Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: An American Werewolf In London (SPOILERS)

I must admit that I am prone to superlatives when it comes to early John Landis films. So take the following with a liberal pinch of salt.

Although it might not appear as such in retrospect, John Landis, Universal and Polygram took a terrific gamble with An American Werewolf In London. The film subverted genre conventions and defied audience expectations, and could well have missed its target audience altogether, if such an audience even existed in in 1981. The result was a seminal piece, accessible but with myriad layers of depth, which has informed and inspired countless horror comedy films since, and still gets the synapses firing a generation later.

AAWIL was the first successful melding of horror and comedy in mainstream American cinema (of which I am aware), and it remains the benchmark against which subsequent horror comedies are measured. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have even gone so far as to say that they modelled Shaun of the Dead, arguably the most successful and well-loved horror comedy of recent years, on AAWIL.

Landis' knockabout script bounces two milk-and-cookies American youths and several dour British supporting players between London and the Yorkshire Moors. This dislocation, which plays such a key part in the comedy and the drama, is perfectly complemented by the offbeat banter of the central characters. The naturalistic tone that the American protagonists maintain throughout most of the movie has not dated but, if anything, become more enjoyable over the years; filmgoers today are much more attuned to fast and loose dialogue, and a tongue-in-cheek tone than they were thirty years ago.
The criticism I have most heard of this film (and one which, on first viewing, I also had) is that the ending is too abrupt, downbeat, and seemingly out of keeping with the rest of the film. However, building through the the film is a dark undercurrent of inevitability, and the finale is the logical resolution of this.

The high-water mark of this malaise takes place in a phone booth in Piccadilly Circus, the very heart of London: David, our lead, is in one of the busiest places in the world, surrounded by people, and yet he is completely alone. After he tries to contact his parents for the last time, only for his pre-teen sibling to pick up, alone in the house, we are left with the distinct impression that the parents will never in fact receive the message of love which David was trying to pass on. He pulls out a Swiss Army knife - a symbol of resourcefulness and the endurance of the human spirit - and prepares to cut his own wrists... Landis understands that it is not in Nazi warthogs and dreams of carnivorous lunar activities that true horror lies, but in lost hope and the absence of human connection.
If the film had been edited around Jenny Agutter's Alex, we would have a great modern tragedy. Watching it through her eyes is heartbreaking, as her dawning comprehension of David's condition, and of her own growing Florence Nightingale crush is always chasing actuality, finally a mere half-step behind where it might have needed to be for David to be saved.

I still remember the first time I watched this; it scared the pants off me. The second time I laughed my arse off. Every screening since then has left me with something different and new. This is a film that has already proven it can stand the test of time, and it only gets better with repeated viewings.

Did I mention the special effects...?

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