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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

"A Naked American Man Stole My Balloon."

Thursday, October 27, 2005

There is nothing like An American Werewolf in London. Nothing.

The movie's title by itself held a mythic place in my family's history, as my father was said to have been so scared by the movie that he took a coat hanger with him to bed for weeks. Who knows what parents will say to keep their kids from watching movies that give the parents themselves nightmares; it didn't work. I watched the movie as a teenager largely because of the mythic proportions it had acquired. And now, watching it again, I realize how firmly fixed pieces of it--indeed how firmly fixed the simple idea of it--has been fixed in my mind.

It is a superior movie in every respect: tightly-written script, magnificently utilized special effects (sans computers, by the way), well-acted, and beautifully shot. But this is no film critic's exercise; this is a werewolf movie tour. So we leave the film's technical merits to themselves and proceed to its place in the canon.

Its place is simply at the top. Because it is powerfully daring and unique while also being grounded in a deeply-understood tradition. The movie's writer and director, John Landis (who also wrote Animal House and Blues Brothers) was a big fan of the Wolf Man movies starring Lon Chaney, Jr. What he was trying to do here was make a contemporary version of a very traditional story. It is traditional in that it knows the tradition thoroughly and can quite consciously appropriate or reject any given piece of it (the suggestion of silver bullets, for example, is greeted with the rejoinder, "don't be ridiculous."). So the full moon is important, the five-pointed star (ala Bella Lugosi) and the curse itself.

Where it is contemporary is in its realism. Landis was very intentional about creating something that, espcially in its violence, would seem very, very real. And so he does. And so, without being intentionally psychological as a number of werewolf movies have been, Landis creates something that is brutal on the psyche. I mean, the gore dial is ratcheted way up, even for 1981. A werewolf movie is a movie about something painfully inexplicable, and so Landis even creates a scene of chaotic automobile violence in Picadilly Circus near the end of the film that is relentless and shocking. And then its all over.

The thing that Werewolf is best known for, of course, is its transformation sequence. Like the sequence before it in The Howling, it takes a respectable amount of screen time. But unlike its sole predecessor, its metamorphasis is believable and eye-popping and the same time. It is believable because Landis conceived of it as something that would be painful to his protagonist (ultimately he called it a metaphor for adolescence); the skin stretches, fingers elongate, the face contorts, and the whole thing just looks and feels excruciating. By the end of it you have the first non two-legged werewolf in the history of werewolf movies; this one crawls on the ground on all fours. I doubt that it will ever be surpassed.

Oh, and a quick note on the music. The metamorphasis takes place to the soothing tones of Sam Cook singing, "Blue Moon." Landis also used Van Morrison's "Moon Dance" and CCR's "Bad Moon Rising" in the movie (which is why that song has always creeped me out). That's almost it as far as the music goes. No big orchestral hits; no suspence or mood music. Just the odd pop track with moon in the title, played almost all the way through. The use of music and the restraint from music is very effective.

Ultimately, the werewolf story has the afflicted party as its subject. It's a sad story about a person who, through no fault of their own, becomes the owner of a terrible violence that they cannot control or get rid of. Their only option is suicide. Landis understood the very simple and traditional premise of the werewolf story, and he appropriated it skillfully and compellingly. There's no attempt to get into the psychology of it. He just says, "here's a cool story. Enjoy."

And we do. But, man, buyer beware. When Landis called his movie a "contemporary" version of a "traditional" tale, I think that by "contemporary" he partly meant violent to a punishing degree. I'm not into that so much, and so I recommend the movie somewhat cautiously (oh, and there's a 10 minute sequence of dialogue that takes place in an adult theater, if you can handle that kind of thing). But, unless I am subsequently proven wrong, there simply is no better adaptation of the werewolf tale out there.

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:48 PM


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