Daily Archives: April 17, 2017

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.

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