Saturday, April 5, 2014

An American Werewolf in London


Joseph, my manager, has had a difficult time coming up with new projects for me, due to my recent incarceration at the Benny Ford clinic. Apparently, my unavailability led to my being passed over for the leads in a new film musical version of Mourning Becomes Electra and for a recurring role in the new season of The Sopranos in which I would have played Livia's conniving little sister, desperate to revenge herself on Tony. C'est la vie. He has lined up another cruise ship gig, this time in Hawaii. I leave in a day or two and have strict instructions to avoid the Vitamin E at all costs.

I returned home to Chateau Maine to find several months worth of messages on the desk, including bills and some bad news about my retail empire. The recent closing of Cats on Broadway has limited the demand for GlamourPuss gowns. (Fajer and Hellmann, my attorneys, have been instructed to sue Andrew Lloyd Weber.) Sales are also down for my lower priced VickiWear line and for Lesterene brand makeup. I may have to do another infomercial to get the word out that MNM quality products are still available.

Having digested more bad news than I care to, I retired to my opulent home theater and slipped a DVD into the machine. This evening's choice was An American Werewolf in London, John Landis's 1981 genre bending horror comedy which launched the modern science of film makeup and prosthetics. Rick Baker earned the first ever Academy Award for makeup for this film with its unequaled wolf transformation scenes. It was recently rereleased on DVD with a new commentary track and various extras in honor of its 20th anniversary.

In the film, David Naughton (best known for his Dr. Pepper commercials) plays David and Griffin Dunne (best known for his celebrity chasing father) plays Jack, nice young Jewish American college kids spending the summer in Europe. Their first stop is Northern England where they make the mistake of tramping the moors after dark. They arrive at a little town with a big secret, entering a pub called 'The Slaughtered Lamb' which is filled with various creepy types straight from Central Casting's 1930s Universal monster picture file. After much foreshadowing and warnings not to stray from the path, off they go, lambs to the slaughter where they're set upon by a werewolf. Jack is killed, becoming a deteriorating zombie and David survives, hospitalized in London.

Soon Jack the corpse appears to David explaining that he's now a werewolf who will kill others when the moon becomes full. David begins to have wild dreams of running naked through the forest and chomping down on deer and it's all complicated when he falls in love with his pretty nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter). David eventually undergoes his horrific transformation to wolf, the body count mounts, and everything climaxes in an over the top battle in Piccadilly Circus.

Landis's young stars are game and he gets the balance in tone between horror and comedy right for about three fourths of the film. There are some sublimely funny black comedy moments including Frank Oz as an officious American diplomat, a gathering of freshly killed zombies in a porno theater who are trying to help poor David decide what to do about his wolf future, and a naked David trying to escape from the London Zoo. Even some of the horror sequences, including David's initial rampage as the wolf, are darkly comic as his victims are introduced in somewhat silly ways; they can switch quickly to minor masterpieces of frisson inducing fright, especially a beautiful sequence set in the London Underground. The last sequence, however, involving the wolf, a massive traffic pile-up, the SWAT team, and love denied are too over the top. Landis goes from the darkly comic to the ugly and visceral and the finale seems lifted from another film entirely. It's as if he did not know how to end his tale so he simply threw everything he had at the screen.

The true star of the film, however, is not Naughton or Dunne, but rather the talented makeup artist Rick Baker. Baker and Landis made a decision that they wanted to show a brutal, painful transformation from man to wolf and they succeeded brilliantly. The scene in which David becomes a wolf for the first time is beautifully staged and a true classic moment in film showing the transformative power of makeup effects, perhaps one of the finest moments in transfiguration since the heyday of Lon Chaney. The progressive stages of decay of Jack from freshly killed corpse to rotted zombie are also great fun, only the last, which is obviously a puppet, doesn't work so well.

The DVD contains a sparkling print of the film in its original aspect ratio with good use of Dolby 5.1 sound. There is a commentary track with Naughton and Dunne discussing their memories of the filming. There are a number of featurettes including a contemporaneous 'behind the scenes' documentary, a modern interview with Landis, a modern interview with Baker and some archival footage of how some of the makeup effects were achieved.

Stolen balloons. Naked David Naughton. Naked Jenny Agutter. No naked Griffin Dunne. scrawled pentagram. Gratuitous decapitation. Subway stalking. Bad 'knock-knock' joke. Nazi monsters.

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