Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Making Monsters #31: An American Werewolf in London

Of all the movies that made me obsessed with monster makeup and special effects artists as a kid, An American Werewolf in London was number one with a bullet. John Landis' classic isn't so much a horror-comedy as a horror movie where laughs offer temporary relief from its many scares. It's also a landmark in transformation effects that has never truly been surpassed; while most werewolf movies until that point relied on dissolves and other camera tricks to sell the effect of their characters transforming into werewolves, An American Werewolf in London, along with The Howling earlier the same year, pulled off astonishing in-camera metamorphoses. Rick Baker was the makeup effects supervisor on An American Werewolf in London, and offered advice to Rob Bottin for The Howling while waiting for the film to go into production. If the transformation in Landis' film has a decided advantage, it's because of Landis' wish to shoot the scene where unlucky American tourist David (David Naughton) first turns into a lycanthrope in a brightly lit living room set with no shadows or obscure angles to hide Baker's techniques. The result is an unforgettable scene where one effect builds on another to sell David's abrupt and painful transformation (Naughton's convincing screams of fear and pain do a great deal to sell the scene as well).

As a kid, I searched for any information I could find on how Baker pulled off the scene. Needles to say, each shot in the transformation required a great deal of imagination and effort to pull off. Prosthetic versions of Naughton's limbs were made, then fitted with air bladders that, when inflated, gave the appearance of David's arms and legs stretching and changing shape. For the closeups of hair rapidly growing over David's body, Baker threaded thousands of individual strands of hair through sections of latex skin, filmed the hair being pulled through the holes, then reversed the shot to create the illusion of growth. For the point at the scene where David's head transforms, Baker created two animatronic heads designed to bulge and expand as David grows a snout; coupled with some bone-cracking effects, it's frighteningly convincing.

But even knowing so much about how the scene was done, I completely forget about the details every time I watch it. It's a perfectly shot and cut, and brilliantly underscored by Sam Cooke's version of "Blue Moon" (which takes on an ominous quality here). Landis' ability to use humor to both punctuate and magnify the movie's sense of inexorable doom is remarkable; I'm particuarly fond of the insert, during David's transformation, of a Mickey Mouse figurine observing the scene passively, the character's cheerfulness taking on an eerily blank quality. Landis ability to walk a fine line between laughter and screams is just as strong throughout the entire film, from David and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) initial teasing of each other fading as they realize they're lost and scared shitless from the sound of howling in the distance to the perfectly abrupt cut to black at the film's end that cheerfully announces that everything has completely gone to hell and the story is therefore over. If it weren't for the Twilight Zone tragedy a few years later, Landis might have gone on to a career to rival his then-friend Steven Spielberg; the two had more in common than most people realize now. And Baker is similarly firing on all cylinders throughout the film, from the awesome Nazi demons in David's nightmares to the undead Jack's rapid physical decay to the climactic bloodbath in Piccadilly Square. An American Werewolf in London is everything a horror movie should be - thrilling, tense, witty, stylish, bloody, believable, and driven by an inexorable sense of dread. It's the perfect film for the Fangoria-reading, socially awkward child that many of us were and, really, still are.

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