"A naked American man stole my balloons" An American Werewolf in London

No matter how many times I see this movie, I will never grow tired of it. I’m going to write this with only a few minor spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe I can convince you to do so.

If you are a fan of horror or comedy, especially that of the late ’70s/early ’80s, this movie is necessary viewing. The film was written and directed by John Landis, the man behind The Blues BrothersAnimal House, Coming to America, and others. As such, while it is most assuredly a horror movie, it is hilarious. I can’t think of any other horror film which so successfully blends horror and comedy. I guess Shaun of the Dead does, but I’d say it is more comedy than horror.

Let’s start out with the technical stuff. The soundtrack is great, and swings more toward the comedy aspects. Landis chose only songs with the word “moon” in the title, leading to some great, appropriate music (the scene with “Moondance” is particularly effective), as well as moments of juxtaposition (like the transformation scene and the ending). The camera work has its moments of glory, such as David’s dream sequences (which I like to call “naked running montages”), when the camera takes on the POV of the wolf running through the forest. The camera often subs in for the werewolf, so that the audience sees the characters’ reactions to the monster, and the audience must fill in the horror with their imaginations. The low shots are particularly effective in the scene in the tube station, making the hallways look too long and claustrophobic.The script gets a bit melodramatic at times, as does the acting; however, the comedy scenes are fabulously written and acted, and make up for the few slips in the dramatic bits. There are, however, some effective dramatic scenes as well, and there is a particularly sweet scene in a phone booth, which I won’t spoil.

The audience can immediately feel the bromance between the protagonists, and their conversations are always fun to watch because they seem so natural. The Brits are well represented too, with a capable love interest, and a stiff doctor as the skeptic trying to get to the bottom of the werewolf nonsense. The supporting cast is full of memorable smaller parts – the guys in the pub, the detectives (especially the incompetent one), Frank Oz’s cameo as an American ambassador – and they all add to the film.

The humour is one of the things that separates this from other horror films, because the movie never loses it; there are constant jokes and gags against the dark and gruesome scenes. Don’t judge me if you haven’t seen it yet, but there are a few scenes with a porno film that are just hilarious. Those scenes also feature some of the best dark humour in the film, from situation and dialogue. This is the only horror movie that makes me laugh as much as it raises my heart rate, and all of the humour is intentional, unlike some cheesy-thus-hilarious horror movies.

Not just hilarious, as we would expect from John Landis, this movie is scary – it is a horror movie at heart. This movie understands how to use gore. It uses blood pretty liberally at times, but always for a purpose. With a few notable exceptions, we just get snippets of gore – a bloody severed hand on the ground, and that only for an instant. When it does get gory, it isn’t always just to be frightening. The scene in the hospital room (you know which one I’m talking about if you’ve seen it) uses gore liberally to evoke a sense of the uncanny. Everything is nearly normal – the characters act like their normal selves – but there’s something a bit off, and the gore is there to keep you feeling that eeriness. You can’t get used to it, because you can’t take your eyes off of that little flap of skin… I’ll stop here lest I spoil any more, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the scene in the tube station, which is one of the most intense chase scenes I have ever seen.

On top of all of that, you’ve got basically the best werewolf transformation scenes in cinema history. The Oscars invented a category for make up effects that year to award Rick Baker, the make up genius behind the movie. He just won his seventh Oscar for that godawful Wolfman  remake, wherein his talents were underused, and he worked on the Cantina scene in Star Wars. So a pretty accomplished guy. He used puppet and make up to make this excruciatingly long and painful transformation which is still impressive today. You actually get that feeling of “how did they do that” which is so rare now, unless you can understand the computer programs used to create CG effects. You know how nerds (like me) complain about CGI these days? It’s because of movies like this. (Here is an example of his effects, but it’s pretty gory, I don’t want to scare anyone who’s squeamish).

I guess I should admit now that I have a soft spot for werewolf movies, mainly because they tend to consolidate antagonist and protagonist. What’s more frightening than realizing that you are the villain, in a not-split-personality kind of way? These days, you’ll see many tortured vampires with guilty pasts as protagonists, but those movies tend to have evil vamps as well, and the broody vampire is the good guy who has to fight them. Werewolf movies like this one are a bit more ambiguous, I guess. He’s a sort of Jekyll/Hyde figure, where you know that the werewolf isn’t technically the “human” character you see the rest of the time, but that character is still violently killing people at some point in the movie. So what do you do about that? If evil is the nice guy next door, that’s scary – you find yourself questioning or not trusting other people. But if evil is YOU… How do you deal with that? It all becomes very morally ambiguous, and I love that.

I love good werewolf movies, and I’d say that this is the best one I’ve ever seen. Check it out.

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