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A Silver Bullet To The Heart Of An American Werewolf In London
Josh Saco , September 7th, 2009 10:09

Everyone loves American Werewolf in London right? Wrong — this non-horrific and non-comedic "horror comedy" has Josh Saco howling at the moon with indignation in the first of his reports from Film4 FrightFest

I'm American, from New York in fact. I love werewolves; can't wait for the upcoming Wolf Man film. I not only live in London, I love London and I love watching films that take place in London. So, by rights I ought to love American Werewolf In London . . . right? In reality, the opposite is true.

Recently, after becoming more and more vocal over my dislike for the 1981 box office smash and having more and more people telling me I was mad, I started to doubt myself. It got added to the ever growing list of films to be watched in the near future. Then, as luck might have it, John Landis the director announced he was presenting the lycanthropic Brit flick himself at this year's Fright Fest, preceded by a feature-length 'making of' documentary, Beware The Moon. Could a more apt opportunity present itself to me? How better to put my silly delusions aside than to settle in to four hours of werewolf action?

I quickly realised that the documentary was really a collection of best-loved scenes followed by talking heads, and at 90 minutes long, long becomes the operative word. But I'm nothing if not optimistic; perhaps the film itself would be better than I remembered? I was wrong, however — it was worse. I wandered off with about 15 minutes left to get through; I'd already seen the end in the 'making of'.

Admittedly AAWIL has its moments, none of which are actually funny because it's not a funny movie. It's not really a horror movie either. If this is the birth of modern-day horror comedy, then we are damn, damn lucky to have Shaun of the Dead.

It is, however, very well directed. Take the scene where David and Jack are being stalked on the moors: we circle them like the werewolf, then we zoom in and join them as they run away, only to start circling them again.

I would also be a complete asshole if I didn't praise Rick Baker's masterful special effects, responsible for changing the cinematic metamorphosis of man into beast forever. One could point out that The Howling and Wolfen predated this film by several months; you could argue that they had a hand in making that shift from simply adding fur, to full body transformation. But since Baker started work on The Howling before Landis approached him about AAWIL, and Landis and Baker had discussed how the werewolf should change in the years preceding, perhaps Landis deserves the benefit of the doubt.

As a story, it's great. Landis wanted to make a film about a modern, logical, grounded person becoming a werewolf and how they would deal with that situation. So we have two good friends backpacking across Europe, getting lost on the moors; one's killed while the other's only mauled. When he comes to in a hospital in London he finds that his friend is haunting him as a slowly decaying ghost, warning him that he will turn into a werewolf during the next full moon. Obviously David doesn't believe Jack; who would?

There are even moments that are actually terrifying. The first 15 minutes? Sheer genius! I love the way we're introduced to David and Jack — immediately we can see that they are good mates, they have a solid rapport and work well together. We know and believe they are best friends. Then there's the pub scene, which I could watch over and over. It's the perfect lesson in how to change the tone of a film — it's the classic horror movie warning scene, but so wonderfully ominous and foreboding that I can't think of a better one. When the locals start to realise that by sending the poor lads out into the night they've commited murder by proxy, you can read it all in their nervous glances at each other.

Meanwhile our boys are wandering, lost on the moors, and here is where the problems really start. They have foolishly strayed off the path. Easily done, you say? No, no fucking way! There's a full moon. Now I haven't been to any moors (I've seen the movie, I know better) but I have been out at night with a full moon, and that fucker is bright! So you don't just lose your way. They even blatantly walk around a bush before they realise they wandered off the road with a pathetic "Oops!"

I could almost forgive Jack for asking what the candles were for in the pub — almost, because I think that if you're in a foreign land, and you're from New York, you know enough to allow the locals who are taking the piss out of you to lead the way, rather than asking stupid antagonistic questions. But once you're lost on the moors and realise you've strayed off the road, a simple comedy "Oops!" is well out of place. Throughout American Werewolf In London there seems to be a complete lack of awareness by the American cast, so it was at this point in the film that I realised the vast chasm in the delivery styles between the native British actors and the imported Yanks. David and Jack are characters out of Trading Places, delivering light-hearted lines even at the darkest moments. Whereas — be it the locals, the doctors or the businessman on the Underground — the delivery of the lines is much more controlled, allowing for a totally different style of humour while maintaining and carrying the heavier elements of what is ultimately a dark film. The American cast ham it up in a way that is at times completely out of place and inappropriate.

It has to be remembered that John Landis wanted to make a film about the supernatural colliding with the sceptic. With that in mind, were I to wake up in a hospital bed in London (we won't even try to figure out why David ended up in London as opposed to Manchester) having witnessing my best friend's grisly demise at the hands of some giant hairy beast — which it followed by it attacking me — I would not be trying to pick up the nurse. Furthermore, when my recently deceased friend appeared at my bedside, eating my toast, I would not react calmly and make light of the situation.

Upon release from the hospital David trots off to his new girlfriend's house. And again Jack visits him, in an even more decomposed form, warning David — again — that he will become a werewolf. Now, I don't expect David to believe him, but I do expect David to either start questioning his sanity or at least approach the situation with a degree of serious mindedness. And so it continues. . . .

When we group all this together, this potentially dark film loses so much in the light of attempts at humour, clashing styles of acting and baffling behaviour, that it leaves me wondering why. John Landis has said that it still annoys him when people refer to American Werewolf in London as a comedy; well it's certainly not a horror, so what is it?!

When he's not writing for us, Josh Saco can often be found running London's Cigarette Burns cinema club. Tonight they are showing the Japanese cult classic Hausu in the Mucky Pup, Islington. Click here for full details.

Here's the trailer for this psych-horror gem:

And a good reason to cut down on the LSD right here: