All October long, we’re celebrating HORROR with a series of retrospectives on our favorite scary movies. Welcome to A Very Porkchop Halloween!
Written By: Daniel Kinsley
These days, the horror-comedy is a fairly robust sub-genre, pairing two of cinema’s most subjective approaches. After all, scaring people and making them laugh are two difficult challenges, as the means of getting there can differ wildly for each audience member. Films like the silent Haunted Spooks (1920) [widely regarded as the first such film] and the Universal crossover Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) * [the first successful one] are early examples. These films were primarily comedies first, though, as the horror came mostly from the iconography. The boom of independent cinema in the ’70s gave way to a few more, like the Mel Brooks classic Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) ** however, prior to the 1980s, there did not exist a tremendous amount of precedent for this combination.
When it came down to it, however, it took a director known for his comedic chops to create the first truly successful fusion. By the early 80s, John Landis had quite a hot-hand (though this is an attitude no doubt bolstered by hindsight) turning in back to back comedy classics with Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Landis wrote his next film over a decade earlier, while working in then-Yugoslavia as a production assistant; after stumbling across a gypsy funeral, filled with strange rites, Landis was struck by the idea for a script the money men would later deem too scary to be a comedy, and too funny to be a horror film. Indeed, An American Werewolf in London (1981) was (and remains) one of the best examples of the toeing the line between laughter and terror.
The film centers on two American backpackers, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) hiking through Yorkshire, England. Near dark, the two decide to stop for the night at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. Immediately, the boys stand out like a couple of sore thumbs; after asking the locals about the pentagram on the wall, things get hostile enough that they opt to leave. The bartender insists to the crowd that they can’t let them go, but no one intervenes. Instead, they allow the boys to go, warning them to stay on the road, stay off the moors…and beware the full moon.
Upon leaving the pub, they inevitably lose track of the road, ending up in the thick of the moors. Soon, there is a howling in the distance that seems to only grow closer as their fear grows. It is a wildly effective use of tension; knowing that something must come for them (it is a movie after all) makes it no less dread-inducing. As their hysteria ebbs and turns to nervous laughter, the boys are attacked by a large wolf-like creature, and Jack is killed. David manages to survive the mauling, thanks to the intervention of one of the locals, who shoots the creature that attacked them. Three weeks later, David wakes up in a London hospital with no recollection of what happened.
David soon learns that he was attacked by a werewolf, and is now cursed to transform during the next full moon. Griffin Dunne makes the absolute most of a terrific supporting role after Jack turns up as a member of the undead to warn his friend about what must be done. It is clear how much fun he is having, and it is frankly infectious, effectively adding a dose of levity to the picture without ridding the scares of their teeth (pun very much intended).
After he is released from the hospital, David begins a relationship with Alex (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who shares a mutual attraction with the young, troubled American. David spends much of the second act attempting to deny the reality of what has happened, much to the chagrin of his dead friend, Jack, who continues to turn up throughout the film (as an increasingly decomposing corpse) to add genuine laughs to the nightmare that David’s life has become.
The centerpiece of the whole film is a full-moon transformation that remains to this day, one of the greatest uses of special effects (CGI, who?) in a horror film, and puts nearly every other modern monster to shame. While the film is undoubtedly Landis’ baby, some have argued legendary special effects/makeup artist Rick Baker steals the show with his creature design. *** In the age of computer-generated effects, no subsequent transformation has worked quite as well, which makes the accomplishment that much more impressive.
Equally delightful is the fiendishly clever (not to mention hilariously ironic) soundtrack, full of upbeat tracks about the moon, including arguably the greatest cinematic use of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” Gone is the melancholy take of iconic Wolfman actor Lon Chaney, replaced with gleeful lunacy as David’s curse eventually comes to a head. The film is not devoid of thoughtful subtext, however, as David’s Jewish heritage is slyly threaded throughout the film; it is played for laughs when the hospital staff make mention of his genitalia, but just as easily rears its head as a subconscious terror during a nightmare where monsters dressed in uniforms resembling the SS murder his family. Traditionally, the best stories about monsters have always been a stand-in for more mundane, human evils, and it makes Landis’ balancing act all the more impressive that he is able to inject a bit of allegory about otherness into his creature feature, providing an additional layer to both the comedy and the horror of it all. ****
Critics have decried the final scenes as mean-spirited (or incomplete, at worst) but to this writer, it remains one of the truly great audience-trolling endings in modern film. Many werewolf films employ a similar structure, and while the film remains fairly straightforward in that regard, it remains ahead of the pack (sorry, not sorry) thanks to the energy, creativity, and truly effective pathos. Whether it is truly scary or not is up to the eye of the viewer, though it remains a true classic among horror films, and an all-timer for this writer, in particular. *****
While the 1980s were a pretty great time for horror, and in particular, horror-comedies, spawning classics such as Gremlins (1984), the gonzo Evil Dead II (1987), and Fright Night (1987), An American Werewolf set one hell of a high water mark that remains impressive over thirty years later. Whoever does it first does not necessarily do it best, but in this case, it is hard to argue against it.
* Abbott and Costello successfully crossed over with several other Universal monsters, like the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll, but Frankenstein remains the best of these.
** Calling Mel Brooks’ film “horror” is awfully charitable, though it remains an absolute classic, and Rocky Horror may fit the bill, but it remains too niche (living on as a cult classic) to be truly considered.
*** The Academy Awards essentially created the best make-up category for this film, rewarding Baker the inaugural trophy. He has gone on to win a record seven times (in eleven nominations).
**** Incidentally, the original The Wolf Man (1942) was written by a German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany.
***** In the opinion of this writer, it is the (undisputed) greatest werewolf movie ever made.
(Header Image courtesy of SlashFilm)