1 Hr., 37 Mins.
An American Werewolf in London / The Howling October 29, 2018
The clashing imagery and music are harbingers of the fish-out-of-water conceit the feature will capitalize on. The song is a wink, too. The moon, which may, in fact, look blue-like in certain hours of the evening, will come to be an enemy of An American Werewolf in London’s lead. He will, as promised by the movie’s title, soon be an American werewolf wandering about London.
As the montage concludes and Vinton’s croons drift away, the camera homes in on a truck. It is carrying sheep, and, more eye-catchingly, a pair of young men wearing tumid outerwear. They are Jack and David (Griffin Dunne and David Naughton), college-aged friends backpacking across all of England’s most talked-about hotspots. Currently, they are roaming the Yorkshire moors, where nothing is quite as Gothic or stormily romantic as the Brontë sisters described.
Most of the afternoon is spent walking and talking. The 20-somethings, who are students at New York University, chat about girls, pop culture, and life. (Though mostly girls: at the moment, Jack isn’t sure whether a crush likes him back, and it’s become something of an obsession.) They’re impressively chipper, considering the depression-fostering gloom that surrounds them.
Just as night falls, they mosey into a hamlet at the center of the uplands. Tired and hungry, they walk into, much to Jack’s dismay, the worryingly titled The Slaughtered Lamb, the village’s only pub. “Would you rather the Hilton?” David says, poker-faced.
Upon entering, Jack’s skepticism seems not so unfounded. The bar, covered wall to wall with incensed-looking locals, goes silent; its landlady, though eventually encouraging them to stay, is at first openly hostile. A five-pointed star, usually occult-oriented or something you’d find in a Lon Chaney, Jr.-starring werewolf movie, adorns one of the chipped wooden walls.
Conversation among the pub’s patrons soon goes back to normal. But after David inquires just what the star symbol represents, the room, again, goes quiet, leading the oblivious travelers to decide that maybe stopping by The Slaughtered Lamb was a bad decision in the first place. As they depart, pieces of advice are popcorned around the room. Things like “stay on the road,” “stay clear of the moors,” and “beware the moon” are uttered.
After retreating from the bizarre experience, Jack and David, though at first wont to attempt to pass all the paranoid chatter off as nonsense, start to notice that the habitués’ tip-offs weren’t for nothing. Once they stray off the road, strange, otherworldly noises begin circling about. Growls start peppering the atmosphere. Then, suddenly, a wolf-like creature lunges at Jack, viciously ripping his throat out. In part due to providential interference by the townsfolk, David is only injured, covered in scratches and muffed-up bites, and promptly taken to a hospital in London.
You can infer much of what happens next: The title is hardly a misnomer. But even if the moniker’s straightforward, and sets up a sort of storyline that would otherwise be difficult to muck up, An American Werewolf in London is, though stylistically adroit, a wishy-washy, incomplete-feeling jumble. The film was written and directed by John Landis, of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) fame, and, clearly, was intended to make for an adjunction of the Landis brand: keep up the attractively puerile, vaguely absurdist sense of humor but sauce those sensibilities with Bride of Frankenstein (1935)-like quasi-horror.
An American Werewolf in London is like an acted-out pitch. It is reminiscent of a first draft; the ending, inane and abrupt, antes up a feeling of unfinishedness. No room is made for character development, either: Jack and David are students, friends, and backpackers, but little is known about their backgrounds; how long they’ve known each other and how close they are; and why, exactly, they’ve chosen this particular area to look around.
After Jack dies, he comes back as a living-dead person and informs his friend that, until David kills himself, he, along with any other people he might kill in werewolf form in the near future, will remain trapped between Heaven and Hell. David seems relatively indifferent to his friend’s death. And because Landis cares little about developing Jack as more than a curiosity that moves the story forward and shows off Rick Baker’s makeup (as the film progresses, Jack is presented in various stages of decomposition), our attachment, to him and to David, is minimized.
Because Landis doesn’t regard his characters as much more than self-aware wisecrackers who are aware of 1940s-era werewolf movies and conscious that they are living in the real-life equivalent of one, the incentive to become invested is curtailed. David, who at least is played by an actor as charismatic as the long-eyelashed Naughton, is just a witty victim who is also the other half of a couple: While in the hospital, he starts romancing a nurse (Jenny Agutter), which is, presumably, a development meant to interject immediacy and a sense of loss when the blackhearted finale arrives.
An American Werewolf in London moves about with inept connect-the-dot nonchalance. Standard werewolf movies often move without uncovering new beats. There is our protagonist’s initial run-in with a creature; the realizing that they’re showing symptoms of lycanthropy; the first transformation; the denial; and then, inevitably, the tragic ending. This movie has it all, but its interrupting of the expected platitudes only comes in the form of half-committed satire that doesn’t harmonize. The humor and the horror of An American Werewolf in London make for never-meshing extremes in themselves, and as such does the feature feel like the classic whose status is, in my eyes, dubious.
he first thing we see in An American Werewolf in London (1981), a somehow-seminal comedy-horror debacle, are aerial shots of the English countryside. Our faces are wetted by mist; wind brushes our hair and peach fuzz a notch or two too harshly. The images are inappositely backed by nondiegetic 1950s pop music — specifically Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon,” a ballad from 1963’s Blue on Blue.
1 Hr., 31 Mins.
It stars Dee Wallace, that doll-faced scream queen, as Karen, a television journalist. Although Karen, married and financially stable, is at a comfortable place in her life, her existence as of late has been oxidized: She is being stalked by a cannibalistic serial killer named Eddie (Robert Picardo). As the film opens, she is acting as bait, as part of a police-assisted sting operation, at a porn theater downtown, where she has agreed to meet the man so infatuated with her.
The run-in proves traumatic — though successful from a police standpoint — which leads Karen’s therapist, George (Patrick Macnee), to send her to a place called “The Colony” upstate. He often sends his most disturbed patients to the settlement, which is forest-locked and idyllic from an outsider’s standpoint, as a way to process their emotions in a tranquil setting with like-minded people. Karen’s husband (Christopher Stone) tags along.
The Howling’s primary twists are that everyone at the cabin-riddled encampment is a werewolf and that Eddie was never the conventional human-voring beast he at one time seemed to be. From an artistic standpoint, the movie is about as good as An American Werewolf in London. The special effects, here done by Rob Bottin, are tremendous, and the bloomy cinematography, by John Hora, brings the film’s most nightmarish qualities to the fore. Narratively, though, it is a vast improvement. While this movie’s August peer aimed to merge genres but never managed to fuse them together like clockwork, The Howling embraces its subgenre’s most fantastical characteristics and manages to come out the other side as an atmospheric, tormented exercise. I especially like the ending, which is equal parts nihilistic and over-the-top — descriptors that should maybe be associated with a lion’s share of werewolf films, no?
An American Werewolf in London: C
The Howling: B
ineteen eighty-one was a bustling year for lycanthropes. Aside from An American Werewolf in London’s August release, the year also saw the advent of two other wolf-centric features: the crime world-flavored Wolfen and the more-sensational The Howling, which came in April. The latter, directed by the soon-to-be Gremlins (1984)-helmer Joe Dante, taps into An American Werewolf in London’s tonal febrility, with more