2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge Day 10: An American Werewolf In London (1981)

DAY 10: ANALOGUE MANIPULATORS: Practical effects are the truth. No CGI will be tolerated.

There must have been something in the waters of the Los Angeles River in 1981, as The HowlingWolfenFull Moon High and this film all came out in those same twelve months. While all three are interesting films for different reasons, An American Werewolf In London astounded audiences with its special effects.

Rick Baker’s vision was to have the main transformation — set to Sam Cookie’s “Blue Moon” — happen in real-time, with no cutaways or dissolves. Director John Landis compounded the difficulty of this sequence by insisting that it be shot in bright light. This all led to six ten-hour days of prosthetic make-up, but the results were an Oscar — the first of its kind — for special effects make-up and Baker became a household name. Well, in the house of kids who subscribed to Fangoria.

While he was a production assistant in Yugoslavia on the film Kelly’s Heroes, he witnessed an elaborate gypsy funeral where a criminal was wrapped in garlic and buried feet first in the middle of a crossroads so that he would never rise again. This moment of real-life horror stayed with him for over a decade as he built his career in Hollywood.

The money people thought that this movie was too funny to be scary and too frightening to be hilarious. Time has proven them wrong.

David Kessler and Jack Goodman (David Naughton from March Madness and Griffin Dunne from After Hours) are backpacking through Europe. As they make their way across the moors, they stop at a local club called the Slaughtered Lamb. In the midst of all the fun they’re having, they innocently inquire about the star on the wall and are asked to leave. Seriously — the bar just shuts down and forces them into the night, knowing that they’ll die out there.

Look for Rik Mayall in this scene, playing chess with former pro wrestler Brian Glover. Adrian Edmonson had been invited to be at the shoot but blew it off.

As they walk into the night, the pub owners can only say, “Keep to the road, stay clear of the moors and beware of the full moon.” Of course, that means that our heroes wander off the path and are surrounded by a creature that howls at the full moon. Jack is milled and David barely survives when the pub’s patrons come out to save him. As he passes out, he sees that it wasn’t an animal that attacked, but a nude man.

Three weeks later, David wakes up in a hospital where Inspector Villiers tells him that he and his friend were attacked by a lunatic, while our hero insists that it was a wolf. That’s when things get even weirder — Jack appears, even though he’s dead, and demands that David kill himself before the next full moon. As long as the bloodline of the werewolf continues, Jack will be undead, forced to haunt the world.

As David heals up, he moves in with Alex Price (Jenny Agutter, Logan’s Run), a nurse who helped him get back on his feet. Instead of being able to celebrate young love, Jack’s warnings — and decay — grow more insistent as we get closer to that epic transformation scene.

The rest of the film is a rollercoaster of werewolf attacks and David trying to reason with Jack, who is joined by all of David’s victims inside an adult movie theater. Finally, the police — and Alex — close in.

Today, Landis regrets some of his choices as he made the film, such as cutting certain sequences to earn an R rating. For example, the sex scene when Alex and David finally consummate their relationship was a lot more explicit and there was an action sequence where David as a werewolf would wipe out the homeless along the Thames.  The director also felt that he spent too much time on the transformation scene sequence because he was so fascinated by Baker’s effects.

That said, Landis and Baker were never on the same terms after this film. It took eight years to make the movie and Baker decided to use all of the work he’d created so far for The Howling. Right around the same time, Landis finally got the movie greenlit and called Baker, who had to tell him he was already lining up a werewolf project. After getting screamed at over the phone, Baker left the project in the hands of his assistant Rob Bottin and only consulted on that film.

Special effects would never be the same after this film. Today, the entire transformation would be computer rendered, with those amazing monsters only truly existing on the screen. This film’s effects were so upsetting to even the actors that it caused depression when they first saw how damaged their faces were.

Arrow Video’s release of this film — which you can order from Diabolik DVD — is packed with everything you’ve come to expect from this label. There’s a new 2018 4K restoration from the original camera negative supervised by Landis, as well as two commentaries — one from filmmaker Paul Davis and another with actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. There’s also Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, a newly produced and feature-length documentary by filmmaker Daniel Griffith, Beware the Moon (Paul Davis’s feature-length exploration of the film complete with extensive cast and crew interviews), a new interview with Landis entitled An American Filmmaker in London, and a video essay by Jon Spira (who made Elstree 1976, a movie about ten extras who were in Star Wars) called I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret. There are also discussions on how the movie impacted today’s filmmakers, special effects artists and archival making-of features. If it sounds like Arrow went above and beyond, well — they do this on just about every movie they release.

PS — Please, by all means, avoid An American Werewolf In Paris (starring Tom Everett Scott of Tom Hank’s That Thing You Do!), a movie made by none of these people that has extreme bungie jumping in it. That’s probably the only reason to watch it, actually.

DISCLAIMER: We were sent this movie by Arrow Video, but we’ve alreayd bought it several times and were planning on purchasing this new version anyway. This has no bearing on our review.

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