It’s October, the month of Halloween and what would be more clichéd than doing a countdown of top horror films, so fully admitting to being a walking cliché, I will be doing a series of blogs running down the films in my own personal top 20. Here’s the previous blogs for numbers 20, Audition, 19, Night of the Demon, 18, Zombie Flesh Eaters, 17,Last House on the Left and 16 The Beyond.
As I hit a quarter of the way through my list I present to you the sheer wonderfulness of John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London.
In the early 80’s there was a little bit of a werewolf revival with this and The Howling, a film that nearly made this list (though there is another werewolf film to come) but lost out purely because of one scene in American Werewolf that’s not in the Howling.I’ll get to that in a bit.
Here’s the Wikipedia synopsis:
two young American men, David Kessler (played by Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Dunne), on a backpacking holiday in England. Following an awkwardly tense visit to a village pub, the two men venture deep into the moors at night. They are attacked by a werewolf, which results in Jack’s death and David being taken to a London hospital. Through apparitions of his dead friend and disturbing dream sequences, David becomes informed that he is a werewolf and will transform at the next full moon.
The film also features a wide selection of British talent, most notably Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, the brilliant Brian Glover and a very, very young Rik Mayall. These actors are used as the straight men to the two American lead actors mainly jokey tone throughout most of the film, though Naughton’s increasing sense of doom is so well portrayed that by the time we get to a painful scene where he attempts to pluck up the courage to kill himself in a phone box in Piccadilly Circus we’re no longer laughing.
Before all this we get a wonderfully woven story of loss, romance and of course, giant fuck-off werewolves ripping people apart not to mention a transformation scene designed by Rick Baker that’s simply still one of the most amazing bits of cinema history.
Though it needs to be compared with Rob Bottin’s work in The Howling’s big transformation scene.
Baker’s work is the better work, but his final design for the werewolf is less demonic than Bottin’s. Both scenes are great but Baker’s is the one which stands the test of time better, though Bottin’s would go onto other films, which again is a subject for a later blog in this series.
American Werewolf was one of those films everyone of a certain age seems to have seen first on ropey VHS copies & never saw on the big screen. Luckily I did see it on the big screen thanks to the Glasgow Film Theatre’s habit in the mid-80’s to often show genre and exploitation films, something many art-house cinemas tend not to do anymore. Pity.
It was also a film I saw before I ever visited London, so this is where we get to the scene I mentioned earlier. This one in fact.
I’ve been on Tottenham Court Road tube hundreds of times over the years. Every single time I’ve thought of that scene which has made me crap myself every single time as frankly, I find the London Underground utterly terrifying, sad, lonely, pathetic and astonishing all at the same time. If by this point you only think of John Landis as a director of comedy films (as everyone did when this was first released) then by this scene you’re convinced he’s capable of more. It’s such a shame he only had one more truly great film (Trading Places) in him.
An American Werewolf in London is still a remarkable film as it ends on such a bleak, horrible note that it breaks your heart, but this is the beauty of a film that’s designed to tell a story rather than tick boxes for film executives as most horror films tend to be these days. It’s also a great bit of archive in regards London at a point of time (about a year or two before I first visited London myself) when London was a crumbling seedy but glorious mess, rather than the playground for the rich and wealthy it is now. I dread the inevitable remake.
Til then, watch it again and enjoy a bloody great film.
Next time. Barcelona!