Monday, 29 August 2011

30 Years Later - An American Werewolf in London

Just over a week ago, An American Werewolf in London, directed by John Landis, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. With that in mind, I recently gave it a slightly belated birthday viewing. And you know what? It still holds up today.

American Werewolf has the distinction of being one of the original ‘horror comedies’ (a horredy?). Not a comedic spoof of horror, but a film which, when done properly, can find just the right balance between the two genres. In this case, it’s able to quickly turn from being light-hearted fun to an exercise in genuine terror, and so was ahead of its time in a lot ways. Take the early scenes set on the Yorkshire moors as an example, as we watch doomed tourist buddies David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) amiably banter and bicker about everything from the weather to women. But it’s not long before the rain sets in and, along with it, the howling starts. Soon they’re running, panic stricken, from some unseen horror, yet even then they try and make light of the situation. Of course, it all comes to a shocking and bloody end.

The film continues this balance of humour and horror throughout. I think my favourite scenes are those that focus on David and Jack together. There’s always a great sense of chemistry between them. And I’m not just referring to their opening sequences. By far, the best gag here is that the two characters spend time with each other even after Jack has been mauled to death. He appears one morning before David’s hospital bed with a smile on his face. Only problem is, his face has been ruined by claw marks, and his entire throat has been torn to shreds. As this image sinks in, he calmly points at David’s breakfast tray and asks, “Can I have a piece of toast?”

That’s brilliant. And there’s two more scenes just like it later on. In each, Dunne’s makeup becomes increasingly more gruesome to the point where he is finally portrayed by an actual practical effect! He also appears to become more snarky as his condition deteriorates (all things considered, I guess you can’t exactly blame him). But he carries a serious message for David. Jack can only be at peace if the wolf’s bloodline is severed. In other words, David has to die! It’s not just Jack who’s trying to get this message across, however. During their final meeting in an erotic theatre, he’s accompanied by a handful of fresh corpses (a result of David’s third act killing spree), who all offer up suggestions for how the poor werewolf could potentially kill himself. In particular, there’s an excitable young couple who seem to be taking the whole death thing rather well, and are quite eager to suggest the simple use of a gun in the mouth (“Then you’d be sure not to miss!”). They’re all sunshine and happiness at the time, too, despite being caked in blood.               

On the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, some of the film’s most frightening scenes take place in David’s mind. While recovering in hospital after the initial attack, he has several disturbing dreams (in which he runs naked through the woods and rips a deer’s head off) that soon morph into nightmares. In one, there’s a truly startling jump scare which will leave an image burned into your mind whenever you turn off the lights, while another starts off with a cosy image of life at home with David’s family... before they’re all suddenly massacred by a squad of machinegun-toting Nazi werewolves. Yeah, David’s reaction of “Holy shit!” is putting it lightly if you ask me. 

You can't make this stuff up.

Then there are the later scenes where, after his transformation, David prowls around London in search of potential victims. Gorehounds will likely be disappointed to discover that, save for one severed hand, these parts are virtually blood free. The standout sequence here involves one very unlucky train commuter, who is stalked through the blank corridors of a deserted subway station until he’s finally cornered on a rising escalator. It’s a masterful example of what building suspense can achieve over out-and-out violence.

Speaking of “carnage candy” (thanks, Scream 2), the movie does eventually go all-out just in time for the climax. David’s final, chaotic rampage through the speeding traffic of Piccadilly Circus is at once a devastating and hilarious sight. It’s an uncompromising orgy of screaming crowds, crashing vehicles and crushed bodies which ends the film with about as big a bang as you could hope for.    

You can’t write anything about American Werewolf without mentioning Rick Baker’s incredible special effects. I’ve already noted Dunne’s extensive makeup, but as great as that is, it is of course the transformation scene that’ll really blow you away. Emphasis was placed on making David’s metamorphosis from man into beast look as painful as possible. They succeeded. Just look at the expression on his face as he watches his hand violently spread out into an inhuman shape. Then the same thing happens with his feet. Hair starts sprouting all over his body. His spine moves and crunches under his skin as he finds himself forced onto all fours. Lastly, his face elongates into something hideously canine. All the while, he’s screaming. In the great ‘Practical vs. CGI’ effects debate, this film gives the old-school team a major advantage. And you’ve gotta love how a light and breezy rendition of ‘Blue Moon’ plays over the whole, agonising sequence.

But it’s not completely without criticism. I do find it odd how, despite them quite clearly being great friends, David never seems too choked up about Jack’s death. Also, though it’s still a memorable creature, the final werewolf design does at times resemble a walking carpet, and maybe isn’t quite as fearsome as other cinematic lycanthropes (such as those from the same year’s The Howling). But since it spends so much time out of sight, this isn’t exactly a major issue. And I’m sure many will be put off by the film’s abrupt ending, though I do personally quite like it.

So, is An American Werewolf in London still an excellent horror classic that’s worthy of your time and attention even after thirty years? Absolutely. And there’s a fair amount of great stuff I haven’t even mentioned, such as the tense scene where David and Jack stop off at a (very local) pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb”, or the sweet but tragically short relationship David shares with his nurse (Jenny Agutter). If you haven’t seen the film before, then I highly recommend you go give it a watch.

Just, you know... stay off the moors and all that.


Friday, 26 August 2011

The New(ish) Review: Super 8

Who else can remember when that first, ominous teaser for Super 8 arrived online? At the time, it seemed as though director J.J. Abrams was returning with another straightforward monster flick (after the opinion-dividing Cloverfield), only this time one that would hopefully be filmed in a more traditional style.

That’s kind of what happened. There most certainly is a monster on the loose. And the camera is no longer bobbing up and down along with the actors at high speeds. People aren’t screaming all the goddamn time, either. But what Super 8 eventually revealed itself as, to the surprise of many, was in fact a really good coming of age story.

Just one that happens to have a large, angry alien in it.

Set in the late 70s, Super 8 is the story about a group of young friends who, while shooting their own home grown zombie film, witness a train crash from which a not-so friendly extra-terrestrial escapes. Soon every dog in the town makes a break for it. Then people start disappearing. And it’s not long before the military rolls in with their own sinister agenda. Amidst the chaos, our team of aspiring movie makers find themselves solving the otherworldly mystery.  

Before I get to the good stuff, I do want to talk about that train crash. Because it was, by far, the most utterly butterly ridiculous thing I’ve seen since Indiana Jones crawled into that fridge (oh, I wish I was over-exaggerating). The term, ‘over the top’ comes to mind, but no, this is way beyond the known limits of OTT and takes you straight out of the film. Now, I know I’m nitpicking. It’s just one sequence. But I can’t even begin to stress how off the rails it is (and I am not in the mood for puns)! So for the sake of my sanity, and just to sum the whole event up, it pits one lonesome pickup truck against the full fury of a freight train... and the pickup truck wins. WITH A VENGEANCE.     

Buuut moving on...  

What with this being a coming of age story, the main cast is of course a group of kids. And to my great and pleasant surprise, these child actors were excellent. I’ve come to expect the worst from the more youthful thespians these days, but Abrams works wonders with them here, and each turns in a totally believable performance (with Cary, the slightly insane pyrotechnic deserving a special mention, as is the Corey Feldman-alike one who’s name escapes me since he only had about five minutes of screen time). What’s most alarming is how none of them is even a little annoying. Joel Courtney in particular provides a very likeable lead as Joe, regardless of that Luke Skywalker hairdo. Maybe there was the infrequent dud line here or there, but for the most part I was more than convinced.

Alongside them is a good and relatively unfamiliar cast of adults whose characters, it should be noted, are a tad clich├ęd. We’ve got the protagonist’s stern single dad who’s trying to juggle his parenting abilities with his job (almost inevitably, he’s a cop). Then there’s the love interest’s alcoholic wreck of a father – a character who Stephen King would no doubt be proud of. And let’s not forget the EVIL MILTARY COLONEL OF DOOM with the kind of name you’d expect from a Star Trek villain. Pick of the bunch, though, is a stoner who ends up playing the comic relief during the intense third act, and gets to steal every scene he’s in while dropping the film’s single, hilariously delivered F-Bomb (ahh, the joys of the 12A rating). But in all seriousness, they do a great job.   

Much has been made of “the Spielberg influence”. Yeah, it’s true. And he is the producer, after all. That’s got to help a bit, hasn’t it? But the plot does indeed come across as a mishmash of E.T. (the town setting), Jaws (the unseen monster), and The Goonies (the adventurous boys). All films I know many of us, including myself, were familiar with at a young age. And by setting Super 8 in the 70s, you realise how this isn’t just intended to look like any old Spielberg effort... but an early Spielberg movie. Somehow, it all feels right.    

Well, except for the CGI. Which leads us to the creature.

Considering how trailers these days have this uncanny ability to condense the plot of a two hour long film into just two and a half minutes, they pulled a neat trick in keeping this thing hidden prior to Super 8’s release. Due to this, your imagination will invariably conjure up something far more interesting than the end result. And unfortunately, I think this happened with me. When it was eventually revealed in all its alien glory, I gave a little shrug. Without wanting to spoil it, I found the design to be at once too busy and a little boring. That probably doesn’t make much sense, but perhaps you’ll understand me once you’ve seen it for yourself. And when the time came for the beast’s close-up, I’ve gotta say it, the CGI didn’t hold up as well as it should. It looked too clean and “floaty”, while I imagine the brief use of a practical effect for those sequences might have made a whole world of difference. Thank goodness, then, that it’s kept off-screen for ninety percent of the time. Those early attacks where we’re only given fleeting glimpses are very effective thanks to their use of suspense.

The only major stumble comes with the film’s ending. I won’t give away the details, but there’s an unbearably cheesy moment involving the creature right when the climax should be kicking into overdrive. You can feel the collective rolling of eyeballs throughout the audience! (I swear the exact same thing happened that one time Shia LaBeouf went to robot heaven!) Again, no spoilers, but it was far too Peter Jackson’s King Kong for my liking, and reeked of a cop-out. Meanwhile, the ending proper smashes straight through homage and directly rips off a certain other sci-fi classic. Only without the extra emotional oomph.

It’s a shame Super 8 had to drop the ball so late into the game, because just about everything that came before (ABSURD train crash aside) was so damn enjoyable. And more than anything, it was a fantastic nostalgia trip for me which expertly captured that sense of boyhood wonder I would get from those aforementioned childhood favourite films.

In fact, I reckon a lot of kids today will find their new best film in Super 8. And that’s a great feeling.            


But seriously, J.J., where the hell is that Star Trek sequel?