here. The comedy and the romance and the horror remain completely distinct elements. At some point someone had to decide which way they wanted to go with this. They didn’t, and ended up going nowhere. It’s not as painful as some critics have made it out to be, but it sure isn’t very good.

Bad Moon (1996)

*. There’s a basic problem that horror films dealing with classic movie monsters have to deal with. How long do you want to wait before the protagonists figure out what it is they’re up against?
*. This is a problem because the audience, in almost every case, knows what’s going on right from the beginning. They already know this is a vampire/werewolf/zombie movie. So part of the fun is seeing how long it takes the hero to cotton on to what’s happening.
*. But you don’t want to stretch it out too long. After a while an audience will get exasperated, and start muttering at the screen “Damn it, Janet. Your brother is a werewolf. That’s his problem!” Better to err in the other direction, as in the movie Late Phases where Ambrose knows just from hearing some growls and screams next door that he’s up against a lycanthrope. Off to the gun store to buy some silver bullets! And Ambrose is blind!
*. This basic problem is front and center in Bad Moon because the audience, and the family’s dog, Thor, already know that Uncle Ted (Michael Paré) is a werewolf. So it’s frustrating that Janet (Mariel Hemingway) and her son Brett (Mason Gamble) take so long to figure it out. It’s not as though there weren’t enough clues, including Thor’s animosity toward Ted. And while I know in the real world a werewolf probably wouldn’t be everyone’s first guess as to what’s going on, this is a werewolf movie!
*. It’s interesting though that Thor doesn’t pick up on Uncle Ted being a werewolf right away. He initially jumps into his arms and doesn’t give any indication of having suspicions. It’s only after a bit of detective work in the woods that he pieces things together.
*. Sticking with this same line of thought, it’s kind of disappointing that the reveal comes by way of Janet discovering Ted’s werewolf diary, which is read in a voiceover. That’s pretty cheesy, even for fare such as this. But then even that doesn’t convince her as to what’s going on, and she blames Thor for the killings! By this point I imagine a lot of people were throwing things at the screen. “You should have listened to the dog, Janet.” Damn it.
*. Nothing says you’re a heel quite as well as rolling a toothpick in your mouth, does it? It’s a conventional bit of film shorthand, which makes you wonder what people who do it in real life are thinking. I guess it’s just a bad-ass image they’re trying to project.
*. That’s quite a jump Brett (or his double) does off the roof of the house when he’s escaping the house at night. As I mentioned in my notes on Bullitt, it’s unglamorous stunts like this that impress me the most.
*. Hm. So Ted thinks that by “spending time with his family” his lycanthropy might go into remission. Well, I guess if all else has failed . . .
*. The werewolf? Looks pretty good. The transformation scene, however, is weak. Lame early CGI.
*. The novel this was based on, Wayne Smith’s Thor, was apparently told mainly from the dog’s point of view. Obviously this wasn’t going to work for a movie, though they try and do a bit in that way with the doggy POV shots. Unfortunately, that still left them with a situation where the most interesting and compelling character is the dog. It’s a small cast, and the three leads are pretty much just types: the boy, his mom (who is just defending her boy, same as Thor), and the cursed uncle.
*. The centrality of the dog, however, is really the movie’s only claim to our attention. Aside from that, this is a very conventional werewolf movie, obvious in almost every respect. There’s the bit where they introduce the book on lycanthropy with all the old woodcuts of werewolves (though this plays no part in the story at all), there’s the jump scare that turns out to be a nightmare that Janet wakes up from, there’s the caricature asshole of Flopsy who we know is going to be werewolf fodder right from the moment of his introduction.
*. Then there is the matter of tone. I think they never settled on this. It seems as though it should be a sort of YA horror-comedy along the lines of Fright Night or Silver Bullet, but there’s nothing funny going on and the sex at the beginning feels out of place. What we’re left with is a simple werewolf vs. dog story that plays out very predictably. It might have worked as a TV-movie, but bombed on the big screen. It’s a good marker of the doldrums the werewolf genre had hit in the ’90s. Something was going to have to change for this classic monster to stage a comeback.

Silver Bullet (1985)


*. I guess the full title of this one is Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. But you might have guessed that much.
*. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Stephen King, especially his work in the 1980s, but it is very much of a piece. The nuclear family under stress, threatened children, realistic domestic details, small-town drama. He never strays far from his strengths.
*. Even certain structural elements keep repeating. I was reminded of this here as the Sheriff (Terry O’Quinn) figures out what is going on only to suffer immediate termination. This made me think of Scatman Crothers coming to the rescue (not) in The Shining, or Richard Farnsworth (ditto) in Misery. It’s just a way of teasing the audience into thinking that help is on its way and then yanking the rug out from under them.


*. Tarker’s Mills is another one of those idyllic King communities with a dirty secret. It might be next door to Lumberton (the town in Blue Velvet) or Twin Peaks (where Everett McGill also resides). But where Lynch is weird and surreal, King is grounded in the familiar and the everyday. King believes in the essential normality (and, ultimately, goodness) of life. I don’t think Lynch does.
*. I mentioned King as being particularly good in the ’80s, and just as there’s no mistaking Silver Bullet as a Stephen King movie, there’s also no mistaking its date. The soundtrack would be enough of a tip-off, with its poppy electronic score, but the haircuts clinch it. Also noticeable is the way you get to see so much of Marty’s hair, since back in the day you didn’t have to wear a helmet when riding your motorbike.
*. But more than any of this, the killer’s point-of-view shots are the biggest ’80s giveaway. As James Kendrick observes, Silver Bullet is really “little more than a slasher film in which the slasher is a lycanthrope, rather than a run-of-the-mill psychotic.”
*. I’m not sure who directed what. Don Coscarelli was the original director and apparently filmed part of it, but he resigned at some point and was replaced by Dan Attias. Attias went on to have a very prolific career as a television director but I don’t think he ever made another feature film.
*. One of the things there seems to have been some creative disagreement about was the appearance of the werewolf. I don’t think it looks that bad, but it’s nothing special either. I’d say the same for the transformation scenes. In the end, it’s a movie that’s less interested in the werewolf than it is in the Coslaw family (something that is very typical of King). We don’t really learn that much about the Reverend Lowe, which is a bit of a shame since he seems to be a tortured soul. When Uncle Red asks Jane a basic question like how he became a werewolf she just shrugs, and so does the rest of the film.


*. The bit at the end where Marty has to pluck the silver bullet out of the grate had to be borrowed from Strangers on a Train. It’s not in the book. It remains just a throwaway homage here though, as this is never a very suspenseful or scary film in the Hitchcock manner.
*. Roger Ebert thought the comic parts saved an otherwise very bad movie, but he wasn’t sure if they were intentional. I think they were, and I wouldn’t say this was a bad movie. It is, however, a horror film for young people. It has the feel of an after-school special, even with its occasional bursts of gore. That may be why it did so poorly at the box office. It rated as a tweener.
*. Most of the credit for what’s good has to go to the script. It’s not great, but it’s proficient: an effective arrangement of set-piece scenes (based on a novella, Cycle of the Werewolf, that was itself a collection of short stories all set in the same town). The plot builds just as it should, there are well paced reveals, and overall it makes for a nice blend of darkness and humour. Over thirty years later, it’s held up very well.


An American Werewolf in London (1981)

*. Re-watching this movie after not having seen it for decades led to a slight feeling of let down. I had very fond memories of it from back in the day, but seeing it again I was less impressed. It’s still a fun, quirky little movie, but there’s less here than I remembered.
*. Among the things I’d forgotten: what an asshole David is. I’m prepared to give him a pass for running away when the werewolf attacks Jack, because at least he does go back to help (when it’s too late). But when he won’t take off his headphones when Nurse Price is talking to him he’s being a real jerk. That kind of behaviour would get you some rough treatment in most hospitals. But he’s cute and she’s already fallen in love with him, so she ends up hand-serving him his food and decides she’d like to take him home with her. Sheesh.
*. On a related note, it’s a little thing, but I kept wondering why David was being kept in the hospital for so long when there seemed to be absolutely nothing wrong with him. And in a private room no less (Griffin Dunne refers to it as “a real full-service hospital” on the DVD commentary). David must have had some good insurance. Even in 1981 you couldn’t expect luxury like that.
*. Meanwhile, I like how on the commentary Dunne asks David Naughton why his character’s parents never visited him in the hospital. I was wondering that myself. I guess someone told them that he wasn’t badly injured, though he’d apparently been in a coma for quite a while.
*. Whatever happened to David Naughton? Jenny Agutter? Griffin Dunne? Dunne was in After Hours, so that’s something. Agutter (who had been on screen since the age of 12 and played the Girl in Walkabout) did a lot of TV. Hey, they all kept busy working, which in itself is an achievement for an actor. But it’s strange that none of these relatively young stars, appearing in a hit movie, really went on to have big careers. The curse of the werewolf, maybe.

*. Rick Baker won the first Best Makeup Academy Award for his work on this film, though the actual transformation scene, and there’s really only one, doesn’t last long. Still, I think it holds up pretty well nearly forty years later. And Griffin Dunne’s decaying body is just as impressive in many ways. I still look at his shredded throat and wonder how they managed to give it such a realistic appearance of depth.

*. By the way, is there any consensus of when you use “makeup” or “make-up”? In the credits, Baker is said to be in charge of “make-up,” and that’s the way I’ve usually spelled cosmetics and such. But I think more often now we say makeup (as the Academy Awards do, for example).
*. Baker was surprised that Landis didn’t want a bipedal werewolf. It was an untraditional choice, especially coming from a director with such a strong sense of tradition. And usually the four-footed variety of werewolf are played by actual wolves, or dogs (I’m thinking of The Beast Must Die or Wolfen). The only other four-footed, special-effect werewolves I can think of are in Ginger Snaps and Brotherhood of the Wolf (even in the sequel to this film, An American Werewolf in Paris, the creatures move around upright unless they’re in a hurry). I’m sure there have been others, but the point stands that it’s not a conventional choice.

*. I thought it interesting to hear John Landis, in an interview included with the DVD, referring to the transformation scene in sexual terms: “essentially it’s an erection metaphor.” He likens lycanthropy to puberty, with the growth of hair where you never had it before and a painful, uncontrollable swelling.
*. Now to some extent this has always been implicit in the werewolf psycho-mythology. The wolf-man is the beast within, the unleashed id that can’t wait to rip its clothes off and wreak havoc on convention. But what makes An American Werewolf in London odd is that David has already got the girl and taken her to bed before he turns into a wolf. After he goes through his transformation he is no longer a sexual threat but merely a wild dog ripping people’s heads off.

*. Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” was released in 1978. Why isn’t it on the soundtrack here? It’s hard not to think it was some kind of inspiration, though Landis has said he had a draft of the script written as early as 1969. On the commentary, Naughton and Dunne say they don’t know why Landis didn’t obtain the rights to it. Maybe it was too expensive, as it was a pretty big hit.
*. What I still like about this movie is the friendship between David and Jack that survives death, and the whole business of Jack’s genial, decomposing corpse showing up to offer advice. This was something new, and it works really well. I don’t mind the quick ending, or the blend of comedy and horror, but the comic parts really aren’t that funny (aside from the bit where David and Jack arrive at the tavern) and there’s very little horror. This makes it seem longer than I remember it, which is always a bad sign. Still, there are plenty of good parts and those are what stick with you.

The Beast Must Die (1974)


*. I can’t help feeling that Amicus missed an easy trick by not putting an exclamation mark at the end of the title. On some posters I’ve seen they have added one, and it’s something they’d done before (And Now the Screaming Starts!). I think the title should really be The Beast Must Die!
*. But, believe it or not, I think they were aiming for class with this one. At least producer Max Rosenberg said he wanted something “monolithic.” Nobody knew quite what he meant.
*. And Then There Were None meets The Most Dangerous Game. And those were both good movies. Plus this one has a werewolf in it. So it couldn’t really miss, could it?
*. But wait, there’s more to like! There’s a swingin’ ’70s soundtrack (they wanted a “gothic-sounding Shaft sound,” construe that how you will), and a gimmicky “werewolf break” where the movie stops and you’re given 30 seconds to decide who’s the lycanthrope.
*. There’s also a black lead: Calvin Lockhart, apparently cast in a bid to cash in on the blaxploitation craze. There was even an alternate version released as Black Werewolf, a title which manages to be both sleazy and totally inaccurate (though this version does omit the “werewolf break,” which some may take as a blessing).


*. Even some of the stuff you probably should hate isn’t all bad. The werewolf, for example, gets a lot of criticism because it’s just a German Shepherd wearing a ruff. But I like this kind of werewolf. Let’s face it, most werewolves look pretty stupid. Whereas a real wolf on its own can be pretty scary. I liked the real wolves in Wolfen for the same reason. And as director Paul Annett says, since they had no budget for this film, any werewolf makeup they did was going to look terrible anyway. So: good call.
*. At least most of the time it’s a good call. Annett does his best to sell us on the werewolf-dog with lots of quick cuts, but in the final stand-off between it and the Great Black Hunter, let’s face it, he just looks like a big goofy dog who wants to play. I mean, he isn’t even snarling like he’s angry. He’s just standing there with his tongue hanging out, looking silly.
*. All of this, plus a more than capable cast, and we should be in for a good time. Or, as Kim Newman calls it, “mindless, trashy fun of the first order.”
*. Unfortunately, it’s not as much fun as it sounds. And I’m not sure why.
*. Part of the problem might be the pacing, which lost me early. The opening chase goes on too long (13 minutes), and is slackly handled. Especially since we’ll probably twig to what’s really going on pretty quickly if we’ve ever seen the opening of a Bond movie (the beginning of From Russia with Love comes to mind). Then there’s another long, pointless car chase later in the movie as Jan tries to escape. This was another addition made at the producer’s insistence, and what they were trying to do was get more action into the movie. But it’s just filler (Annett: “extremely gratuitous”), and the time could have been spent on more interesting things.
*. Actually, I wonder if the Bond films were in mind in more ways than one. Tom Newcliffe’s estate sure looks like the lair of a Bond villain (I believe it’s the Little Park House at Shepperton Studios), and Lockhart has the right eccentric look and urbane, overconfident patter. By the way, did you know he played King Willie in Predator 2? I didn’t, and was surprised to find out.
*. The concept suggests a well-made plot full of red herrings and clever intricacies, but in fact it boils down to something hard to swallow just from the set-up. Why is Tom so sure that one — and only one — of his guests is a werewolf? His evidence is circumstantial at best.


*. Then Tom alienates us further by the fact that he is both a lousy detective and a lousy hunter. In the case of the former, surely it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who among the guests is the werewolf. One can think of several certain, and safe, ways to do so. But at times he seems to be actually trying hard not to solve the mystery. As for the hunting, he’s good at blowing off lots of silver bullets on full auto, but he can’t hit anything unless it’s lying right on top of him. Unless it’s putting Old Yeller down, or blowing up his own helicopter.
*. Some of these script problems resulted from freestyling on a source story, “There Shall Be No Darkness” by James Blish, that the final script has almost nothing in common with aside from some of the characters’ names (on the commentary Annett admits he hadn’t read the story before making the movie, but wishes he had). Even the scientific explanation for lycanthropy given by Dr. Lundgard is different (its root is given in the story as the pineal gland, but here the mutation is located in the lymphatic system).
*. I love the story Annett tells on the commentary about how, when he told Peter Cushing and Charles Cray to get started playing a game of chess so they could be a few moves into it when filming, they told him that neither of them knew how to play. This surprised him, and it would have surprised me too. I’m no chess player, but I do know the rules and I guess I’ve always thought that most people do. But I wonder how many people actually do know how to play chess.
*. Annett thought the business of passing the silver bullet from mouth to mouth was “sexy.” I’m not sure modern audiences will agree. Cushing at least wipes his down. It’s not at all clear though whether they are each using different bullets or circling with the same one. There’s some discontinuity between the action and what people are saying.
*. The “werewolf break” is silly (and was added by the producers, much to Annett’s displeasure), but it still might have worked if this had been a true “fair play” whodunit. The model here isn’t William Castle but those detective stories (I believe by Ellery Queen) where there was a note in the text saying when you (the reader) now had all the evidence you needed to solve the crime. But the evidence here is pretty vague, and in any event is never gone over by Tom. Instead, he relies on another silver test.
*. I’ll back Newman up part way and call this mindless, trashy fun, if not of the first order. Still, in the annals of horror there’s nothing else quite like it. That alone makes it worth a look.


The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)


*. There’s a moment in An American Werewolf in London when David asks his British girlfriend Alex (Jenny Agutter) if she’s seen The Wolf Man and she responds “Is that the one with Oliver Reed?” I think it’s a clever bit of dialogue that lets John Landis show off his knowledge of old horror movies while at the same time highlighting the cultural divide between the two characters.
*. Is it realistic? Probably not. I doubt the character of Alex would be more familiar with The Curse of the Werewolf (the one with Oliver Reed) than she would be with the classic Universal film. But it’s still a nice way of acknowledging a little bit of werewolf-film history, one that I think by now is largely forgotten except by hardcore fans of the genre.
*. I don’t like this movie much, but it does have its defenders, and even fans. I think you have to either be unconditionally in love with Hammer horror films or Oliver Reed to find it worth watching. I’m not against either, but there are limits to my appreciation of both.
*. What separates opinions on it the most is the long introductory prologue, which gives us the werewolf’s back story. I applaud Hammer for trying to do something a bit different here, but it doesn’t work. In large part, I think, because they couldn’t go with the original idea, which was to have the beggar be the werewolf. Apparently the censors didn’t want the mute girl being raped by a werewolf. Being raped by a crazy old man in a dungeon was better.
*. Without that rather essential bit of the origin story, the movie is stuck having to provide a rather lame explanation for Leon’s lycanthropy. He’s born on Christmas day with a divided soul. Or something like that. I get the sense that everyone was a bit embarrassed by this part.
*. I’ve read arguments for the importance of the introduction, but it seems to me to waste a lot of time giving us unnecessary information. Unnecessary and uninteresting. It’s also claimed that what we find out here makes Leon a more sympathetic figure, but most werewolves are sympathetically drawn. We felt sympathy for Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man, and that movie was only 70 minutes long. We’re over 45 minutes into this one before Oliver Reed even appears.


*. This sense of wasting time is actually present throughout the movie. I’m not against movies that move slowly, but The Curse of the Werewolf really drags its heels. There’s all sorts of talk that goes nowhere. At the tavern an old man in his cups tell us: “It’s the night of the full moon, and you know what that means.” “What?” “It means that things are abroad.” “Things? What sort of things?” “Strange things, that should not be spoken of.” After which pronouncement he empties his glass and leaves.
*. Then, after taking such a long time to get going, there’s not much werewolf on offer, and what there is doesn’t impress. Basically this is just the Jack Pierce Wolf Man with less hair on his face and showing some grey. There is no good transformation scene. He also doesn’t do much in the climax but run around on the rooftops while villagers shake torches at him.
*. The climax does have one bit the impressed me. Throwing that burning hay bale into the crowd was surprising. You never know which way those things are going to bounce when they hit the ground, or how far. That was dangerous!


*. Wow. Is Justin Walters as Young Leon an uncanny younger version of Oliver Reed or what? That must be an interesting side of casting.
*. The subtitles during the baptism scene tell us the priest is “Speaking Spanish.” Obviously it’s Latin. Writing subtitles must be an interesting job too.
*. This was Oliver Reed’s debut (or at least first credited appearance). He’s intense to the point of being over the top. He just has that air of being a dangerous guy. This should have worked better with this material, but the script isn’t interested in werewolf psychology. It’s ultimately more of a spiritual/supernatural thing.
*. Hammer was riding a gravy train resurrecting Universal’s classic monsters, but this was their only werewolf movie. I don’t know if this was because of box office or just lack of interest, but I’m not disappointed. I wouldn’t want more movies like this.