Sunday, 29 June 2014

Cinema & TV: An American Werewolf in London (1981) (full review from October 2011)

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rent, or buy it on Amazon Video.

As promised, here's a copy of my review of an old favourite of mine -  An American Werewolf in London - that was first published on The Lycanthropologist's Werewolf Movie Reviews blog on October 12th 2011. Although I feel some nostalgia towards this production, I tried to nitpick as much as possible nevertheless and remain as objective as I could be. As old as this post is, I hope those of you who haven't read it before will enjoy it!

Should my analysis and review spark your interest in the movie – or should you want to view it yourself before reading this article – you can do so thanks to Amazon Video, where you can rent or buy An American Werewolf in London for your viewing pleasure. Alternatively, you can watch it for free if you sign up for the free trial of Amazon Prime. Simply click on the poster of the movie that's in this article and it will take you to the appropriate page. Thank you and enjoy!

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Hello and welcome to yet another doze of shapeshifting extravaganza!

The full-moon is in the sky and so it is time for some talk about werewolf movies! I've been thinking about which movie to review as the first for a while now, but couldn't decide which one to pick from among a few good candidates. Should I start with a bad one or a good one? Should I pick one I would criticise from start to finish or not? Should my first review be epic in size or normal? Those were some of the questions I asked myself when choosing a candidate for the very beginning. I don't know if I've chosen well, but what's done is done and this month's review is:

Yes! Most of you interested in werewolf cinematography should be well familiar with this title. Since its release in 1981 it's become quite a classic and you can probably easily find it in stores even now, also on BluRay. Written and directed by John Landis, the movie was a box office success and received an Oscar in a category created specifically for this purpose during the 1981 Academy awards ceremony – Outstanding Achievement in Make-up - which exists to this day. It also won the 1981 Saturn Award for Best Horror Film, while in 2008 The Empire magazine named it as the 107th greatest movie of all time. Sixteen years later, it spawned a sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which, however, we’ll deal with another time.

Without further ado, here we go, so kick back and enjoy the show!


An American Werewolf in London is basically what the title says it is. Our two main characters are American students who, in the middle of their tour around Europe, find themselves in England. Once there, they are attacked by a creature that is later revealed to have been a werewolf. One of the men dies and the other survives to meet the fate of becoming a werewolf himself. After leaving hospital, he decides to stay for a while in London, where he meets the love interest of the movie. Once the full-moon comes, he transforms into a werewolf and goes on a rampage around the city until he is finally cornered and subsequently killed.

In-depth Analysis

So we start off with a view of a Scottish-looking landscape at sunset (or the break of dawn? Hard to tell at first) and Boby Vinton’s version of “Blue Moon” begins to play. Since the title werewolf is supposed to visit London, however, I’m inclined to say it’s more the landscape of England, maybe somewhere near the Lake District. The song is a peculiar touch that gives the viewer a breather from the usual spooky horror music which accompanies many other werewolf movies. It surely creates a peculiar mood as the title rolls onto the screen, followed by the cast.

A truck approaches along a deserted country road and we meet our two protagonists as they hitch a ride on a sheep wagon. Having dismounted, they already get warned by the driver to "keep off the moors, stick to the roads", but not much more is said. As they set off on foot to wherever they’re heading, I gotta say the dialogue is not of the most riveting kind, just some stereotypical male-students-on-vacation chat about girls and sex, with a couple of stupid jokes in between. The mood changes a little bit as night falls and our characters approach a small village and decide to step into the local pub for a drink and to get some rest. What they find is this:

Pretty… cool? Sick? Silly? Menacing? Surely a nice touch for those who are watching the movie, knowing that it’s a werewolf movie, but maybe not so much for the poor, unaware protagonists. One thing I’d like to know is why the hell there's a skewered wolf head (and what in the world is that weapon, a harpoon?...) on the sign when the pub’s name is The Slaughtered Lamb. I mean, shouldn’t there be a lamb there somewhere instead of a (were)wolf? Or maybe this is supposed to be an allusion to the popular saying about a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, which would somehow correspond to a werewolf being a beast concealed in the shape of a man? But perhaps I’m asking too many questions than there are answers for. Oh, nice! Even the characters themselves voice their concern about there being no lamb on the sign-board a moment later! So now I have clarity… that there is none, actually *cough*.

The atmosphere of the pub is, to say the least, unwelcoming. As the two men enter, dead silence falls and everyone’s eyes become fixated on the travellers. As we learn, the pub offers not much except for beer. And, oh my god, now what do we find on one of the walls?

A pentagram! How lovely! I guess a more old-fashioned person would look at this and would probably say that ‘Oh dear, it’s the sign of the devil’, but I’m having quite different flashbacks to The Wolfman, where a similar pentagram was the sign that the main character is afflicted with the curse of werewolfism. Okay, so the reference couldn’t have been made more obvious when even one of the characters tells the other that ‘Lon Chaney Jr. (the actor who played the main role of The Wolfman – mem.) at Universal Studios maintains that’s the sign of the wolfman!’ a few moments later. Not much for me to add there, then. More signs that this movie is about werewolves, I say, more!

After Jack, the protagonist’s friend and fellow-companion, asks about the pentagram on the wall, the mood turns even more grim and the two students are forced to leave the pub because of the awkwardness that results from the locals’ unfriendliness. While the others shoo the boys away, the barmaid protests, arguing that they can’t just leave into the night, but her reasoning gets dismissed by everyone. One of the men once again warns the Americans, telling them to ‘beware the moon’ and ‘stick to the roads’. As we observe this whole scene unfold, it’s obvious that the people at the pub know about there being something out there in the moors, namely a werewolf, but they seem satisfied to stay with their pentagram and candles inside the warm pub. So let me get this straight - there’s a werewolf running around some English countryside, everyone knows about it, there’s more than a dozen strong men sitting in the pub drinking beer... and nobody cares about doing something about the whole situation and instead allow the foreigners to go out there and get killed just like that? Yeah, well, I guess we need to stick to the usual werewolf movie script, so f*** the foreigners, let’s all drink one more pint of booze and tell more jokes about the Alamo. Oh, as it turns out a bit later, the locals do feel some remorse about letting the two travellers go out on their own, but argue that they can’t let ‘their business’ be known to outsiders, even if it means sentencing the foreigners to death. Lovely folk they are, gotta say.

So night falls for good and the bright full-moon peeks out from beyond the clouds. As we might expect, our protagonists stray off the road and into the moors, singing as the rain begins to fall. Personally, I don’t know for what other reason than plot convenience would they step off the main road in a country they don’t know (and don’t seem to have any map of). Do they even know where they’re going? Since they decided to look for an inn after leaving the pub, I don’t suppose they’ll find one in the middle of the bloody fields! But they keep walking and after a while, they hear a strange howl in the distance, which reminds them they were to stick to the road. In what momentary amnesia of stupidity they didn’t notice they’re not walking on a concrete road I’ll never understand, but in the end they don’t seem to be too spooked out by all of this, or at least their acting doesn’t convey much of this kind of emotions at first. Subsequently, of course they get lost on the moors and stand face-to-face with the howling creature which they refer to as some kind of a sheep-dog (though a sheep dog like that would scare the living shit out of me, to be honest, and probably anyone who’s ever seen a sheep-dog before, too), so they try to escape from it and reach the main road again. Inevitably, their escape ends in a failure and the werewolf (as if it wasn’t obvious already) takes its chance to attack when David (the other of the two men) slips on the muddy grass.

The werewolf, which looks more like a bear than a wolf at first glance, attacks Jack first and while it’s occupied with him, David runs for his life, but hearing his friend’s desperate cries for help decides to overcome his fear and run back to help him. He’s late, however, and finds Jack already dead, lying in a pool of blood, while the werewolf attacks him now instead. During the struggle scenes we don’t get to see too much of the werewolf, but enough to have an idea what it looks like. I know I may be picky now, but notice how there’s no blood on the werewolf’s fangs even though he just ripped a man to shreds? But anyway, luckily (or not) for David, before the creature has a chance to kill him, a posse made up of the guilt-ridden locals arrives at the scene and packs a salve of shotgun bullets into its body. Before David loses consciousness, he turns his head towards where the werewolf fell and sees there a naked man all covered in blood from the gunshot wounds. Thus ends the first act of our English werewolf fairytale.

We now shift to a London hospital where David is being hospitalized. Still out cold, he calls out Jack’s name, and is the centre of interest of apparently sex-deprived nurses who wonder whether he’s Jewish or not until the doctor arrives. Apart from two deep scars on the man’s face, we don’t really know what other injuries that would cause him to be unconscious for so long he had sustained, but his state allows the transition into one of many characteristic for this movie dream sequences in which David slowly realizes he’s turning into a werewolf himself. The first one is pretty simple and innocent, showing a first-person view of the main character, as it is implied, running through a forest, seemingly on all fours. Having woken up, he learns of his friend’s death and that he was unconscious for a whole three weeks… Wait. Three weeks? THREE WEEKS after being attacked by an ‘escaped lunatic’ as they put it and having suffered no serious damage to the head? I’m sorry, but three f****** weeks seems like the beginning of a coma. Could the director of the movie really not think of any other moment in the plot to insert this handy time-skip so that we would be able to follow the protagonist’s struggle during the upcoming full moon? Even the doctor tells him he’s suffered not much more than a few cuts and bruises and lost a little blood and that nothing’s wrong with him. If you ask me, I’d say that lying in bed unconscious for three weeks with such “injuries” means there’s something really wrong with him. The writing.

So after a visit to the hospital by two officials from Scotland Yard (one of whom seems to be a failed attempt of a comedy relief) when David is informed that according to witnesses him and his friend were attacked by a madman and that his testimony of it being otherwise is not credible, thus making the case closed, we cut to yet another dream sequence in which we see a naked David running through a forest. Everything would be fine and dandy if it weren’t for this little bit:

where he attacks a doe, rips it apart with his bare hands apparently, and takes a juicy bite out of its leg. Nom nom nom. After that, as if nothing ever happened, we move on to establish that the nurse taking care of David is the movie’s love interest. Only for a short while though, as another dream sequence follows in which David is running through the forest (AGAIN), this time fully dressed (progress, first it was just a camera, then we saw him naked, now he’s dressed, what next? He’s gonna ride through the forest on a bike?). As he does so, he notices a bed in the middle of the forest in which he himself lies and sees himself turning into a bit more monstrous version of himself as he’s approached by the said nurse.

When David decides to inform his doctor about the nightmares he is having, we can see he’s got more scars in the shape of claw marks on his chest as he tries to convince the doctor that he and Jack were attacked by an animal, not a man.

Oh right, the conversation going on between the two reminded me of something. Explain to me this: if the two Americans were travelling through Northern England, how the hell did David end up as far away from that as LONDON? Are there no hospitals in Northern England?! If he had suffered a serious injury which would require a specialist to operate on him, maybe there would be some justification for bringing him all the way down to London. But since we already know that’s not the case, WHY THE HELL DID YOU DRAG THE GUY SO FAR AWAY TO PUT HIM IN A HOSPITAL? I took the liberty of digging into the matter a little more and what I found got me a bit confused. Namely, first of all the town East Proctor is a fictional name created for the purposes of the movie, but its model was the village of Crickadarn near Wales’ eastern border with England. Now, since the signpost at the beginning of the movie shows the fictional East Proctor in the same direction as the Welsh town of Erwood, I decided to assume that’s the general area where our two main characters were during the werewolf attack.

So how this is supposed to be Northern England, I have no idea, but besides that what in the world made you guys think it was a good idea to transport a man with light injuries all the way from near the Welsh border 380 kilometers east to London (and that’s in a straight line) when you could have reached a city of a population of over a million people (there MUST be at least one hospital for such a place, right?) by covering as little as 90 kilometres? (Taking into consideration only bigger cities, of course.) I DEMAND SENSE. NOT PLOT CONVENIENCE BECAUSE YOUR MOVIE HAS “IN LONDON” IN ITS TITLE.

*facepalm and a few moments of silence*

So after a little more chit-chat we get to see another dream that David is having and I must admit that when I was watching the American Werewolf for the first time this scene was the biggest “what the f***” of the whole movie and I’d say it still holds up to that position. What we get to see this time is a family, a member of whose David appears to be, watching TV and going about its usual business on a free evening, when suddenly they are attacked by Nazi werewolf-soldiers with machine guns. Yes. Exactly what you read and even though maybe they’re not Nazi cause I didn’t see any marks on their uniforms, that’s still what first comes to mind. Like, seriously, what the hell...

As we can expect the werewolf-soldiers open fire at the family and shoot everyone to death apart from David who gets his throat slit. To be honest I’m not sure how to look at this scene. The only logical interpretation that at the moment comes to my mind is that the soldiers are a manifestation of the destruction David’s becoming a werewolf will bring to people closest to him, subsequently ending in his own demise.

When he wakes up in the morning and gets his breakfast delivered by an attendant, for the first (of many) time David has a vision of his dead friend, Jack. Terrified by the unexpected apparition, wondering If he’s still asleep, David has an unsettling conversation with Jack during which he reluctantly learns that they had been attacked by a werewolf and also that Jack is forced to walk the earth “in limbo” until “the curse of the werewolf has been lifted.” Jack then warns him that he will too transform into a werewolf and will kill people and urges him to kill himself before that happens. David panics and calls for the nurse.

Haunted by the thought he might become a werewolf the next full moon, David goes on to stay at the nurse’s house for the time being before he sets out on his way. After they officially become lovers, David is once again visited by his dead friend who repeats his previous warning. David begins to wonder about his own sanity once more and talks to his new girlfriend about The Wolfman. He mentions the similarities between the movie and what Jack told him and concludes that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him.

In the meantime, the good old doctor decides to visit East Proctor and step into the pub the two Americans were in the previous full moon. He creates unease among the locals when he asks about the incident and is soon forced to leave. Outside he meets one of the villagers who tells him that “there’s something wrong with this place” and that the one who survived (David) will change at the next full moon. He warns the doctor of the danger he and others around him are in before he gets cut off by another local who seems desperate to keep the town’s dark secret hidden.

The next day as the nurse leaves for work, David begins to notice strange things about him. Out in the street, a dog begins to bark furiously at him for no apparent reason (and this is one of the most popular clichés about someone being a werewolf and dogs being able to feel it). As the Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song “Bad Moon Rising” plays, we get to see David loafing around the house, waiting for the confirmation or disproval of Jack’s warnings. As night falls, the transformation however begins. Now these upcoming scenes are I would say are among the best werewolf transformation sequences in history and no wonder the movie was awarded the Academy’s statuette for the special effects involved in their creation. Many movies, past and present, can wish they had such a long and detailed scene of someone turning into a werewolf like this and all the CGI-based transformations, though some of them look good, are nothing compared to this raw, physical masterpiece. Together with a ballad version of “Blue Moon” by Sam Cooke it’s one of those things you’ll most probably remember for a long time after watching the American Werewolf even if you were to forget the rest of it.

Almost like Lon Chaney Jr., eh? Well anyway, realizing what is happening to him, David apologises to Jack and calls out for help, but none comes. Fully transformed, a spitting image of the previous werewolf, David escapes the house to hunt around London. It’s not explained how he manages to get out of the house, but let’s lay it on the werewolf’s intelligence that he maybe opened the window or the front door. I just don’t feel like being picky right now given the shape of the werewolf’s paws.

As for a few words about the werewolf itself, it’s obvious that the creators intended to create a human-wolf hybrid, but put it on all fours, unlike what the tendency is at present. The werewolf’s body is long and log-like, so to say, its legs, being transformed human limbs, are long and the hind legs need to be bent while the front ones remain outstretched. Though apparently fast, the creature moves in the fashion of a human trying to run on all fours, which is an interesting approach that signifies a tighter bond between a man’s body build and what would come out of its alteration into an animal-hybrid, so to say. The large mane on the werewolf’s head and back is a bit of an exaggeration in my opinion and makes it look a little clumsy, especially when viewed from the front – the legs then appear terribly short and fragile for the barrel-like rib-cage and torso which appear heavy. The ears could be a little more visible too since they get easily lost in the big mane. But now I guess I’m just starting to get picky. Anyway, the werewolf model in this movie is a lot better than in many other movies that preceded it, it’s ‘physical’ (non-CGI), so a lot harder to animate, which acts in its favour in spite of some other visual shortcomings. Now back to the plot.
I allowed myself to increase the contrast quite a bit 
so you could see the details of the werewolf's face.

As a werewolf David goes on a killing spree and kills a couple in a park, while the doctor tries to find clues as to his whereabouts, apparently convinced that what he heard in East Proctor is the truth. As David is running around various areas of London killing people, the doctor explains to the nurse what he saw during his visit in East Proctor and suspects that having suffered a severe trauma after the attack David may think of himself as a werewolf and because of that may hurt himself or others, not necessarily literally changing into a wolf. The doctor also voices his concerns about the case whose files have disappeared and about David’s wounds being “dressed and clean” even before he got to the hospital. Concerned about David’s safety, they decide to call the police after nobody picks up the phone at the nurse’s house. The scenes of the numerous killings are not too revealing, so don’t expect to see a lot of werewolf action in them. I guess the best you’ll get for the time being is this scene in the Tube:

This however gives us a general idea of the size of the creature and the way it moves on all-fours. When the night is through, David wakes up in the zoo, in the same cage as two wolves who seem to treat him with curiosity rather than hostility. It must have been extremely early for him to not be found by the staff to be honest >.> As he makes his escape and is on the way home, the newspapers are already booming about last night’s murders. When he gets back, he comments that he’s never felt so good before and that his body is overflowing with energy.

On the cab to the hospital where the doctor wants to take another look at him David learns of the murders and snaps, realizing that it’s him who committed them. He tries to get arrested by the police, but in vain. As if suspecting his nearing demise, David calls home to say goodbye and following his deceased friend’s words tries to take his life by cutting his wrists but in the end is unable to do so. Shortly after he leaves the phone booth he sees Jack again. They meet at a cinema and talk about what happened. This time, however along with Jack, David is confronted by all his (ketchup-covered) victims from the previous night who all unanimously tell him that he must die in order for them to be set free from limbo. The second night of the full moon falls and David begins to change again, this time in the cinema where he saw Jack.

By the power of increased contrast and brightness, 
I bring to thee the whole gory splendour of this scene.
Panic erupts as he begins killing people inside it and soon the police arrive as we approach the movie’s finale. Werewolf-David manages to escape from the cinema and runs rampant through Piccadilly Circus while the police are at a loose end as to what to do with him.

The ending scenes of the movie are the most revealing about our werewolf, as you can see. While David is wreaking havoc in Piccadilly Circus, the doctor and the nurse learn of the confusion that is going on there and immediately suspect it to be David, so they take a cab and hurry to the site. Once there, they find the werewolf cut off in a dead-end alley with the cavalry pointing their guns at him while he’s curled up against the wall. The nurse somehow manages to get through the crowd and approaches the creature, trying to get through to whatever was left of its humanity. For a moment it seems that the werewolf understands her words, but then suddenly leaps at her and immediately gets shot to death by the cavalry before he can harm her. Subsequently, instead of the werewolf creature they find the naked body of David. Credits follow without further plot to the sounds of a this time upbeat version of “Blue Moon” by The Marcels.

Impressions & Evaluation

Overall, one can’t call The American Werewolf in London a bad werewolf movie. It has its flaws and is a stereotypical story about someone becoming a werewolf, killing people and then meeting his demise, but somehow it also has its own specific charm that many werewolf movies of the present day lack. I raise my top-hat to the make-up team for creating a one-of-a-kind werewolf experience and also to the numerous The Wolfman allusions and a soundtrack full of songs related to the moon, which create a very peculiar mood that is so characteristic for this movie. Although the story is nothing revolutionary, the way this movie is made gives it an advantage over many other werewolf productions. The werewolf creature itself is in my opinion what serves as a big plus to the overall impression. With today’s technology, which wasn’t available back in 1981 when the movie was released, to some people it may seem a bit grotesque and old-fashioned, but it nevertheless has its own charm which led the movie to its becoming a cult classic. Putting the disc into your player, don’t expect anything revolutionary, but nevertheless it’s a pleasant ride to go on.


And that’s all for today folks, thank you very much for reading and what can I say? See you next time!

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Friday, 27 June 2014

News From the Dark Side of the Moon

Hello, hello and welcome! It's been quite some time since the last time I posted anything here - far longer than I'd ever expect, but life takes its twists and turns and forces us to focus on some matters and leave others behind. The good news is, however, that summer is starting and so I should have a little more time on my hands to fill up the blog with some more posts, mainly translations of my old posts from the original website, since I am nowhere near done transferring them here. Of course, I know how it is, so I'm not promising a whole slew of posts, but I do hope I manage to write a few new posts over the next three months. So that's one thing.

Next up, I've been following what's been happening over in the comments section under the post concerning ways of acquiring werewolfism reported in lore of various kinds, and I gotta say I'm a little disappointed and sad that my efforts to try and catalogue, sort of, all the various ways people have reported one can become a werewolf over the centuries have become a pretext for a lot of people to offend each other and throw metaphorical feces at each other instead of conducting a civilised discussion. Not all the comments were like that, but some were kind of pointless in their contents to the extent that sometimes I wondered if I should start deleting them altogether. But in the end I concluded that this is the Internet after all and the same kind of things that happen somewhere else (I'm looking at you, YouTube comments ;) ) are inevitably going to happen here as well and since there is freedom of speech and so on and so on, so I decided to just leave it all be. Obviously, I'm still reading everything that is posted. So once again, I send out a plea to all of you werewolf-lovers out there - be civilised, respect one another, and provide constructive feedback, don't toss obscenities at one another, because it's not really pleasant for me as the blog's owner nor people such things are aimed at nor new readers who visit the website for the first time and might become deterred by them. Apart from that, I guess I'm pretty flattered how popular the post's has become, so thank you all for your interest!

Last but not least, before I get down to writing something new, I decided to copy over the three movie reviews I did a while back, which were originally posted on my offshoot blog, TheLycanthropologist. Initially, it was supposed to be a blog devoted entirely to me reviewing werewolf-themed movies, but recently I've come to a conclusion that it would be better if I simply gathered everything in one place, namely here at Werewolf Theory, since a lot more people visit this website than the other one and also because time has shown that the movie review project blog isn't really going anywhere. I still need to grab a few files from the old netbook I wrote those reviews on, but I should be able to paste the reviews here next week, and of course finally create a new category on the right side of the page, listing movies and TV series (so I'll probably merge the Batman werewolf episode into that one category to avoid a mess).

I think that's about it as far as things I wanted to post for now are concerned. I'm still lurking in the shadows, observing the surroundings (currently following the development of a game I already mentioned in the past, Order 1886), trying to get into the mindset of writing some werewolf-themed stuff and filling this blog with some more content before I disappear again, like I tend to. In the meantime, enjoy what's already here and have a nice beginning of summer. I also added a poll to the right side of the blog, so if you feel like it, don't hesitate to vote.

Until next time!