A Look At Cinema’s Best Scenes, starting with American Werewolf In London…
This month sees the release of Burke And Hare, the true-life tale of the West Port murders that terrified Edinburgh in the late 1820s. It promises to be a delightfully dark comedy from none other than John Landis, the man who put the comedy into horror comedy with the utterly brilliant An American Werewolf In London. Considered by many as the prime example of a horror comedy American Werewolf has become a cult classic that manages to delight new generations thanks to Landis’ universal whit and atmosphere. So what better way to celebrate Landis’ much awaited return than to look at one of his finest moments behind the camera, the infamous werewolf transformation scene.
Having not directed a feature film, Landis has dabbled in TV for a while, since 1998’s Susan’s Plan, Burke and Hare is a welcome return for a man who is responsible for some of the most cult movies ever made.
Having had big success with the Saturday Night Live crew, in the shape of Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis turned his attention to a script he wrote whilst in Yugoslavia, acting as a production assistant on Clint Eastwood vehicle Kelly’s Heroes (1970), almost a decade earlier. Pitched as a comedy horror, the film struggled to find any financial backing for some time. The general belief being that American Werewolf, in script format at least, was neither funny enough nor scary enough. They could not have been more wrong and one of cinema’s most brilliant genre defining films was born.
The importance of American Werewolf In London, in cinematic terms, is that it managed to transcend the horror genre. Infusing it with black comedy in a way that had rarely been seen. Crucial to this was Landis’ insistence that neither the horror nor the comedy would gain more credence than the other. Unlike, for example, From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) where there are moments of horror that starkly juxtapose the moments of humour, American Werewolf achieves both, often at the same time. Witness the protagonist having a conversation with some horrifically mutilated bodies in a cinema screening a questionable adult movie. It is so surreal that you would assume it was straight out of a Monty Python sketch and yet it works so perfectly.
The transformation scene would become one talked about for years to come. Even now it is considered to contain some of the most groundbreaking special effects ever committed to celluloid. If you were impressed by this years Wolfman mutation scene, which shares Rick Baker on special make-up duty with American Werewolf, then this scene will simply blow your mind. Essentially, the introduction of computer technology will mean that we are unlikely to see effects like this ever again, a tragedy considering how stunning they are and how believable they compare to their gigabyte cousins.
Having lost his best friend Jack, played to comic brilliance by Griffin Dunne, to an unknown animal attack on the Yorkshire moors, young American backpacker David (David Naughton) finds himself staying with a London nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter). Despite warnings from his dead friend, David refuses to believe that he is turning into a monster of the night. A few scenes later David will come to believe all to well that his dead friend was telling the truth.
Landis sets the scene to perfection. The audience knows the moment is coming, we’ve been informed as such on numerous occasions, but he has kept it until the half-way point to unleash the true brilliance of his creation. Never letting us feel the tension until the moment is upon us, Landis sets it up by having first a dog then a cat find David less than a welcome visitor.
The build up is littered with dark humour, as is much of the film. David skulks around the flat looking for something to occupy his time, snarling at himself in the mirror before Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’ kicks in thus setting off a pitch perfect off-set to the inevitable horrors that are about to ensue.
Landis keeps his camera high, often looking down on David as he ambles to the fridge for the second time only to mutter; “I’m still not hungry”. Of course it is not long before David will be unable to feed his insatiable appetite.
Finally settling down to read a book David leaps to his feet, his temperature through the roof, and begins to tear off his clothes. Naughton’s performance is crucial to selling the terror of the situation, as the sweat pours and his eyes widen, enough to pop, it is his screams that suck us into the moment. Landis needed the scene to have an impact, to have it look uncontrollably painful. Having found an actor to convey the agony he then turned to make-up effects guru Rick Baker to bring his moon-dwelling creation to life.
Baker utilised stunning practical effects, there were no computer-generated gimmickry here, to morph David’s body into something altogether more terrifying. The Devil is in the detail and Baker’s work is staggeringly intricate. David’s body twists and turns, his hands extend into paws and hair miraculously grows before our eyes. But the real kicker comes when David’s face breaks and extends into a full wolf snout. So impressed with Baker’s work were they that The Academy Of Motion Pictures introduced a new Oscar that year for Outstanding Achievement In Make-Up. Baker would go onto win the award no fewer than 6 times as well as 5 more nominations.
Landis always intended American Werewolf In London to be a comedy with moments of horror. The reality is that it is one of the few films to ever accomplish the both so well. If anything the two go naturally hand in hand. Monitor any horror film screening and invariably people instinctively laugh after they have had a scare. It would go onto inspire countless films, among them another classic in Shaun Of The Dead (2004).
As a direct result of the film Michael Jackson recruited both Landis and Baker for his groundbreaking video Thriller. To this day the transformation scene in American Werewolf In London is unsurpassed by anything else. There is no substitute for Baker’s stunning effects and Landis’ warped mind. Next month will see Landis return to the horror comedy genre with Burke and Hare, starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the titular duo. If it is anything like American Werewolf it will be hysterical and terrifying in equal measure.
Why not see it for yourself? Go, here.