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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Three Decades of David: The Movie That Changed Werewolf Movies (And Horror!)

In 1981, the werewolf movie was dead in the water. Done and done. A curious relic of horror history. And then, along came John Landis' landmark An American Werewolf in London, and the game was immediately changed forever.

So much change was brought into being as a result of this movie, in fact, that we often may take it for granted and not fully appreciate the amount of evolution it lent the ailing subgenre. Let's take a look at just a few of the ways that An American Werewolf in London transformed lyncanthrope cinema--and along the way, the entire horror category.


Prior to AWIL, the movie werewolf was a curious creature, who was actually not very much of a wolf at all. Rather, as he was best described in the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic, he was more of a "wolf man"--that is to say, a humanoid being with some of the more fearsome qualities of a wolf tacked on for horrific effect. This was not at all in line with the creature as described in traditional folklore, but it was necessitated by the level of makeup and special effects technology available in those early days of film.

It was a lot easier to take someone like Chaney or Henry Hull and add some lupine features--some fur and fangs, maybe a dog-like nose or ears. This is not to denigrate the work of such legends as Jack Pierce, but the fact remains that the werewolves depicted in movies prior to AWIL were much more man than wolf.

By the time we get to Landis' masterwork, and the contributions of that film's effects wizard, Rick Baker, we've got a whole different monster on our hands. For the first time, a werewolf was created that actually looked more like a monstrous wolf than a hairy dude in ripped clothes. The wolf we see here is not a true wolf like we would find in the natural world, but rather a demonic creature that is decidedly lupine in nature, but with a very cruelly human intellect behind its animalistic violence.

An American Werewolf in London stressed the wolf in werewolf, and set a trend that would be commonly followed in many other horror films. Sure, the "wolf man" template would still be replicated many times, but Baker demonstrated that it was possible for a human character to transform into a true wolf-like being.


Again, not to cast aspersions on the work of some of Hollywood's finest special effects geniuses, but what passed for a werewolf transformation on screen prior to An American Werewolf in London is very different from what audiences came to expect as a result of it. The time lapse photography work and other of Pierce's techniques seen in films like The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London were impressive for their time, and are still a hoot to watch, but remained within a boundary of what could be accomplished then--a boundary that would be shattered by Baker and company.

Starting with AWIL, the metamorphosis scene became something of a centerpiece of a werewolf film, the money shot that audiences waited for. It became a much more dramatic, intense, drawn out special effects extravaganza. David Naughton's transformation is an involved affair--a tense and nightmarish explosion of kinetic energy that is a far cry from Lon Chaney passively sitting in a chair as hair sprouted from his face.

It was also important to both Landis and Baker that the audience understand the pain involved in turning into a werewolf. Apparently, it hurts like hell to change into a monster--which would make sense, although it should be pointed out that the original folklore stresses the transformation as magical and not physical, thus no real pain. Still, thanks to the efforts of Landis and Baker, we get a sense of every cracking bone, popping sinew and contorting limb. The modern werewolf is thus a strange cross-breed of the enchanted and the biological.


From very early on, we understand that the characters in An American Werewolf London live in a world with all the same references we have. All the werewolf movies we know and love exist in this world; everyone knows the rules. References to movies such as The Wolf Man are made throughout the film, and in fact David explains how Larry Talbot had to be killed by his own father--someone who loved him--foreshadowing his own end at the hands of his girlfriend Alex.

A decade and a half before Scream, and nearly a quarter of a century before Shaun of the Dead, AWIL gave us post-modern irony in horror. We have characters who know the score--unlike characters from earlier horror flicks, who seem to live in a plastic bubble in which horror flicks don't exist. This self-referential style may be the single most influential contribution that An American Werewolf in London made to the history and development of the horror genre.

Not just one of the greatest horror movies ever made, An American Werewolf is smart horror. It turned its own subgenre and the entire genre on its head, and we've been feeling the effects ever since. It revived the werewolf for decades to come, giving it a whole new spin and a literal rebirth in the process. How fitting, that a concept based largely on the theme of transformation would be so profoundly transformed.

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