An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London – 1981

Director – John Landis

Starring – David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne

(Guest Review by Mike Petrik)

Warning! Spoilers lie within!  But, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’re silly and should stop whatever nonsense you are doing now and go watch it.  It’s on Netflix, so, no excuse.

John Landis wrote “An American Werewolf in London” at the tender age of 19.  I’ll say that again. He wrote this film when he was 19 years old.  That’s just insane.  Not only is this one of the best horror comedies in history, I’d place it as one of the best films of all time.  What did I accomplish when I was 19? I was in college. I lived at my parents house. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I never went out on weekends. I never wrote a screenplay. Basically, what I accomplished when I was 19 was watching “An American Werewolf in London” again.  He didn’t actually follow through with making the film until much later in life after the success of Animal House, but still, 19.

As a young writer, Landis had learned about a narrative technique called juxtaposition, or contrast in storytelling.  That is two opposing ideas put right next to each other to emphasize their impact.  And boy oh boy did he cram as much contrast into “An American Werewolf in London” as possible.  Which isn’t a bad thing.  Some may see it as a crutch, but the entire structure of the film relies on this device.  And he’s not the only one that utilizes juxtaposition.  To clarify, take another look at Ed’s recently reviewed William Friedkin classic “The Exorcist.”  Good vs. Evil.  Light vs. Dark.  Quiet vs. Loud. Ascending vs. Descending.  Hurricane Billy goes a’crazy with the contrasts.  Another good example is Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  Everyone remembers the very creepy house where Leatherface and family live.  Filled with human skin lamps, and couches made out of human bones.  But the outside of the house is a big white country farmhouse on a beautiful summer day.  Which made venturing into the house that much more shocking.  Imagine if the exterior of the house had been a spooky haunted house with clanging shutters, thunder and lighting, and skeletons rattling.  By the time we get inside, the shock of meeting Leatherface wouldn’t have been as jarring.  But because of the contrast, seeing Leatherface slam that metal door is still the best part of the film.  I think you get the idea.  So, lets see how Landis uses contrast to his advantage.

The whole story structure itself uses contrasts.  A love story vs. a werewolf story.  A boy meeting a young nurse and falling in love, while at the same time struggling with the reality that he is a lycanthrope and is responsible for the death of several people and must kill himself or they are cursed to walk in limbo as the undead for eternity.  What’s genius about this is how the two stories run parallel to each other and how they tie together.  One can’t exist without the other, but they are booth doomed.  Brilliant.

The transformation scene.  Arguably one of the best, if not the best, werewolf transformations ever put on film.  That’s Rick Baker for you.  Anyways, not only is it shocking because it’s done in bright harsh light in a small London flat, but because of the contrast of the scene before it.  Our main character David is pacing around the apartment to that super upbeat and bouncy song, Bad Moon Rising.  He is looks in the fridge a few times, watches tv, reads a book, and even gets locked out of the apartment.  It’s really funny, then suddenly, bam!  Screaming, writhing pain.

My favorite part of the film comes in the form of a nightmare.  Our main character David is still in the hospital, unaware yet that he is a werewolf.  The changes his body is going through are causing very vivid and disturbing nightmares.  How does Landis approach the nightmares?  Why, with contrasts, of course!  David is at home with his family.  He is at the dining room table doing homework, while his Mom cleans up supper, and his younger siblings are watching the Muppet Show.  A beautiful suburban family evening.  Then, bam!  In through the front door storms nazi monsters, firing machine guns and cutting throats.  Setting the house on fire.  David wakes up from the dream and says exactly what everyone in the audience says; “Holy shit.”

I can go on and on.  The humor of his friend Jack, opposite the fact that he is a rotting undead corpse.  Silly bumbling London police opposite the insane climax of a massive car pile up in Piccadilly Circus.  The polite gentlemen in the subway tunnels as he is attacked by a werewolf.  Again, Landis wrote this when he was 19.  Not bad for a kid who can’t legally drink yet.

Moving on from narrative writing techniques, the number one thing people love about this movie is the special effects.  This was done in the days before computers, which makes it all that much more impressive.  All done in camera, and mostly in bright lights, Rick Bakers werewolf makeup is something many consider to be his masterpiece of his career.  Rivaled only by Rob Bottin’s work in 1982’s The Thing, I would agree that this is some of the best monster makeup ever put on film.  Seeing a rotting Jack corpse at a young age made a huge impact on me, and most likely contributed to my lifelong horror obsession.  Thanks, Rick Baker!

An American Werewolf in London has some all around amazing performances, most notably Griffin Dunne as Jack and David Naughton as our lead David.  If the writing and special effects had fallen flat, these two probably could have successfully carried the movie.  But, that not being the case, their hilarious performances were only the icing on the delicious horror comedy cake.

I’d say that’s about enough of me drooling over this film.  It’s a great little flick for the Halloween season, so perfect timing for me to tell you it’s on Netflix.  Go watch it. Thanks!

Advertisements

An American In Paris (1951)

An American In Paris – 1951

Director – Vincente Minnelli

Starring – Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant

So I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with all things French.  Paris, specifically, is one of my favorite places ever.  So much so, that occasionally, I have been known to pull up the Google map of the city and street-view surf around to various places that I either want to go, or remember fondly.  Imagine my delight, when I found out that Gene Kelly, the man who was primarily responsible for the best musical ever (Singing in the Rain), was in a movie set in the romantic, free-spirited, and gorgeous streets, and hearts of Paris!  Motherfucking, Paris, son!  So did it stand up to all that hype and ballyhoo?  Almost.

Firstly, lets just get this out of the way.  I don’t think any musical is going to quite equal Singing in the Rain.  The color, the musical numbers, the athleticism, and the practical use of singing and dancing numbers to naturally advance the plot, is not only remarkable, it’s also just not fair measure upon which to hold the competition.  It’s like comparing Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger version, for gods sake) to another Sci-Fi movie.  No comparison, everything else loses.

Okay, so discounting the unfair competition, how was An American in Paris?  Very good.  When preparing for this review, I had a set number of routines in my head that I wanted to talk about, but as I tried to isolate what made each stand out from the others, I’d remember just what elements of the other routines I liked as well.  For instance, possibly my favorite dance number was the description/introduction of the many faces of the film’s love interest, Lise (Leslie Caron).  In said dance number, an admirer explains to his friend just what this siren is like using different styles of dance to illustrate different facets of her personality.  But as I was typing up how that set of mini-routines was so fantastic, I remembered Gene Kelly’s Buster Keaton-esque morning routine putting away his bed, and preparing breakfast.  Awesome, and totally worthy of its own mention.  Each routine, and each song had something like this that made it worth watching, and as such, the ranking system I originally devised doesn’t work out so well when writing about them.

The dancing and choreography were certainly fun to watch, but there were a few times where I would have liked a bit more storytelling instead of dancing just for dancing’s sake.  A prime example would be in the films final dance routine (which, by the way, lasts a full 18 minutes without any dialog of any kind).  Though I liked the tour through the famous french paintings, the stretch was a pretty long one where I found my attention wandering a bit.  By and large though, I found myself engaged (mostly) throughout.  I’m sure I’m not making any real revelation here when I say that Gene Kelly was a pretty competent dancer, so watching him wasn’t really that hard.

When it came to the secondary characters, however, the magic slipped away a little bit faster.  Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guetary simply were never quite given enough to do, with the exception of accompanying Gene Kelly.  Similarly the plot for those characters seemed a little thin as well…but speaking of plot…

The story goes like this, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a painter.  A rather mediocre one, even by his own admission.  He and his starving artist friends live hand to mouth in a beautiful building on the left bank of the Seine, each struggling and working hard to sell their art, be it painting, piano, or dance.  While out selling his paintings, or trying to, he meets a rather well to do socialite who does all she can to seduce him, and lure him in.  While out on the town with her one evening, Mulligan doesn’t recognize their first date for what it is and finds himself captivated by the beauty at another table.

The trouble comes in when we the audience realize that this girl, the object of his affection, is in a relationship with one of his good friends and is about to be swept off to the wedding chapel with him.  So now Jerry has to pick, between a woman who is the unavailable ideal, or the woman who is the pines after, but is his  clear second choice.  Unfortunately this plot weakens toward the end and seems more like  a formula conducive to the inclusion of dance numbers than it does a reasonable plot that happens to have dance numbers in it.  We never really get a satisfactory resolution for around fifty percent of the stories, they are just left open-ended.

As with the unattainable ideal that is Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris is so vibrant, it nearly causes your brain to explode with colorful seizures.  The set pieces are all fun, especially when they rather faithfully re-create some recognizable Parisian landmarks as with the fountain at Place de la Concorde, or the nest of little book-stalls that exist along the both sides of the Seine.

So, An American in Paris is definitely my second favorite musical that I’ve watched for this list, which isn’t very descriptive considering it exists somewhere between Singing in the Rain (which, we’ve established is fantastic), and West Side Story (which is fucking awful).  That’s like saying something is between noon and midnight, or someone is between a humanitarian and a murderer.  Rest assured that I really enjoyed An American in Paris.  I’ll count myself as super lucky if all of the other musicals on the list are this good!