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The Film that Changed My Life
30 Directors on their Epiphanies in the Dark
By Robert K. Elder
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2011 Robert K. Elder
All rights reserved.
An American Werewolf in London
Edgar Wright was probably a little too young to see John Landis's An American Werewolf in London, even when he attempted to watch it on TV with his family. Even before he saw the film, he was enamored with it, particularly by images in fan magazines.
American Werewolf was a forbidden fruit made sweeter by Wright's adolescent pursuit to see it. But once he did, the impact was lasting. Compare it with Wright's own zombie-horror romantic comedy, Shaun of the Dead, and it's easy to see the inspiration, the attitude, the humor, and the humanity shared by both films.
Here, the director talks about Landis's masterpiece, a well-executed update of the horror-comedy formula. "It can probably never be replicated — nor should it," Wright says.
Edgar Wright, selected filmography:
A Fistful of Fingers (1995)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Hot Fuzz (2007)
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
An American Werewolf in London
Directed by John Landis
Starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, and Frank Oz
How would you describe the film to someone who has never seen it?
Wright: Well, An American Werewolf in London, for my money, is like the best horror-comedy of all time. You've got lots of comedies that are very similar, and you have lots of horror films that are very similar. But very few horror-comedies are exactly the same, and An American Werewolf in London is really defined by its tone. And it's one of the few horror-comedies that's really funny.
It was directed by John Landis, coming off a run of very successful comedies. People didn't know how to take it because they were really scared by it, and because it was coming from the director of Animal House. And the fact that the poster said, "From the director of Animal House ... A different kind of animal," people should've considered that they had fair warning with that tagline. [laughs]
In reality, it was the first script he ever wrote, and he wrote the script in the late '60s. And he shot three or four other films before he did An American Werewolf in London. It was obviously a real passion project for him. It's about two American guys in their early twenties hiking across the Yorkshire moors. And both of them get attacked by a werewolf. One of them survives and the other one doesn't. The one who does survive becomes a lycanthrope, a werewolf.
Why did you choose this particular film to talk about?
Wright: An American Werewolf in London was way ahead of its time as a postmodern film, taking its own inspiration from the Abbott and Costello horror films and the Bob Hope films.
The thing in An American Werewolf in London that really marks it out from everything — even now — is how scary the horror is and how visceral it is. I honestly think there are not many other films that really come close. There are other films that I like — Evil Dead II or Peter Jackson's Braindead [a.k.a. Dead Alive in the United States]. But both of those are a little more cartoonish and campy.
Whereas in An American Werewolf in London, it's very funny; it's also very real. The scene-setter on the moors where Griffin Dunne and David Naughton get attacked, or even before they get attacked, is absolutely terrifying. It's the stuff of nightmares. Tonally, it's a really interesting film. I think it's both hugely influential and, strangely, kind of underrated in a weird way.
Can you tell me about when you saw it and under what circumstances?
Wright: I had a very interesting circumstance of seeing it, having to do with very bad parental decision-making. I think it was showing on British network TV in 1984, so maybe I was nine when it was actually on TV.
It was a real entry-level film into more adult films because both I and my brother had grown up on genre films and Star Wars — Spielberg and Lucas specifically. And through magazines like Starburst and Starlog, we definitely had an interest in films with effects in them. It is really only a skip and a jump from Star Wars and The Thing to An American Werewolf in London just on the basis of creature effects.
And I remember vividly, when it first came out, there used to be a British magazine called Starburst, which Alan Jones edited. During his tenure years as editor, it briefly went really gory for a magazine that was just selling at regular newsagents in Britain. There were massive complaints. One of the issues I had, which I would flip through ravenously, was the one with American Werewolf on the cover.
It had a photo of David Naughton smiling, surrounded by the people he's killed. And you see them all completely drenched in blood, which always struck me, because it was a crew photo essentially. It was like a production still; it wasn't stripped from the film.
And I think that, straightaway, just struck me as odd because it wasn't like a standard horror film shot. I remember reading everything about it and then actually it was on TV. It was on BBC 1, maybe nine o'clock at night, quite early. And my parents, because they knew we were so insanely keen to see it — we were allowed to stay up and watch it. So we were only nine and allowed to stay up past nine o'clock to watch An American Werewolf in London. And I couldn't be more excited watching it.
About forty minutes in, after Naughton has been attacked on the moors and his friend is dead, he's in the hospital having these very vivid nightmares and daydreams. There's a scene where he's back at home and the door gets kicked down and his Jewish family gets wiped out by Nazi monsters. They shoot his sister, shoot his brother and his parents. Then there's an extremely gory Rick Baker makeup job wherein Naughton's throat gets slit in close-up by a Nazi monster.
At that point, my mom and dad said, "OK, that's enough! Bed!" and sent us both to bed. So I wasn't allowed to watch the end of the film. That was a rash decision by my parents. They were trying to protect my innocence, but all that meant is that I had no resolution, didn't see the end of the film, and all I was left with was these images of the nightmares.
And so I was plagued by that for the next couple of weeks: the Nazi monsters and the moors attack itself — all the really scary parts in the early part of the film continued to plague me. So I don't think I actually saw it for another couple of years.
Did that make it even sweeter fruit because it was forbidden?
Wright: Absolutely! And every time I see it, it just really strikes me. It's a special film for me. It's just really unique. I don't think anything else comes close to hitting the particular recipe of ingredients that film has.
Have you ever met anyone associated with the film?
Wright: The other day I actually took part in like a documentary for a Blu-ray DVD that's coming out, and I've been very lucky to get to know some of the people who have been involved, like John Landis and Eric Baker. I even met Griffin Dunne and George Folsey Jr., who produced it. So I've met a lot of the people involved in the film.
In fact, the crowning part of that was: I had a festival in 2007 where I curated the new Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. And one of the films I showed was An American Werewolf in London with John Landis, doing a Q&A with him.
Let me ask you this then: Landis has said he was trying to make a contemporary version of an old movie. He still believes it is not a comedy. Did you reconcile that at all with him?
Wright: It's definitely a horror-comedy. It's frequently very funny.
I think what happened is that he made a horror film, but he's such a naturally funny person. The scenes in between the horror are just very funny. It's not arch at all — you care about the characters. You care what happens to them, which is very unusual for any horror film. When Griffin Dunne gets killed within fifteen minutes, it's shocking. Because even in just the first fifteen minutes, he establishes himself as incredibly engaging and funny.
Landis set out to make a horror film, and then his comedy instincts, which are amazing, just kind of shined through throughout the film. But what really sells An American Werewolf in London is the horror elements, which are really vivid and really work. It's properly scary and properly gory and full-blooded.
It is just as interesting that he wrote it when he was a teenager because it does feel like — and this is probably one of the reasons I liked it so much at a young age — it feels so much like the ultimate sixteen-year-old film. And I mean this so much as a compliment.
He actually said this to me when I did the Q&A with him. Some of the dialogue in the film — particularly the monologue by Jenny Agutter just before she sleeps with Naughton, when she says, "I've had seven lovers" [laughs] — Landis said, "Oh, that was like the teenage me speaking."
And I said, "I don't care; I love it! It worked for me."
Well, anytime you have a female character be that open ...
Wright: Yes. It's interesting that he brought that up as being something that didn't work for him. But it's funny. I've just seen it so many times. Obviously when you're a preteen or teenager, you're thinking, "Oh my God, he's kissed Jenny Agutter. This is amazing! Things aren't that bad! His friend's dead; he's a werewolf. But he gets to go home with the ultimate English rose straight out of hospital. It's not a bad game!" [laughter]
How much impact did An American Werewolf in London have on Shaun of the Dead, your own horror-comedy?
Wright: The tone of it very much influenced Shaun of the Dead. One of the things that we made as a rule for ourselves in Shaun of the Dead is that — with very few exceptions — all the humor came from the reactions and the context. And nobody said anything in dialogue that they wouldn't be able to come up with on the spot.
Now, a lot of '90s horror-comedies are written with more stylized dialogue, you know, where people are being very witty about things that are going on. People are coming up with zingers about the situation. And I think the thing that really makes An American Werewolf in London feel very real is that the reactions of all the characters — even though they're kind of incredulous sometimes — they feel kinda real.
The comedy helps the realism of the piece, if that makes sense. When they're on the moors and they know they're in trouble, and they're lost, and it's raining, and there's a wolf howling — they start nervously laughing about it. It's moments like that where they're joking around because you get into that slight kind of hysteria. Like where you're shit-scared and you're trying to take your mind off of it by joking with each other. And it really nails that aspect.
I think there's just a real alchemy to this film. John knew exactly what he was doing. It was the film that he really wanted to make even before Animal House and The Blues Brothers. This was his real passion project, and he had ten years to think about it and build up to it.
Well, Edgar, the title of the book is The Film That Changed My Life, so can you tell me how it changed your life?
Wright: I've always been fascinated by horror films and genre films. And horror films harbored a fascination for me and always have been something I've wanted to watch and wanted to make. Equally, I'm very fascinated by comedy. I suppose the reason that this film changed my life is that very early on in my film-watching experiences, I saw a film that was so sophisticated in its tone and what it managed to achieve.
It really changed my life. It's informed both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. There have been moments of verbal comedy, physical comedy, and tonal comedy. And extreme violence, somehow. Something like An American Werewolf in London, the idea of having this mix of socially awkward comedy preceded by incredibly vivid Oscar-winning horror, was just astonishing — is really astonishing. Horror films never get considered for Academy Awards; it's kind of incredible that An American Werewolf in London won the first ever makeup Oscar.
Tell me about your favorite scene.
Wright: I've got so many favorite scenes in that film. Well, the werewolf transformation scene prominently features my favorite shot. The transformation sequence is obviously, rightly famous for John's decision to do it in bright light. Every previous werewolf transformation had always been done in the dark and kind of obscured or using montage.
But the bit I love is that cutaway to a Mickey Mouse figure in the middle of the scene, and the Mickey Mouse is kind of just observing this transformation. And I never entirely understood it. I don't really know why it's there, other than that it's just a cutaway. But it always makes me laugh. It's just absurd and surreal.
Tell me about first encountering that transformation scene. In addition to winning the Oscar, it's one of the most memorable sequences in film history.
Wright: That was probably the element of the film I was most aware was gonna be in it. I'd read everything about the film, certainly seen lots of stills of that scene.
The transformation is preceded by David Naughton sort of puttering around the flat, bored. You have a whole sequence where he flips through British TV. You've got this whole sequence then set to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and him just puttering around, and you know it's coming.
And then when it finally comes, Sam Cooke's version of "Blue Moon" kicks in, and it just starts — it's not in a dramatic scene. In fact, every other werewolf transformation prior to that in film occurs at some dramatic moment. You know, the lycanthrope is in human form and being chased by villagers. Or it's in the middle of a confrontation with somebody. Or a revelation.
Even in something like The Howling, released the same year, there's a werewolf transformation in the middle of a sex scene. And in An American Werewolf in London it starts off with Naughton sitting on the couch reading a book, then suddenly it's like "Jesus Christ!" It starts.
Every cliche setup from horror films is subverted with the mundanity of the situation. It keeps putting these extraordinary scenes and really vivid, graphic scenes in everyday settings. That's what really makes that film.
You mentioned the music, so let's talk about the soundtrack.
Wright: The thing that I think is really amazing in An American Werewolf in London — I think it has to take its place in being one of the most influential films — is the use of music in the film. It's got a jukebox soundtrack. You've got Easy Rider. You've got American Graffiti, Mean Streets. And before you get to Reservoir Dogs in the early '90s, An American Werewolf in London has to stand out as one of the great soundtrack films ever.
And also probably the best — the film with the best soundtrack that never had a soundtrack LP. There's no soundtrack album for An American Werewolf in London for reasons that John Landis will go into very entertaining detail about. But the whole postmodern sort of conceit was taking all the songs with "Moon" in the title and making that your soundtrack. And using different versions of "Blue Moon." To have Bobby Vinton's "Blue Moon" scored over the foggy moors as your hero shows up, in the beginning of the film, in a truck full of lambs to the slaughter — it's just amazing!
Excerpted from The Film that Changed My Life by Robert K. Elder. Copyright © 2011 Robert K. Elder. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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