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!

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The Graduate (1967)

TheGraduate

The Graduate – 1967

Director – Mike Nichols

Starring – Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft

A classic film.  One that, I’ve been told, encapsulates an entire generation.  It sums up what it’s like being in that in-between stage in life, where you’re not quite a responsible adult, and you’re no longer a care-free kid.  I have to say that this summary of The Graduate is entirely true, although, to fully appreciate these selling points one has to be part of that demographic.  At the very least you have to be near to that demographic, otherwise the just out of college (or recent graduate, get it, get it…?) Benjamin Braddock starts to seem more and more like a shiftless young man who just doesn’t know what he wants.

The story starts out after Ben has graduated from college with a number of honors, and the pride of his parents overflowing.  The guests at his party are gushing about him, dying to know more about his time in college, but all he can think about is getting away from them and being alone.  It is during this wallowing, that he encounters Mrs. Robinson, a sexually hungry neighbor who wastes no time in seducing him.  At first Ben is frightened, but eventually days later, his curiosity gets the better of him and he voluntarily accepts her lustful advances.

Mrs. Robinson, a woman unhappy in her marriage, and unfulfilled by her choices in life, is attempting to dampen the pain through their purely physical encounters.  Conversation, and social niceties are thrown out the window, as she apathetically, almost coldly manipulates Benjamin in order to get what she wants.  Benjamin, fascinated by the attention he is getting from her, doesn’t quite know how to handle the clinical approach that Mrs. Robinson takes, and continually attempts to engage her.  Ultimately he persists long enough, and delves deep enough to find out something of why she is engaged in this deception of her family with him.

During their affair, Ben lets everything else in his life slide.  The drive and ambition that defined him in his college career, now gives way to malaise and ennui, causing his parents to finally confront him.  In an attempt to get him back on track, it is suggested that Ben take Elaine Robinson out on a date (his parents are un-aware of Ben’s affair with Elaines mother).  Ben’s submission on this issue, and his and Elaine’s subsequent date sets into motion the main conflict of the movie.

While this movie almost certainly defines what it is like to be young, and to break free of the mold that has been set for you, it also chronicles the consequences of such impulsivity.  For every life altering decision that Benjamin Braddock makes to forge his own way, there is a life long regret that Mrs. Robinson is continually trying to make up for.  For every plot element that looks forward into a promising future, there is an equally strong storyline looking back on decisions that can’t be un-made.

That being said, what you get out of this film depends entirely on where you are in your own life as you watch it.  I for example, just turned thirty, am engaged, and have a steady job that I work hard at everyday.  I see the folly in Benjamin’s decisions more than I do the glamour.  Dustin Hoffman does a great job of playing the impulsive, wandering, naivety that most college kids our just out of school.  He is young capable of getting what he wants, and most of all he is only really concerned with himself, and what seems to be best for him in the present.  Anne Bancroft on the other hand, does a fantastic job of playing the person who used to be just like Benjamin Braddock.  Someone who, only now, can see the error of her choices.

Visually, the film is put together beautifully.  It flows together much like the characteristic songs from the soundtrack.  Each shot goes with the next, and is bourne from the last.  The patterns layered in the montage scenes repeat themselves to illustrate the scheduled and repetitive nature of Ben’s life, and start to fall away when he becomes more impulsive and free-wheeling.  The color is rich and vibrant, which aides  the slightly unreal quality that one feels after completing  something as life-changing and influential as graduating college.

While the Graduate maybe didn’t have the same effect on me that it did on others, it did have an effect none the less.  While I don’t think it is the film that completely defines who I am, or who I was, neither are the films that at one time did define me.  As much as Lost in Translation once meant to me, i’m coming to it from a different perspective now, and it doesn’t quite mean the same thing.  That being said, just because it doesn’t define me, doesn’t mean it isn’t saying something important anyhow.  The same is true for The Graduate.

“Hoffman at his tannest.” – Ashley