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!

The Exorcist (1973)

TheExorcist

The Exorcist – 1973

Director – William Friedkin

Starring – Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Jason Miller

As far as controversial movies go, I can think of no more infamous movie than William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Often cited as the “scariest movie of all time”, or at the very least one of the scariest, banned across the United Kingdom from it’s release until fairly recently in the 90s, and condemned by prominant religious figures and organizations as vile and evil, it’s safe to say that The Exorcist had quite a lot to live up to. I even encountered some trouble when trying to watch it, as it’s reputation was a bit daunting.  Ultimately I just bit the bullet, sat down, and watched it. But the big question is, “was it worth all the hype?” I’d have to say, resoundingly, yes.

To start with, the story. A young girl, Regan (Linda Blair), becomes possessed by a demon, and in the process, frightens her mother (Ellen Burstyn) with her foul behavior, filthy language, and her severe, self-inflicted wounds. After exhausting the options available to them through science and medicine, they turn to the church in an attempt to rid Regan of the demon. Sound original? Not really. The story isn’t a new one, stories similar to this one have been told before and since the release of the Exorcist. It is in the execution of this story, however, that the real difference comes in and where the magic lies.

The pacing of the film is huge. Without anything obviously scary happening, Friedkin still takes every opportunity to build the tension and create an atmosphere of un-ease, and anxiety. Every minute that goes by, we are slowly drawn in to the characters, the story, and the setting. The film is roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes. It could have been double that, and I still would have been caught up in it. Not one frame was wasted in moving us towards the climax, flickering lights, ambient sound, negative space, everything was used effectivly to create the mood. Without the time taken to get us into the minds of the characters, this could have very easily become a sensationalist monster movie, or a horror movie that was dependent upon shock value.

Sound. One very important method of ramping up the tension is through sound. It can be used to add an almost subliminal layer to the film, something like the rhythmic pounding of some machinery in the hospital, or the raspy breathing of Regan as she is possessed by the demon. The sound design is, when necessary, a bit more overt too. For example, the priests, fathers Merrin and Karras (von Sydow, and Miller respectively) walk up the stairs to start the exorcism and leave the girl’s miter Arther foot of the stairs watching. The camera pulls in slowly on the mother, and suddenly out of the blue, the phone rings causing her, and the audience, to jump out of our collective skins. These little, seemingly innocuous noises, like a phone ringing, or a floor creaking, or a soft scrabbling sound, go a long way towards building the tension for the inevitable climax of the movie.

Friedkin utilizes a lot of contrasting imagery to amplify the good versus evil theme of the story. One of the best examples of the use of this technique is the image used for the poster. Max von Sydow’s character (father Merrin) has just arrived at the house, and surrounded by a glowing white light he steps towards the darkly lit house. He is surrounded by darkness (evil), but brings with him light (good) and hope (still good). The light that surrounds him draws our eyes to the upstairs window of the house, where Regan and the demon are waiting, not only does this image characterize the themes of the story, but it visually connects the fate of the two opposing sides. This use of pregnant negative space occurs throughout the film. A darkly lit scene often times is immediately contrasted with a bright one, flip flopping to heighten the conflict, and draw the characters closer together. The imagery is at war with itself, vying for the audiences attention, while undermining and simultaniously accentuating the scenes that came before it. The positioning of the characters in The Exorcist speaks a lot about the battles and conflicts they face in the story. Often times characters are either ascending or descending into or from the scene (a buddy of mine actually wrote a bit about these contrasting visual qualities, you can read that here.). The staccato nature of the imagery builds to a frenzied pace, never letting up until the conclusion.

Tying all these elements together is the subdued yet distinctive musical score. It never overwealms the film, it instead helps to glue everything together. The score is instantly recognizable, and conjures up instantaneous images from the film (just ask who’s been terrorized by it).

If it isn’t clear up until this point, I loved this film. Depite my lack of religion based fear, The Exorcist kept me on the edge of my seat, enthralled every step of the way. This is what horror and suspense films should aspire to. Completely and totally recommended!

“Hilarious!” – Ashley