Wednesday, March 19, 2014

An American Werewolf in London

Before I even get into this, I must say that when I think of the pinnacle of werewolf films, I think of two-in no particular order-and I think most would agree with me.  At least anyone with a taste for horror films-especially the classics from Universal's heyday to the cheesy B-movies we'd gotten in the 50s, all the way to the best decade of horror...the 1980s-would appreciate my choices.  1941's The Wolf Man and 1981's An American Werewolf in London are the two films I think about when thinking of werewolf films-one being a classic of its time, the other being a classic for its special effects.

John Landis directed this 1981 classic and, at the time, was known for directing a handful of comedies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers.  It's a wonder how he had gotten this gig, but I'm glad he did.  He put together such a classic horror/comedy (more horror than comedy by the way) that, to this day, I don't think any other werewolf movie has matched it.

The film is a simple tale of two friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who decide to trek on a backpack tour of Europe together, travelling by thumb (hitchhiking is highly acceptable to this day over there) and going where their journeys take them.  As they turn up through the countryside of England, they stop into a tavern-The Slaughtered Lamb-to try and get something warm to eat and drink.  Met with sour looks of disdain, they sit and make the mistake of asking about a pentagram drawn on the wall.  Feeling unwelcomed, they leave, but not before
hearing the advice about staying on the road and avoiding the moors.  Unfortunately as they become frightened by a deep howling coming close to them, they forget the advice given to them and are attacked by something big and ferocious.  It kills Jack and mauls David before a gunshot rings out, stopping whatever was attacking David.  As he begins to pass out, he sees some of the men from the tavern-one with a shotgun-and looks to see a bloodied man, dead, beside him.   He wakes up in a hospital, has terrible dreams during his stay, falls for the nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter)-who lets him stay with her-and, as he begins seeing the living dead corpse of his friend, Jack, realizes he's been cursed by a werewolf.

 In every sense of the word, this film is a classic.  Some younger people might not like the approach of the "less is better" technique when it comes to the reveal of the werewolf, but I definitely understand it and embrace it.  While watching this film, you sit at the edge of your seat, wondering-much like the potential victims in the movie-what's lurking in the shadows.

Rick Baker is probably the most well-known special effects make-up artist in film history.  He's right up there with Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney (Chaney, as an actor, performed his own make-up effects).  He's done make-up effects in a lot of famous films, such as 1976's King Kong, Star Wars, Videodrome, and so many others.  But the special effects he created in An American Werewolf in London are phenomenal!  To date, I have not seen a better transformation of man into werewolf.  Even though CGI is near perfect these days, films still haven't perfected the werewolf conversion.  I thought for sure it was going to be outdone in 2010's The Wolfman (especially since Baker was involved with that one), but it really fell flat, as they went with CGI throughout nearly the whole thing.

In this film, we have quite a bit of comedy, with the relationship and back-and-forth witticisms between the two main characters, David and Jack, at the beginning, as well as when David starts seeing the living corpses of the people he has killed when he had been in his werewolf form.  The scene after David's first night as a werewolf and how he ends up in the city zoo's wolf cage is
pretty hilarious, how he has to find a way back to Alex's flat-as well as find some clothes before doing so-is a very funny part of this film.  When the kid goes to his mother and tells her, "a naked American man stole my balloons," still cracks me up even though I must've seen this movie a hundred times.

David Naughton does quite a job in this film, especially when he has to act by himself in certain scenes or when he has to converse with a decomposing puppet.  He's a very likable person in this film and you really feel for what he goes through in the story.  His performance when going through the first on-screen werewolf change is great, accompanied by Rick Bakers effects, and you really feel the pain he goes through.

Griffin Dunne is very memorable as well, stealing the scenes he's featured in due to his funny quips, not to mention the make-up he has on to show what happened to him when the werewolf attacked him and how it's decomposing more and more each time his character visits David.

The Piccadilly Circus scene is very well done and it's a wonder they were able to pull that off, due to the work involved as well as getting permission to film there in the first place.  But the chaos depicted with the werewolf running around had my mind stunned-and scared the crap out of me-when I first saw that as a kid.  Nowadays, I can see how they cleverly only showed part of the werewolf-in all scenes-but seeing this scene in particular had me on the edge of my seat.

Above all else, the design of the werewolf, when you finally see it, is so frightening and foreboding, I sometimes wonder what I'd do if I would ever come across a creature like that...and I always come to the conclusion that I'd shit my pants and be frozen in place as I waited for the inevitable.
 When I used to go to the Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Studios, they always had a full-scale model copy of the werewolf, from this film, on display.  Standing next to's pretty intimidating.

If there's anything I can nitpick about is the dream sequence, where David is back at home with his family and is suddenly attacked by these Nazi creatures that come into the house, shooting and knifing everyone.  It was a little strange and didn't seem to fit in the movie.  I understand he was having some bad dreams where he saw himself in the woods, killing a deer or just running around, but this dream was way out in left field.  Otherwise, it's still a shock and had me fooled the first time I saw the flick, because I had thought that he returned home to be with his family.  I guess it just shows the warped mind of Landis at his best.

So, what's my final "bit" on An American Werewolf in London?

The film is most certainly a cult classic and one of the best films John Landis has directed and best work Rick Baker has done on a creature design.  Although this film has been around for over 30 years and special effects have taken leaps and bounds in improvement and perfection, no one has ever made a better werewolf film since.  Maybe one day someone will see the importance of using more practical effects over CGI and surpass this film with a better werewolf transformation (although I don't see that happening).  However, more than likely, what'll happen is Universal Studios (if they still hold the rights to this film) will green light a remake.  I'm sure the latter is more plausible.  Until the day a better werewolf movie happens, stick to renting-or owning-An American Werewolf in London and enjoy a really scary movie.

Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments!

You can also tweet to me on Twitter: @CinemaBits .

Friday the 13th Part III

1982 was a big year for me in my movie-going experience-it was the year I saw my first Friday the 13th movie in a theater.  Parts one and two were seen at home on a video rental or on cable television, but this one was the real deal.  Which, as I recall this experience, I don't know how I had accomplished this because I was only 14 years old at the time and movie theaters were pretty strict back then about letting adolescents in to films with R ratings.  I seriously can't remember how I did it, but I did.  And not only did I watch Friday the 13th Part III, but I had watched it in 3D.

Back in the director's chair is Steve Miner, opening the film with a recap of the last ten minutes or so of part two-albeit, not in 3D-reminding us what had happened as Ginny slams a machete into Jason and leaves him for dead.  Leaving the confusing part out that had Ginny and Paul in the cabin with Jason crashing through the window (it's widely believed that that was a dream sequence), we see Jason pulling out the machete (the film now in 3D) and dragging himself out of screen, jumping into the opening credits with the movie's theme music, which I'll talk about later.  After the credits, the story begins with Harold (Steve Susskind) and Edna (Cheri Maugans), owners of some little market near the woods, as Jason stops by to take some new duds off the clothesline and kills the store owners while he's there.  We're then introduced to some of the main characters of the film as they're driving in a van to pick up a friend for a drive to the woods, to spend some time in a cabin.  But they're too close to Crystal Lake and Jason's there to make them pay.

Again, we have quite an eclectic group of characters in Friday the 13th Part III.  I'd already mentioned Harold and his wife, Edna, who own (or used to own) the market nearby.  Our main protagonist is Chris (Dana Kimmell), whose family owns the cabin which her and her friends are heading; we have the pregnant couple, Debbie and Andy (Tracie Savage and Jeffrey Rogers), along for the ride; there's the annoying practical jokester, Shelly (Larry Zerner), who is responsible for Jason's signature hockey mask in this outing; our movie's token Hispanic, Vera (Catherine Parks), is the love interest of Shelly's, even though she shoots him down hard; there's macho man and Chris's summer boyfriend, Rick (Paul Kratka); the film's comedy relief stoner couple-and who seem really out of place in this film because the others don't seem to be their type of crowd-Chuck and Chili (David Katims and Rachel Howard); and the local three-person gang, the leader, Ali (Nick Savage), his main squeeze, Fox (Gloria Charles), and their third wheel, Loco (Kevin O'Brien).  And yes, you've read those last four character names correctly: Chili, Ali, Fox and Loco.

I really like the cast, though some of them are really not that great of actors, but the standout of this film is Dana Kimmell as Chris.  She's the most believable of the group and really turns it up a notch towards the end, seeming like she was really terrified.  David Katims and Rachel Howard as the stoner couple were just as good, but because they seemed to be shoehorned into this film just to give us one half of Cheech & Chong (Katim looks so much like Chong in this film, I'd find it hard to believe that someone didn't plan this on purpose), that I can't take them seriously.  I can relate to Larry Zerner as Shelly in this film, because I was always the "Shelly" in whatever crowd I tried to be a part of in my teens, using comedy or other means to try and get people to like me.  With all the silliness in the casting of characters in this film, I still love it and relish it for the beginning of hockey-masked Jason.

As for the three-dimensional effects in Friday the 13th Part III, I've got to say they really weren't necessary and probably gave us a lower level of practical effect because of it.  I don't know why they decided to make this in 3D because there weren't too many 3D movies in the 80s.  Back in the 50s, there were a lot and nowadays there are quite a few as well.  One thing they both had in common was that the 3D effect was used to show depth and expanse.  The few films in the 80s used 3D in rather silly ways.  For instance, in this flick, we're sort of reminded quite often that we're watching 3D.  Some shots actually have something to do with horror and giving you a scare, like a snake jumping out at you or an eyeball popping out of the screen.  Other times, the 3D is done just to do it in a useless way and making it totally obvious, like a joint being passed towards us or Andy playing with a yo-yo...things like that.  From what I remember about this film when I saw it as a kid, the 3D wasn't that great and, as I bought the deluxe edition of the DVD that includes the 3D cut, it hasn't improved.

Okay, so about that music in the opening credits.  When I first watched this film, I was taken aback by it as it seemed that the filmmakers wanted to make the film appeal to the in-crowds or something.  If you've never heard it, the music is your typical rap beat from the 80s, complete with 80s synthesizers, sounding waaaaay out of place in this movie.  But over the years, I've grown to love it as it just brings me back to that year, that decade, and gives me a sense of longing for those days when I was just starting high school, not working for a living, and just sponging off my parents as most 14-year-olds do.  The rest of the film has its familiar music cues that we've come to know and love over the years, but it's just that funky rap beat that seems so out of place.
As for Jason Voorhees (played by the late Richard Brooker in this one), he definitely makes the character ominous in this sequel, more confident and meticulous.  While he seemed a little bumbling and clumsy in part two, in this one, he's one that you don't want to cross.  As with most of the franchise, Jason is played by a different actor each time (with exception to when Kane Hodder took the role in part seven and made it his own for four films), so there's always a noticeable difference in the physique each time.  In part two, he seemed kind of small and not that powerful; in this one, he's a lot taller and poised in his gait.  As the movies continue, especially if you see them one right after the other like I do, you'll definitely notice.  In part two, we'd gotten our first glimpse at Jason unmasked as he crashed in through the window to grab Ginny, but the makeup effect on his face looked phony and very obvious it was a guy wearing some rubber prosthetics.  Here, in part three, the makeup work looks pretty real and shocking.  It's rumored that Stan Winston had a hand in some of the work, but not all of it.  Perhaps that's why the unmasking scene in this film looked so damned good.

Anyway, without going on and on about this-because I can gush about the first four films relentlessly-let me give you my final "bit" on Friday the 13th Part III.

As a first-time Friday the 13th viewer, you'll see the lower caliber of acting right away.  You'll also notice there's nobody you'll recognize-besides the character of Jason, of course-and that may put you off since, nowadays, most horror movies produced includes some well-known actor or actress in it.  But that's what made Friday the 13th Part III, and most horror movies of its time, awesome.  It gives it a sense that the characters we're watching could be real people and not associated with some other movies we've seen them in before.  Because that's what filmmakers or movie studios are doing way too much of...putting too many well-known faces in these horror films, making it too surreal to take seriously.  Friday the 13th Part III is a fun time and it's the beginning of the famed "hockey mask" Jason, so you can't miss it.

Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments!

You can also tweet to me on Twitter: @CinemaBits.