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Cinophile: An American Werewolf In London

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Nothing puts a dent in your day like becoming a werewolf…

The special effects won Rick Baker and his team 1981’s Academy Award for special makeup effects. Looking back at it, Baker said he cringes at some of the effects: “It was thirty years ago and I was thirty years old and the average age of my crew was like nineteen. There were kids who had never worked on a film before.” He's being modest - the Academy Award they won was the first of its kind.
The special effects won Rick Baker and his team 1981’s Academy Award for special makeup effects. Looking back at it, Baker said he cringes at some of the effects: “It was thirty years ago and I was thirty years old and the average age of my crew was like nineteen. There were kids who had never worked on a film before.” He’s being modest – the Academy Award they won was the first of its kind.

If you want to bemoan Twilight, don’t get offended by sparkly vampires. Lament the fall of the werewolf, a hellish beast recast as My Little Lycan. Fortunately werewolf films have made steady appearances over the ages, so the savagery has not been entirely lost and it is surprisingly hard to pick out a favourite from the genre. 1981 alone had several legendary werewolf films, of which at least two would become big contenders for that top spot. The Howling is certainly a good pick, but many people would decide on John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London.

Landis is a strange candidate to direct a horror film – movies like Three Amigos and Blues Brothers is more his style. But this has made American Werewolf a rather unique contribution to scary movies. It’s a bit strange: you go from wolf attacks in backwater England to sexy nurses to Nazi wolves in dreams to the torn remains of our hero’s dead friend. In between you’ll laugh, cry and witness the world’s most random porno movie scene. That might seem like a bit of a mess, but this is the film’s charm: it pulls all of this and more together in a very slick and coherent experience – and arguably the first proto-comedy horror.

Though it is known today for its special effects, An American Werewolf In London is arguably also the first modern comedy horror. That is, it pulls off great punchlines without ever diluting the horror qualities. Landis wrote the script a dozen years before making the film, but nobody took it serious, saying it was either too funny to be scary or too scary to be funny. But Landis was right when he said it's both. It would gross $30 million off a $10 million  budget - in today's terms that is $74 million off $24 million.
Though it is known today for its special effects, An American Werewolf In London is arguably also the first modern comedy horror. That is, it pulls off great punchlines without ever diluting the horror qualities. Landis wrote the script a dozen years before making the film, but nobody took it serious, saying it was either too funny to be scary or too scary to be funny. But Landis was right when he said it’s both. It would gross $30 million off a $10 million budget – in today’s terms that is $74 million off $24 million.

That’s why American Werewolf stands out so well – it’s not your usual horror, but still entirely that and then some more. Well, that and one other thing…

American Werewolf’s story and acting qualities is what makes it such an evergreen film. But it’s David, our protagonist, turning into a werewolf that sealed the deal 33 years ago. It introduced the world to the soon-to-be-legendary Rick Baker, whose creature transformation sequence remains one of the greatest moments in special effects history. This is just one of several special effects gems in the film, such as David’s continuously rotting undead friend – trapped in limbo due to the werewolf’s curse. This has helped make An American Werewolf In London the gold standard of the genre – practically everything since has aspired to match its mix of grim humour, human tragedy and brain-searing special effects.

Best Scene: In a film that even has machinegun nazi wolves, it’s hard to choose.

Best Quote: The undead surround me. Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely! Kill yourself, David, before you kill others.

John Landis would go on to direct the infamous music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller, again collaborating with Rick Baker to create legendary special effects. Jackson hired the duo for his video after seeing American Werewolf. Initially the porno theatre scene was suppose to be showing a Roadrunner cartoon - when Landis wrote the script, that was the main type of show around Piccadilly Circus. But when he returned to London ten years later, those had turned into porno theatres.
John Landis would go on to direct the infamous music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, again collaborating with Rick Baker to create legendary special effects. Jackson hired the duo for his video after seeing American Werewolf. Initially the porno theatre scene was suppose to be showing a Roadrunner cartoon – when Landis wrote the script, that was the main type of show around Piccadilly Circus. But when he returned to London ten years later, those had turned into porno theatres.

 

 

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

 

 

Last Updated: March 17, 2014

12 Comments

  1. One of the best Werewolf films I seen was Bad Moon. Sure it didn’t have the best story but I thought was pretty cool and made me jump as a kid in all the right places.

    Reply

    • James Francis

      March 17, 2014 at 17:33

      Thanks, I didn’t know about it! That’s one for the list.

      Reply

  2. General JJ the Fett

    March 17, 2014 at 14:29

    Legend!

    Reply

  3. The D

    March 17, 2014 at 14:51

    That werewolf transformarion scene, is what nightmares are made from. Best damn special effects, ever.

    Reply

    • James Francis

      March 17, 2014 at 17:34

      Apparently it was a huge challenge, as the scene had to be very physical, appear very painful and take place in bright light.

      Reply

  4. xdvd

    March 17, 2014 at 15:21

    I am always torn between this and the Howling. Both films the best in the genre.

    Reply

    • James Francis

      March 17, 2014 at 17:35

      Agreed, though I am also partial towards Wolf and Dog Soldiers.

      Reply

      • xdvd

        March 17, 2014 at 17:43

        Like you said, there are just too many. Loved Dog Soldiers as well as Ginger Snaps (the first one), Silver Bullet and even Full Eclipse (as bad as it is).

        Reply

        • James Francis

          March 17, 2014 at 18:37

          A werewolf film with Mario Van Peebles? I’ve got to see that…

          Reply

          • Skyblue

            March 20, 2014 at 23:08

            Lol, don’t, trust me.

      • Skyblue

        March 20, 2014 at 23:08

        DUDE! Dog Soldiers! Wicked flick! Must say that An American Werewolf in London was the scariest thing (The Thing was scarier) I had ever seen at that point in my life. I think the badly copied Betamax version I saw actually made the movie scarier as it looked more like a documentary than a movie.

        Reply

        • James Francis

          March 22, 2014 at 09:42

          I can just imagine – those old tapes did add something to some movies…

          Reply

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