Monday, September 28, 2009

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (John Landis, 1981, USA)

“If you hear him howling around your kitchen door
Better not let him in
Little old lady got mutilated late last night
Werewolves of London again.”

Warren Zevon

David and Jack are young Americans traversing the foggy Yorkshire moors: exiled by the cloistered townsfolk they are condemned to certain death by a savage curse. Writer/Director John Landis seemingly mines the dank depths of cliché and horror pastiche with just another werewolf tale, but surprisingly invigorates the hackneyed theme as a modern coming of age love story where friendship and human nature cannot be consumed by base animal instincts. From the eerie opening encounters trapped by the moon’s tidal embrace to the dark twisting alleys and subways of London, to the surreal dream sequences of walking corpses to the stark artificial lighting of a hospital room, John Landis creates a believable environment where reality may be counterpoint to a traumatized psyche and nothing is quite what it seems. Though short on characterization and back-story, actor David Naughton imbues the carefree protagonist with a gentle humility and earnest jocularity; a young man who values his family and friendship by realizing that laughter is the best medicine for a broken mind. He falls for the nurse who has cared for him, a beautiful and honest woman whose attachment is sexual and emotional, and together their chemistry is like the best college romance where lust (de)flowers quickly but has the potential to take root and thrive amid the harsh landscape of adolescence. Landis infuses humor into the story with bumbling authority, as the police inspectors seem out of touch, while Jack’s rotting corpse visits his friend and amid wisecracks and self-deprecating humor must convince David to kill himself to sever the Lycanthrope’s bloodline. This mix of horror and burlesque balances the narrative and keeps the characters within an empathetic context, suspending our judgment and blurring the bloody lines between right and wrong. Though David fails suicide before he transforms, it is difficult to hold him totally accountable for the six murders: the victims aren’t that liberal in their assessment and, in a grossly exaggerated and hilarious scene in a porn theatre, urge him to kill himself. The special effects are shockingly brutal, including the painful transformation, decomposing best friend, severed limbs, and a brief glimpse of the shaggy beast, which adds a violent physical dimension that is often lacking with modern CGI. The finale is a danse macabre in Piccadilly Circus of crashing vehicles and bloodletting, and amid the chaos of suppressed humanity only beauty can calm the beast where a selfless act brings absolution. Indeed, love does conquer all. (B)

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