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An American Werewolf in London

I’ve long held a theory that vampires and zombies have come to so thoroughly dominate the pop culture landscape in large part because they’re so easy to make. Though state-of-the-art makeup and special effects are certainly welcome, they’re not exactly necessary; anyone can make a passable zombie or vampire with nothing more than $15 worth of makeup. Thusly, we may presume by contrast that werewolves are considerably less common in modern pop culture precisely because they take more money, effort, and expertise to craft. Really, think about it: How many no-budget filmmakers could cover a guy in hair, slap some fake claws and nails on him, and elicit genuine terror instead of unintentional laughter from an audience? Hell, even experienced filmmakers would have a difficult time building a sufficiently horrifying creature on a budget and a deadline.

Then there’s the matter of the transformation. The shift from human to wolf (and perhaps back again) is a pivotal moment that’s getting harder and harder to present in a fresh way. Even worse, though CGI has done so much to make effects work easier, horror aficionados — and perhaps casual moviegoers as well — will call out the filmmakers for laziness unless the effects are all practical. And tonight’s film is a huge reason why.

Any discussion of An American Werewolf in London must begin with that transformation sequence. This is by far the movie’s most enduring contribution to pop culture, one of the definitive examples that everyone points to when making the argument that practical effects are superior to CGI. This is the sequence so groundbreaking that it convinced AMPAS to introduce the Oscar category of “Outstanding Achievement in Makeup” and give the first such award to Rick Baker for his work in this movie.

So is the sequence every bit as good as the hype? Oh, yeah. Hell yeah. Even with some obvious cutaways, it still looks every bit as convincing and painful (for the character, I mean) as anything I’d expect ILM to crank out in the 21st century. But the film has a lot of other stuff going for it as well.

David Naughton and Jenny Agutter are delightfully charming as our two leads, and their romantic arc is great to watch. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that they spend so much time naked onscreen. The film also introduces the concept of a werewolf being haunted by its victims, which was an absolutely brilliant way of filling the time between wolf attacks. The concept of our lead character grappling with insanity, guilt, and frightening visions was (in theory, anyway) a great way to introduce horror during the daylight hours, when something is badly needed to tide us over for what we really came to see. Additionally, the recurring conflict of youth against adulthood (also expressed by the notion that those in charge don’t actually know what they’re doing) is very smartly and subtly utilized.

What’s perhaps most impressive of all is that the film hasn’t aged a day. The effects are still impressive, the performances are still great to watch, and there’s nothing in the story that feels overly dated. Then again, that may have to do with all the timeless horror cliches that the film tends to fall back on. A great example is the town full of people who know exactly what’s going on, yet they’ve kept the whole werewolf thing a secret for so many years because the plot says so.

It baffles me that the movie is only 97 minutes long, because it easily could have used more screen time. If nothing else, pushing it further toward two hours might have allowed for a more developed plot and an ending that doesn’t feel like smashing headfirst into a brick wall. It might also have helped the movie get a clearer sense of focus, and that’s really the movie’s key failing.

There’s a very strong sense that the filmmakers had no idea what kind of movie they were trying to make. It has some funny moments and some scary moments, but not enough that the film as a whole can really work as a comedy or a horror. Similarly, the climax seems to briefly reprise the vehicular mayhem of The Blues Brothers released the year before, but the action is otherwise too few and far between for the overall movie to work as an action romp. Though to be fair, this movie did come out six years before Ghostbusters perfected the blend of comedy, horror, and action that this movie apparently tried so hard to achieve.

It bears mentioning that there was talk of a remake in 2009, though that project appears to have been derailed. Still, the $100 million question remains: Should this movie be remade? It’s very tempting, and not just because this is a cult classic more than 30 years old. The central premise is a good one and I maintain that there’s room for improvement in the story. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone who could effectively duplicate the easygoing romantic/comedic spark of Naughton and Agutter. And of course, the transformation sequence is immortal. Any remake would immediately draw comparisons to the original transformation sequence, and there’s a battle that can’t possibly be won. It doesn’t even matter if the transformation is CGI or practical, there’s no way to invite that comparison and come out looking good.

All told, my verdict is that this movie isn’t one that should be remade. It’s a movie that should have thoroughly nailed it the first time.

An American Werewolf in London is one of those sad cases when a film chases after so many goals at once and ultimately fails at most of them, becoming a featureless slog. Yet paradoxically, the film has so many genuinely great elements deserving of a far better movie, which makes the mediocrity surrounding them even more disappointing. Rick Baker thoroughly earned his status as a legend with this picture, the cast is uniformly outstanding, and John Landis had already cemented his place as a master filmmaker by way of Animal House and The Blues Brothers. Based purely on its reputation and the talent of the filmmakers, I went into this movie expecting a true horror masterpiece. Sadly, I came away disappointed. I can see the appeal and it’s still worth watching, but the uncertain tone is one hell of a caveat.

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