Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing. Today, we’ll take a look at John Landis’ horror-comedy genre mashup, An American Werewolf in London.
The First Viewing
In the early stages of my transformation into a werewolfaholic four years ago, people insisted that I must see one film in particular. They were referring to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. I was told that it was one of the genre’s best, if not THE best. They said that the fusion of comedy and horror would knock my socks off. And then it came time to watch it and I committed a few movie-watching sins. For starters, I’d allowed all that I’d heard about it to raise the bar for what it must be. Instead of going in blind, I had enormous expectations. Second, I picked a day when I wasn’t especially in the mood for it, and watched it anyway. It had two strikes against it through no fault of its own.
It should come as no surprise that I wasn’t all that impressed with it. It felt like something of a chore, and I didn’t feel like it came anywhere near living up to the hype. The humor rang through to me, and that was the extent of my enjoyment. But I also knew that the real fault was my own, and that I owed it another watch someday. Last month, I discovered that one of my local theaters would be showing it on the big screen in October and I circled the date. A few days ago, the time for my re-watch had arrived. This time, thanks to the magic of seeing it in a theater instead of on my couch, it would receive the royal re-watch treatment.
It took me all of fifteen minutes into the re-watch to realize just how horribly mistaken I’d been the first time. Those fifteen minutes featured the arrival in East Proctor by David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne); their awkward greeting at the aptly named pub, The Slaughtered Lamb; their departure into the foggy, rainy moor; a whole lot of really creative camerawork used for effect, including some wonderfully gothic shots; and finally, the attack of the beast. I was hooked.
It’s no secret that I hold 1941’s The Wolf Man in very high esteem. American Werewolf does due diligence in using the genre’s alpha dog as a guide. On many occasions, it playfully points out plot elements of The Wolf Man, sometimes for humor and still other times to move the plot along. In fact, the very first nod to the Universal classic comes in the aforementioned first 15 minutes when David and Jack note a pentagram, framed by lit candles, on the walls of the pub. They briefly speculate that it could be supernatural, but Landis quickly makes the film his own by allowing it to spiral into humor about Texas and the Alamo. Later, David postulates that his life is just like Lon Chaney, Jr’s in The Wolf Man in that he’s bound to kill someone he loves. Most importantly, Landis pays homage to the atmospherics of the Universal classic. There are eerie gothic statues and wrought iron architecture peppered throughout the film, even in places they don’t really belong such as modern, 20th century London. Moon shots abound, as does fog, rain, and rolling English countrysides. It was a wonderfully subtle way to establish tone.
Along those same lines, the whole film is enhanced by spectacular visual economy. Many of David’s fevered pre-werewolf dreams are punctuated by a pov camera tracking him through the woods. Just as the werewolf is about to attack David and Jack in the first fifteen minutes, they mention that “it’s circling us!”. Sure enough, the camera pulls a 360 around them, giving a wolf’s eye pov to build suspense. The camera remains restless throughout and it gives the film a sense of chaos and unease as we witness David’s descent into lycanthropic madness. David’s dreams also give the film a lot of economy, moving the plot forward while there really isn’t much happening other than David’s incredibly creepy dreams–sometimes within other dreams.
Equally subtle is the humor. The perfect example comes in the transformation scene. As David undergoes his grisly transformation into a murderous beast, Landis gives us a hilarious smash cut to a toy Mickey Mouse that had been introduced just a few minutes earlier. The seemingly shocked look on Mickey’s face as he witnesses the transformation says it all. A bit later, Landis treats us to the movie’s pivotal scene, which just happens to be in a movie theater. David is forced to meet the undead corpses of his victims, introduced to them by his undead pal, Jack. While David discusses the finer points of killing himself with seven corpses, the film in the background rages on. That film? Porn. It’s loud porn, filled with lots of moaning and hilarious porn soundtrack music.
The soundtrack in general works perfectly, as Landis went to great pains to include nothing but “moon” songs. It sounds hokey on the surface but you have to see how it works, how the two elements interplay, to understand just how perfect the soundtrack is for the film. As for the porn, it helps give the movie a sexual subtext. It’s only after David gets a taste of Alex Price’s sexuality (the female lead, played by Jenny Agutter) that he becomes beastly. And it comes to a boil in a porno theater, where he becomes his most chaotic.
It’s worth noting as well that the beast isn’t overcooked. It is only shown briefly early on–again, visual economy–which helps build the curiosity and suspense. It’d be very easy to hammer it into the viewer’s head but Landis wisely went in a different direction. He held it back, using it when it was most effective.
Thanks to the second viewing, I must now agree with all of those people who initially had told me that An American Werewolf in London is a classic within the werewolf genre. As a horror-comedy, it has had a lasting effect, inspiring other directors to create their own horror-comedy films.