(1981 - UK)
Written and Directed by John Landis
ZSL London Zoo
Halloween night - October 31, 2010
A feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
Little did I realise when I laughed, cried and cowered in fright at this film when it first opened in 1981, that nearly thirty years later I’d be writing about an exclusive screening of it on Halloween night at ZSL London Zoo, a few short yards from where the story’s unknowing U.S. tourist turned werewolf David Kessler wakes up following his first feeding frenzy on unsuspecting members of the British public.
When we lined up at ZSL London Zoo below the sign of The Slaughtered Lamb in the late afternoon on Halloween, the assembling crowd drew curious looks from many passersby. Why would we be waiting outside of the zoo entrance after closing time? Why indeed! We were there to attend an exclusive screening of John Landis’ cult horror classic An American Werewolf in London. But not only were we there for the screening, we were also waiting to see a special exhibition of story-boards, photographs, original and replica props from the film, including ‘the original mechanical bust (courtesy of Propstore.com) created by special effects/mechanical experts Rick Baker and Bill Sturgeon, used to produce the werewolf’s face stretch effect in the transformation sequence.’ And, last but not least, to go on a twilight tour of London Zoo to see the place where John Landis’ American werewolf David Kessler awoke, curiously naked, but strangely refreshed, in the wolves den of London Zoo. The bench David nicked a bright red woman’s coat (shades of Red Riding Hood?) from, was in fact, directly opposite the building we’d be watching the film in, a serendipitous turn of events which was not only fitting, but ideal for this very special Halloween night
American film director John Landis has created some of the iconic cinematic moments of the late 20th Century, among them, Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking mini movie/video Thriller (1983), hilarious, action packed film The Blues Brothers (1980)with Saturday Night Live actors Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi, and a whole host of funk and R and B stars and long under-rated, cult horror/comedy movie An American Werewolf in London (1981). But the film that had first brought Landis to public attention was National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), a riotous parody of college life in which John Belushi famously started a food fight, and Landis consequently, found the money to fuel his filmic career.
A specially recorded film message from none other than John Landis himself preceded this very special screening at ZSL London Zoo, as well as some never seen before film clips, provided by Paul Davis, director of Beware the Moon, a feature length documentary about An American Werewolf in London.
See Film Differently is all about location, location, location, so John Landis was the perfect filmmaker for their inaugural screening in London, as not only does he have a warm affection for his second home, but he is that rare director who always insists on shooting in actual locations, despite obstacles or difficulties. Take for example, the exciting concluding scene of American Werewolf, shot in London’s teeming Piccadilly Circus. Following an exclusive, invitation only screening of his 1980 cult film The Blues Brothers for 300 members of the Metropolitan Police, Landis was granted a few intermittently spaced, four minute time slots, between 1 and 4 o’clock on two frosty February mornings, in which to capture a full-on, intricately constructed scene involving the wolf, who in this film is 100% animal, (albeit, a mechanical wolf from Hell with no trace of his former human self), crashing buses, cars, actors, extras and several stunt people which, for fans of this film is a definitive one in the annals of horror/comedy.
But, like Hitchcock before him, Landis, who’d had American Werewolf in mind since the start of his directorial career in 1969, when he was assistant director on Kelly’s Heroes, fills this film with gentle reminders of the horrors to come, from the sheep farmer who gives David and his friend Jack a lift, dropping them off in the Pennines with a warning to ‘Stay on the road…Keep clear of the moors,’ to Jack’s brash question about a ‘star’ on the wall of The Slaughtered Lamb. We know right then and there that if there’s a werewolf about, Jack will be the first to go, especially as his khaki quilted jacket was marked with sheep dung as he stepped out of the farmer’s truck. ‘Nice sheep,’ Jack quips with a wolfish grin. The film also characteristically lulls us into a false sense of security before stunning our senses with a rapidly executed scene of brutality and graphic horror, inspired by Landis’ love of Hammer Horror films, a taste he’d no doubt acquired during his early days in London circa 1969 – 71. Landis had also developed a fondness for the Carry On films he so obviously references in a later nod-nod, wink-wink London hospital scene, in which werewolf to be David is tucked in bed and out cold, still recovering from his harrowing experience on the moors. In the eye of this gathering cinematic storm is the charming American/English attraction of the film’s two leading characters, David Kessler and Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). Agutter smiles sweetly, but oozes sexuality as easily as a fully bloomed English rose does perfume. Naughton’s wide- eyed character, David, seems more lovable puppy than atypical big lug and Nurse Price senses her new patient’s inherent animal magnetism long before it becomes blatantly apparent. As the feeling is mutual, the pair make for some electrically charged onscreen chemistry. Fairly frisky looking, tastefully shot love scenes between David and Alex aka former patient and nurse bring things up to date, allowing our werewolf his swan song before he becomes history. Naughton and Agutter as David and Alex seem so joyfully youthful together that the heart aches at the thought of their inevitable, final parting. As in the original 1941 film, The Wolfman, with Lon Chaney Jr, only true love and, the death of the werewolf can kill the curse.
Casting for this film is one of its’ many wonders, from its’ three shining stars - American David Naughton, who’d previously been known in the States only as the song and dance man on a TV ad, Jenny Agutter of Railway Children and Walkabout fame, and Griffin Dunne, whose wiry, wise cracking Jack Goodman literally winds up as the punch-line of the famers’ xenophobic joke. In addition, nearly all of the seminal British actors in supporting roles appear to have been lifted right out of an Ealing Comedy: John Woodvine as the ever so civil Dr. J. S. Hirsh, Lila Kaye as the aging barmaid of The Slaughtered Lamb, Brian Glover as a bald, rather frightening Yorkshire man playing a game of chess with rakishly thin, young Rik Mayall, Paddy Ryan as the offending ‘first’ werewolf, David Schofield as an overly vigilant dart player, Anne-Marie Davies as ‘naughty’ Nurse Susan Gallagher, British born American puppeteer Frank Oz of Muppets and Yoda fame as both squeaky voiced Mr. Collins and, Miss Piggy on telly (now there’s a transformation) and Don McKillop and Paul Kember, performing a double act funny enough to stand on its own, as ‘always right’ Inspector Villiers and his yes man partner Sergeant McManus.
Landis marveled at the nerve and tenacity of ‘Iron Lady’ Margaret Thatcher on TV during his time in London and wanted to bring a sense of her buttoned up, class divided ethics to the film. By including a conservative, upwardly mobile young couple, a pin-stripe suited man of ‘The City’ and a trio of booze swilling, homeless bums among David’s first group of victims, scenes in which progressively decomposing Jack gorily haunts David, first, to warn him, then to show him the deadly results of his werewolfian ways, highlight growing ‘80’s class divides between haves and have nots. Likewise, are the laughable differences between a proper, educated man like Dr. J. S. Hirsh, (John Woodvine) who practices medicine in London, but nevertheless foolishly orders a Campari and soda on a visit to The Slaughtered Lamb, compared with the bunch of Yorkshire farmers being habitually obstinate over their bitters.
The film’s soundtrack is also to die for, as it combines original music by Elmer Bernstein, with classic lunar themed songs like ‘Blue Moon’ which opens the film on a sweetly innocent note via the recording by Bobby Vinton, while Sam Cooke’s definitively romantic version ironically accompanies David’s first, painful transformation scene, and the upbeat, doo-wap version by the Marcels rolls along with the final credits. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s late ‘60’s hit ‘Bad Moon Rising’ sets the tone in another scene.
The special effects in this film were so ground-breaking at the time, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invented a new category – Best Makeup Effects, in order to present an Oscar to Rick Baker, who together with fellow mechanical expert Bill Sturgeon produced some of the most astounding man to beast transformations ever, incorporating a believably human face, realistically morphing into the snout and hairy features of a red blooded, demonic wolf. Ah, bring back the days of ‘real,’ rather than computer generated effects! I can vouch for the fact that sitting in the comfort of the cushioned seating in Mappin Pavillion at the Zoo on Halloween night, amid a roomful of riveted viewers that these scenes are still nothing short of amazing! As An American Werewolf in London, with all its warmth, variegated humour and pathos played out before us, we were all transfixed, some, possibly for the first time, others, like us, for the first time in many years. However, it’s a sure thing that after our warm and, chilling See Film Differently Halloween at ZSL London Zoo, American Werewolf, Halloween and London itself will be intrinsically linked in our minds.
As events go, despite its frightful focus, this very special occasion, sponsored by Volkswagen’s See Film Differently, was more like a dream than a nightmare. On arrival, we were presented with a full Itinerary of the evening’s events, with souvenir poster and map showing the film location for American Werewolf, as well as other film locales at ZSL London Zoo, details of the Zoo tour and exhibition viewing, welcome drinks with limitless popcorn (appropriately sweet and salty) and details of the film screening, before which we were treated to some ‘high end’ cinema snacks and drinks, which were gratefully accepted.
Many thanks to John Landis and See Film Differently for creating wonderful Halloween memories! In these senselessly austere times, it’s comforting to know there is still at least one free-wheeling map designed to help film lovers locate true movie magic. When it comes down to it, there was simply, no better way to spend Halloween night than to revisit this sweet, sad, funny, touching and scary film about the consequences of straying off the path into the wilds, at ZSL London Zoo, one of its original locales.
Check the See Film Differently website for upcoming screenings and events
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