Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981)
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(Originally posted here)

The moment when I realized that I was going to love this film was when David and Jack are crossing the moors and realize that they've accidentally left the main road and are out on the moors where they shouldn't be. "Beware the moon and stick to the road. Oops." This is John Landis at his finest, with a combination of grisly "how did they do that without CGI?" special effects* and laugh-out-loud comedy befitting a film from the director of Animal House.

* If you wanna see how they did it, go to the Horror Make-Up Show next time you visit Universal Orlando. It's one of the things they demonstrate. Seeing that was actually the reason why I chose to watch this movie in the first place.

First off, the cast all nails it. David Naughton and Jenny Agutter carry most of the film on their shoulders as, respectively, the hapless American backpacker and the British nurse who takes care of, and later falls in love with, him. Naughton especially has to do both horrific and comedic scenes in equal measure, and he makes them all work. Of note are the scene where he tries to take a little boy's balloons while crouched butt naked behind a bush (a scene that I can only guess is funnier now in this "To Catch a Predator" age) and the one where he's rattling off obscenities and insults to the British policeman. The final scene, meanwhile, wouldn't be half as powerful and tragic without Agutter's performance. The rest of the cast is all solid, especially Griffin Dunne as David's friend Jack who gets slain and comes back as a ghost to haunt him until the werewolf bloodline is cut off, slowly (and disgustingly) decaying with time.

That brings me into the next part of this review, and one of the things that An American Werewolf in London is most famous for: Rick Baker's award-winning special effects work. If you like your movies bloody, this one is for you. While most of the actual kills are off-screen, we do get to see the aftermath quite vividly, with all the severed limbs and torn, hanging flesh a gorehound could want. Of note is the progressive decay of Jack's ghost from a fresh (if mutilated) cadaver into something that looks more and more like a zombie as the film goes on. It actually plays well with the comedy; the scene in the porn theater of the female ghost, still acting chipper even when covered in her own blood, had me in (ahem) stitches. And of course, the werewolf transformations... damn. Those scenes, along with the alien scenes from The Thing, should be required viewing for any director or special effects artist who thinks that they need CGI to do body horror and transformation scenes right.

Lastly, there's the surprisingly dark ending, especially for a film this comedic. Roger Ebert, one of the few critics who didn't enjoy this movie, complained that the film lacked an ending in his review. Mr. Ebert, I often agree with you when it comes to movies (video games, on the other hand...), but here, you're wrong. I will not spoil anything, but the abrupt end of this film was shocking and downright tragic.
Score: 5 out of 5
You want blood? You've got it. You want scares? This movie delivers. You want laughs? This movie packs 'em by the carton. You want an incredible movie?You've got it. This is one of the great ones, and it deserves its reputation. You cannot call yourself a horror fan, or even a movie fan, without having seen this great throwback to classic Universal horror.

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