Saturday, September 15, 2012

80s Revisited: An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Written and directed by John Landis; produced by George Folsey, Jr.

I saw this was on Netflix and since I'm in the mood for spooky movies, I decided it was pretty ripe for an 80s Revisited post. I've seen it before a couple of times--once in high school, once just after--but I never really "got" it. Hell, the second time I watched it, I fell asleep halfway through. So I figured it was time to really sit and decode this movie that, when I first saw it in 1991, was being sold to me by people I knew as a horror comedy classic.

Turns out that, 20 years later, I still don't get it. But I'm really not sure that John Landis gets it, either.

I hate to be one of these guys, but: is this a horror movie with some funny bits in it or a comedy with an uncomfortable amount of gore? Because it only mildly succeeds at being either one, and neither parts fit comfortably together.

In this movie, David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two college students backpacking across England who are attacked by a werewolf. Dunne dies, and Naughton survives to fall in love with his nurse (Jenny Agutter, so I don't blame him for a second, because wow do I really dig her). Then Dunne visits him, one of the living dead, cursed to decompose in limbo until the line of the werewolf who killed him is ended forever; he urges Naughton to kill himself before he turns into a wolf and starts slaughtering people. And that's where the drama and suspense are supposed to come from, except the drama doesn't really work and it's not that suspenseful.

I hate to sound like I'm being a dick about this movie, because there were parts of it that I thought worked really well. There were even things that I thought were great, like the makeup (particularly on Griffin Dunne, who is more rotted every time we see him) and some of the werewolf mythology. There are some truly scary dream sequences that seem like they're pulled out of a particularly disturbing issue of Heavy Metal. When it's acting like an old Hammer flick and just enjoying its atmosphere and mood, I'm really into it. When it's a drama about a college kid falling in love with an English nurse, I'm less engaged. Griffin Dunne is really good and engaging in this; David Naughton seems personable, but except for a touching scene where he's planning to commit suicide but first calls and talks to his little sister in America and asks her to tell their parents that he loves them, I just wasn't caught up in his story.

And the combination of humor and gore don't really work here, because a lot of the gore is really sort of hard-edged. It doesn't mesh with the moments of lightness. The upbeat soundtrack seems gimmicky; there's a dramatic scene of poor David Naughton, killed by police fire, freed from the werewolf's curse, and then Landis smash-cuts to the end credits and the Marcels' version of "Blue Moon." It's just not as witty as he thinks it is.

Maybe I'm complaining because he does too good a job in getting me to care about David's well-being and what happens to him, but then expects me to laugh at the irony of juxtaposing the drama of his death with upbeat tunes. It just doesn't work for me, and it kind of makes me feel like John Landis doesn't really care as much about the parts of his film that really work. He's making fun of them instead of committing to them.

Still, the movie inspired a Meco song that's a Halloween staple for me, so that's pretty good.


Splotchy said...

I love this movie, the mix of genres, the gore, everything.

I think the meshing of the genres can be jarring, but it works for me, I guess.

I think Landis has far more empathy for the characters than you give him credit.

I don't know. I have always loved this movie for so many reasons.

Dr. Monkey Hussein Monkerstein said...

Sometimes we get hung up on 'getting' things when we should just accept that things are.

SamuraiFrog said...

Actually, I get hung up on "getting" things when they're not good, interesting, or involving enough to accept for what they are.

Splotchy said...

Also, about the cut at the end that goes into the uptempo "Blue Moon" -- I didn't feel like I was expected to laugh. I felt Landis was really pushing horror and comedy into the same space, but not tempering each as a result.

The time when the werewolf was at loose in London, all that chaos, people getting squashed by cars, etc. It was really horrifying. There was no levity in that scene at all.

Then you have another scene, where he steals the kids' balloon. Pure comedy.

I don't want everybody and their grandmother to smoosh genres together the way it was done in this film, but I really liked it, and wouldn't mind seeing more instances of this kind of exercise.

Splotchy said...

kids' balloon = kid's balloon

was that correction worth another comment?


SamuraiFrog said...

I thought the movie had a lot of good scenes, but they don't add up in a satisfying way. There are great comic scenes and great horror scenes and great character scenes, but there's nothing that ties them together as a story. The best I could say about it is that Landis tried to do something and didn't really succeed at it.

Splotchy said...

Fair enough! :-)

Your post got me started on thinking of other films that combined genres unusually, but I couldn't think of any.

Well, I watched Time Bandits with my boys this weekend, and I suppose that has a mix of genres.

SamuraiFrog said...

"Oh, so that's what an invisible barrier looks like."

"A naked American man stole my balloons" will probably stay in my head for a long time.