Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An American Werewolf In London (Landis, 1981)

An American Werewolf In London is a terrifically funny movie both because it recognizes the absurdity of the situation it presents, and because of (not in spite of) the fact that it remains an effective horror film in addition to a pop-culture riff on standard horror tropes and American-versus-European excentricities. Two Americans walk in to a pub... sounds like the beginning of a joke, and in many ways it is.

So they walk into this pub, and there's some very foreboding and suspicious behavior. There's also a five-pointed star on the wall. These guys know from movies that it wards off evil. Yet, that only happens in movies, so they don't take it too seriously. Until they are attacked by werewolves, of course. At a point, they look directly into the camera, saying that the beast making the sound they hear is directly in front of them. This does several things, from being inherently funny to recognizing the fact that the only reason they're dying is that they're in a film. This is true of all horror films. Hence, the camera is essentially the cause of death. When one asks "What's the plan?," the other responds incredulously "Plan!?" These aren't heroes in a horror film, they're just guys who have absurd events surrounding them.

The movie is permeated with this sly self-awareness. There is even an extended discussion of the Chaney/Lugosi Wolfman film, as the man attempts to come to terms with his new found malady by comparison to the film. The film functions effectively as an homage to a classic horror film such as the Wolfman, but plays everything halfway for a laugh. Casting wolf transformation as a metaphor for the male libido results in a humorous desire in the American to have sex, not any sort of profound psychosexual release.

It's interesting how comedic timing and horror timing are so similiar. In the pub, when the Americans ask about the star on the wall, a dart misses the board in close up. This is somehow funny and foreboding simultaneously. The inherently funny glance into the camera also inspires terror in the werewolf POV shot during the slaughter of the man on the escalator.

Perhaps the most hilarious scene in the film is the "suggest a method of suicide" scene, in which several corpses in an adult movie theatre cheerfully recommend means of taking one's own life. That the man doesn't may lead some to believe that there is hope, but there isn't. When in the end the nurse futilely tells the werewolf she loves him, he lunges at her and is shot down. Love does not overcome all hardship here, as Landis is strictly faithful to his original concept. When one is transformed into a werewolf, he loses control. He no longer understands the concept "love." In a lesser film, perhaps the werewolf would stagger a bit, look troubled, and ultimately give up fighting in the name of love. Thankfully, that's not the case here.


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