So, what is it with all the UK re-releases? Not that anyone’s complaining – cinemagoers in Blighty have been given splendid opportunities to take a trip down cinematic ‘memory lane’ recently, with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) receiving silver-screen encores.
More on Welles’ masterpiece presently (Best Film Ever? We’ll see…), but for now, it’s writer-director John Landis’s awesome blend of gasps and gags, An American Werewolf in London (1981), in the spotlight.
Prior to …Werewolf, Landis hadn’t really touched horror, being more inclined to big, dumb fun such as Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1981). Interestingly, however, the humour in this horror homage touches more on the zany irreverence of the Zucker brothers (Airplane! (1980)), with whom Landis worked in his ‘comic-sketchathon’ Kentucky Fried Movie (1977).
The frights, on the other hand, demonstrate a director who was clearly at the top of his game at the time, and who was also gifted with a profound understanding of the horror genre. Needless to say, Landis hasn’t been anywhere near this since.
David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are two 20-something American chums, enjoying a cross-country adventure in the UK before the full responsibilities of college and work claim them for good. Crossing Dartmoor as dusk falls, they stumble upon a ‘friendly’ locals pub with the singular name of ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’. Of course, immediately they enter the hostelry, the music stops and all eyes turn upon them. Needless to say, they don’t take to strangers in these ‘ere parts…
One local, played by Brian Glover, nevertheless attempts to break the ice with a joke about America, which goes down a storm. Jack, however, makes the serious error of asking what the pentacle (a black magic symbol) on one of the pub’s walls represents. Once again, everything stops. Clearly, it’s a community with a secret – realising that they have already outstayed their welcome, the American guests make to leave. ‘Beware the moon, lads!’, a warning from the Glover character, rings in their ears as they depart…and with good reason. There’s a beast on the prowl, and it would appear to like Yankee steaks, extra rare…
There are so many excellent set pieces in this, it would be a pity to reveal any more. Suffice it to say that, while horror and comedy are in fact very closely linked (‘It stops being funny and it starts being horror when it stops being someone else and it starts being you’ – Stephen King), rare indeed is the film that manages to combine the two as seamlessly as Landis’s movie. In addition, Rick Baker’s transformation SFX (for which he won an Oscar) still stand up wonderfully more than a quarter-century on, and this has, bar none, the most frightening is it/isn’t it? dream sequence ever committed to film.
Jenny Agutter is in it too (never a bad thing) as Nurse Alex Price (yes, you do get to see her in the uniform) and it is her relationship with Kessler that forms the tragic element so essential to the werewolf mythos. A reminder of how great horror should be made – a pity that most modern directors no longer seem to care.