Halloween is truly a bizarre
holiday - at least in the way it is celebrated in the United States.
Its roots in the Celtic festival Samhain and the Christian tradition of All Saints'
Day have given way to the embrace of all things macabre. This
is the aspect of the day that appeals to me. There is another
side to Halloween, though, and as an adult, the Carnaval-like
aspects of the holidy seem arbitrary, adolescent, and absurd.
Last year, I spent Halloween in Manhattan, and dressed for the occasion
(the first time I'd done so in fifteen years). What I witnessed
were hordes of nominally grown-up revelers who turned the holiday into
a travesty of drunken excesses, riot-like street conditions, and -
most shocking of all - a total absence of candy. It was like
being inside the toxic bowels of an autumnal Mardi Gras. I obviously
prefer the quieter, indoor version of Halloween - with candy.
The fall is the season for the macabre - a time of decay, when the
very trees rot in front of our eyes - and it is of course the time
of year for horror films.
Of the countless films in my
multi-annual Halloween movie rotation, An American Werewolf in London
holds a special place. Not only does it ideally create a mood
of neo-Gothic horror, but it's an exceptionally well-made film with
sharp plotting, pacing, and photography. Universal's new "Full
Moon Edition" improves upon the previous release with the inclusion
of a feature-length making-of documentary.
The opening sequence, which
finds our two protagonists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin
Dunne) backpacking across the moors of northern England, is effective
in setting the mood. (The use of music that is both iconic and
ironic, in this case a soundtrack full of songs with "moon" in the
title, is a typical Landis touch that has since become a standard device
in the filmmaking toolbox.) The fog, the medieval village, the
local legends - it's all a loving homage to the Universal horror
films of the 1930s and '40s. There, Jack is killed by a werewolf,
but David survives and repairs to London, where he recuperates and starts
to receive visits from Jack's decomposing corpse. Jack informs
David that he's been infected by the werewolf that attacked them and
that he will soon begin to attack others unless he kills himself.
But David has fallen in love with one of his nurses, Alex (Jenny Agutter),
and in fact moves in with her after being released from the hospital.
As Jack predicted, David undergoes a transformation during the first
full moon and goes on a rampage. Jack's corpse returns, along
with those of David's victims, to urge him to commit suicide before
his next transformation. David struggles to cope with the extent
of his dilemma - the impossibility of reversing the werewolf's curse,
and his love for Alex, make it difficult for him to choose the right
An American Werewolf in
London is remembered for its make-up effects, its sense of humor,
and mood. But the film is cleverly crafted all-around, with fine
performances by the leads and a sense of directorial control that Landis
wields with intelligence and wit. Naughton is appropriately tortured
as David, unable to fully comprehend what has happened to him; his baffled
anguish is leavened by Dunne's droll presence as Jack, whose progressively
rotting corpse is a technically inventive landmark of visual gallows
humor. Agutter is almost too lovely for the film in a way, yet
she lends credible emotional weight to the underwritten character of
The make-up and prosthetics
were revolutionary at the time and are still eye-popping as practical
effects; Rick Baker won the first-ever Oscar for Makeup for his work
on the film (the first of six so far for Baker). The transformation
scenes represent something that was artfully avoided by most directors
working in the genre - the physical transformation of a human being
was just too difficult to accomplish successfully. Here, we see
David's limbs, torso and head expand and change in ways never before
attempted, and which have not been matched in terms of make-up effects.
Landis' overall style combines
Don Siegel's affect-less cut-to-the-chase storytelling with the occasional,
well-placed moment of flair. The London Underground sequence comes
to mind, and so does the opening on the Yorkshire moors, as examples
of well-orchestrated, visually-memorable sequences that are also important
in the advancement of the story. Memorable visuals often stand
alone in films, as distinct shots that could exist outside of the story;
Landis allows them to grow organically from the setting and plot, and
when we remember them, it's always within the context of this specific
movie. I admire Landis as a director generally; his comedies especially
are consistently inventive even when they are bad, with a controlled
feel often developing into unpredictable set-pieces. With An
American Werewolf in London, Landis took a well-worn horror-film
trope and re-built it around a realistic emotional core.
That core dictates the harsh
but sensible ending. For those who have not seen the film, I won't
discuss what happens, except to pose the question: What else could
have happened? Certainly a remake or a similar story produced
now with Hollywood backing would opt for some clever, contrived, and
absurd resolution that finds David retiring to the Scottish highlands
with Alex. Landis carries the story to a natural, plausible outcome,
and ends the film there abruptly. In doing so, the audience's
intelligence comes away unscathed, and upon reflection, the relationship
between David and Alex as part of the central conflict grows even more
This kind of analysis is perhaps
a bit much for a horror flick, but I've seen the movie seven or eight
times now. I love this film, and many horror pictures, but am
not a fanatic about the genre. So what is so special about
An American Werewolf in London? I think it's simply a well-crafted
film, with a love of that craft so obviously front-and-center.
The creation of a distinct mood around sympathetic characters, along
with a totally credible resolution of the plot's main crisis, are
components rarely found in the average horror film. In other words,
even though the reliance upon the suspension of disbelief is usually
ratcheted up several notches in genre films, Landis and crew stick with
the basic tenets of good storytelling that we expect from any decent
We start off with a very engaging and funny commentary track
with stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, which can also be found
on the previous DVD release. They clearly enjoy recounting their
experiences on the production, which makes for an involving listen.
The featurettes start off with
a new one called Rick Baker: I Walked with a Werewolf (7:31)
in which the legendary make-up artist discusses what inspired him to
follow this very particular career path, his experiences on Werewolf
and how they are informing his current work on the in-production remake
of The Wolf Man. (I just learned today that the release
on this one has been pushed back - yet again.)
The rest of the extras are
from the prior release. Making An American Werewolf in London
(5:16) is an interesting behind-the-scenes EPK from the days when
these were rather more idiosyncratic and entertaining than they are
now. An Interview with John Landis (18:20)
is a walk down memory lane with the enthusiastic, jokey director.
Make-Up Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London (11:15)
is an insightful interview that duplicates some of the memories recalled
in the new Baker featurette, but is well worth watching, especially
since there is a fair amount of unused effects shots here.
Casting of the Hand (11:00) comprises some fun behind-the-scenes
footage of the film's make-up effects. A few Outtakes (3:09)
culminate in a NSFW sight gag no doubt staged just for gag reel.
An animated Storyboards reel (2:29) is shown side by side
with finished film clips. A still Photograph Montage (3:45)
is accompanied by selections from Elmer Bernstein's score.
Disc Two: The
sole extra here will drive those who own the previous release to purchase
this one. It's a brand-new documentary called Beware the
Moon (1:37:33). While it is mildly redundant of the information
in the older extras, this is a fantastic, detailed look at the film
from conception to release. All the major players - Landis,
Baker, Naughton, Dunne, Agutter - contribute to this very thorough
As an unapologetic fan of this film, nothing about this "Full Moon Edition" disappointed me, although the missing DTS track may annoy some. Ideally, I'd also prefer the film's original mono track, but that was never on the DVD or HD-DVD releases. But what we do have is a very fun movie, presented responsibly, with an informative selection of extras. For owners of previous editions, the new documentary and a low price make this a worthwhile replacement. An American Werewolf in London is a perennial Halloween treat that comes highly recommended.