Sunday, October 19, 2014

31 Days of Horror: An American Werewolf in London

David Naughton becomes the wolf in An American Werewolf in London.

In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.

Day 19: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Rick Baker is a genius. If we can all agree on that from the start, we should have no trouble moving forward. Most often, he is credited as a “special makeup effects artist.” What I want to focus on is the word “artist” because everyday discussions about movies often undervalue the contributions of the craftsmen and women behind the scenes. Those in the industry recognize this contribution, which is why the Oscars remains the only awards show to include presentations and speeches for the crafts categories.

Baker has seven Oscars. His work on American Werewolf in London, as much as any other factor, is the reason the Best Makeup category was created. You may not know his name, but you are as familiar with his work as with the work of any star. His credits include all three Men in Black movies, Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor, this year’s Maleficent, the first Star Wars film, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video.

The wide variety of projects he has worked on speaks to his versatility as an artist, but if he is remembered for one thing, it will be for his work in this specific horror genre: the werewolf picture. He won his most recent Oscar for the latest The Wolfman movie. He turned Christina Ricci into a monster for Wes Craven’s Cursed and Jack Nicholson for Mike Nichols’ Wolf. When it looked like director John Landis would be unable to secure funding for An American Werewolf in London – after the two had discussed the project for years – Baker took his talents to The Howling, which came out the same year.

When funding finally did come through, he left The Howling, remaining a consultant on that film, and focused all of his energy and attention on Landis’ picture. That dedication culminates in the centerpiece transformation of lead actor David Naughton into a werewolf. It is one of the great transformation sequences ever put to film, perfect in its smallest details and stunning in its overall effect, so great the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had no choice but to create a new category and give Baker his first of many Oscars.

If the movie were nothing but this one scene, it would be memorable, but what makes it great is everything else around it. Naughton and co-star Griffin Dunne play American tourists in England caught on the Moors under a full moon. They are attacked by a werewolf. One is killed, and the other begins a slow, steady descent into madness.

It is dark stuff, but perhaps unsurprisingly from the director of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Landis infuses the film with immense humor, dark humor to be sure, but if you are not laughing, you are not paying attention. At the same time, Landis himself, upon a viewing years later, expressed shock at the amount of gore in the movie. While fun and full of comedy, An American Werewolf in London never backs away from its roots as a terrifying and bloody horror picture.

It is only the best monster movies that are able to draw pathos from the things that go bump in the night. Under the gore and the humor, this film packs an emotional punch. Naughton’s excellent lead performance is key, and his collaboration with Landis and Baker forces us to feel the full weight of the blow as we watch a terrible thing happen to a good person.

Tomorrow, a Canadian werewolf in Canada shows us modern horror with a twist.

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