It’s that time of year when we all fall into the trap of re-watching the films that we were introduced to as children. Don’t get me wrong, my Christmas isn’t complete until I’ve seen Macaulay Culkin’s cheeky little face, but this week I took some time out to watch a not so festive film that I’ve had my eye on for some time now: John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. The title says it all really: while backpacking through the Yorkshire Moors, American students David and Jack are subject to a particularly ferocious werewolf attack. Jack dies almost instantly but David is taken to a London hospital, where he begins to have very vivid hallucinations informing him of the beastly fate awaiting him at the next full moon.
The plot itself is nothing out of the ordinary; it’s the atmosphere that makes this a truly eery and, at times, very scary movie. Starting out in the Yorkshire Moors really sets the tone for the rest of the film, which for the most part is absent of life other than David and Jack themselves. When the duo finally stumble upon the infamous Slaughtered Lamb, the welcome is so icy that it made for very uncomfortable viewing. Being from the North of England myself, I couldn’t help but feel we got a bit of a raw deal in terms of representation. I’d honestly expected the locals to greet Jack and David with open arms, thinking they’d be accosted with stews, brews and ale. Instead, however, the locals leave them to wander the Moors despite being all too aware of the dangers that await them. While they are clearly conflicted about doing this, they offer no help until it is too late.
It wasn’t just the Yorkshiremen who were devoid of emotion; every character in the film appears to be burdened with an inability to connect with others. Jack and David appear to share the most genuine relationship, but even one of their conversations turns out to be an hallucination. This lack of emotion makes it hard to sympathise with the plights of any of the characters. Considering such a large portion of the film centres on David coming to terms with his best friend’s death – as well as the fact he is now a werewolf – I expected a much larger range of emotions than we ever get to see. Another surprisingly lacklustre performance came from the man he attacks on the London underground, a married father of two who doesn’t seem to care that his life is left hanging in the balance. Throughout this scene we see very little of the werewolf, which causes the audience’s experience of the creature to depend on the reactions of each victim. When it came to this man’s death, the man just lay on the escalator and passively accepted it. Very strange indeed.
Without a doubt, the best thing about American Werewolf is Rick Baker’s fabulously stomach churning make up. Having seen the famous transformation sequence once before, I was worried that I’d already seen the best thing the film had to offer – but I was wrong. In fact, it’s the make up on supporting character Jack that really steals the show. The original werewolf attack is so fast paced and frantic that we see very little other than blood, which is all very well as there’s other things to focus on at this point. So when Jack returns to David we are finally able to see the truly disgusting effects of the attack. The fact that one side of his face was completely mangled while the other remained untouched made it look all the more dramatic; while Jack may be behaving as if all is well there is no getting way from the fact that most of his face is missing. It’s really a credit to the excellent work of Rick Baker that whenever we see Jack it is in very well-lit locations, since it means there’s no need for any shadowing to enhance the fear factor or to hide any flaws in the special effects. Actually, these scenes are made all the worse by the fact we can see every gruesome detail, including a particularly pesky shred of skin which wiggles as he talks. Rick Baker won his first Academy Award for the effects in this film and it is very easy to see why – every time his make up was featured I was completely transfixed by the gut-wrenchng work he managed to create.
Its easy to see why An American Werewolf in London has become such an iconic film. When you look at the make up, the use of location, and the mix of comedy and horror, it creates a viewing experience that’s s hard not to enjoy. Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no flaws to be found – at times it seems slightly unfinished and some of the cut between scenes are so severe that I was left confused as to exactly what had just happened – but overall I thought it was a great film, one I will certainly be watching again.