First I'll recall the original film, then preview the new documentary, Beware The Moon.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
It’s an unusual werewolf film, depicting the nightmares that prefigure David’s realisation of what he’s becoming. The creature’s victims also hang around in limbo to haunt him, a new angle to the mythology that enables his dead best friend to keep him company, despite advancing decomposition.
Besides delivering a horror film that avoids horror cliches, I also love the film because it’s a great London film. I grew up here, and to see an accurate and witty depiction of the city from an outside perspective is a treat. Besides using locations especially familiar to tourists, there’s also the backpacker experience out in the countryside, where entering a local pub feels like breaking the law. American Werewolf captures this bizarre experience, that’s also just as intimidating for city folk as it is for tourists. London hospitals, the police, public transport are all amusingly observed and a great introduction to the London behind the brochures.
At the time the publicity concentrated not on the comedy, the romantic heart of the film, the location, or the psychology… but on the special effects for the werewolf transformation. With no A-list stars I guess this was logical, but similar werewolf effects had already just appeared in The Howling, (the embarrassing reason for that is explained in the documentary). The humour of The Howling was more subtle, Joe Dante’s trademark in-jokes were aimed at horror fans. It’s also a great film, but even less widely seen. 1981 was a crowded year for wolves because there was also Wolfen, starring Albert Finney and a young Edward James Olmos. An overly serious eco-thriller about urban wolves, Wolfen had showcased the use of a low-slung steadicam doubling for a wolf’s point-of-view. Coincidentally, it also has a police decapitation, though American Werewolf did it far better.
These three wolf films were heavily cross-compared, but this isn’t important now that we’ve had over a quarter century of perspective. American Werewolf easily stands the test of time and works just as well today. It’s originality and humour certainly makes it certainly worth all the attention it’s getting again.
BEWARE THE MOON: Remembering AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
Paul Davis presented this 'director's cut' of the new documentary that he wrote, directed and presented, about the making of An American Werewolf in London. The Pittsburgh screening is the longest it will ever be, in an 105 minute work-in-progress version. He dedicated the screening to monster-maker Stan Winston, who had sadly died just a few days before.
Almost all the main cast and everyone involved behind the scenes is interviewed. It tells the story of the film, of how it came about and how it was received. Besides John Landis and Rick Baker’s extensive involvement, there are the leading actors David Naughton, Griffin Dunne and Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run, Equus, Walkabout). There’s even most of the British supporting cast, down to the actress from the faked porn film, shot specially for the Piccadilly cinema scenes. Unfortunately for Landis, the soft-core porn scenes were the very first to be filmed, which gave his British film crew a very slanted idea of what kind of story they were going to be working on!
It’s good to hear the traditional British thespian perspective of John Woodvine, who played David’s psychiatrist. Regular Landis collaborator, George Folsey Jr, has a particularly disturbing screenshot looming behind him, and talks extensively about the problems he faced as the producer. The rest of the crew are well-represented, from the cinematographer Robert Paynter, to the stunt driver Vic Armstrong, who’s now a major stunt-co-ordinator and action unit director for the biggest Hollywood thrillers. It’s all the more interesting for being a film made outside of a Hollywood studio.
The idea for American Werewolf began in former Yugoslavia, back when Landis was in the junior production staff working on the war/heist/comedy Kelly’s Heroes (1970), when he was also training as a stuntman. On location he witnessed local gypsies who resembled extras from the old Universal horror The Wolfman (1941), who actually believed in ancient superstitions and were burying a man swathed in garlic, in a ceremony to prevent him from rising from the dead.
The incident inspired a script, which he was still talking about with Rick Baker when they were making Schlock (1973) together. But only after three smash-hit comedies (Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers) could Landis finance the unusual story, mainly because of the edgy mix of humour and horror. In the end, it needed help from a British film financing fund, ending up as a ‘$10 million negative pick-up deal’.
Rick Baker, integral to the success of film, had been mulling over Landis’ ideas over the years as to how he could engineer special effects for the transformation. Landis was very specific about what he wanted to see, which made the direction clear but not the techniques to be used. Baker had started off in horror films and as an assistant to Dick Smith (the modern godfather of make-up effects). In Schlock, a savage satire of Trog, he dressed Landis up as an apeman throwback. Baker also appeared in Kentucky Fried Movie as a gorilla running amuck in a TV station (Landis cameos as a TV director fighting with him). I remember being impressed by Baker’s work on Squirm, It’s Alive, and The Incredible Melting Man in the seventies. His early creations even helped pad out the cantina bar in Star Wars (1977). But Baker also had a specialty for realistic animal make-ups, especially large apes. He played a huge part in the 1976 King Kong, which he famously received no credit for. Although he performed inside the suit built by him and Carlo Rambaldi, and was in 99% of Kong’s scenes, the producer Dino De Laurentiis span the publicity as if a life-sized robot was all that was used!
Baker’s work on American Werewolf was ground-breaking and hugely influential, the central transformation having to withstand the scrutiny of a harshly lit set. Jekyll-and-Hyde scenes had traditionally been done by optically cross-fading between make-ups while the actors were held in position. Baker and his crew instead built mechanical effects that would change shape before the camera, while still looking organic. Baker and the actors describe in detail shot-by-shot how the scene was achieved. At the time, Landis ensured no publicity photographs of the final creature were released.
Baker, still hugely busy in Hollywood today, tells a great story about the scene when the boys are attacked by the wolf on the moors. The interviews with Baker and Griffin Dunne intercut as we hear both sides, when the two of them try to appear to fight to the death without wrecking Baker’s effects. We then hear from members of the crew nearby, hearing the blood-curdling sound in the middle of the night, when Dunne is asked to ‘scream as if he was being murdered’.
There’s also the real story behind how The Howling ended up using similar effects but was released beforehand – a howler originally reported as Baker’s assistant, Rob Bottin, running off with his special effects secrets!
The wolf make-ups aren’t the end of Baker’s contributions, he also had to envisage the many dream effects, the living dead make-ups of all David’s victims and especially Jack’s decomposition. The original actors involved, in particular Griffin Dunne as Jack, have much to say about the physical and psychological effects of looking and acting as a corpse with its throat ripped out.
Landis and Baker continued to team up, first on Michael Jackson’s groundbreaking pop video for Thriller. Jackson’s enthusiasm for American Werewolf lead to them being hired to change Jackson into his very own wolf creature. Baker also had to create the famous zombie make-ups for the dancers, with little preparation, and even appeared as a zombie in the final promo. (For more information, I’d recommend Cinefex magazine, issue 16 was devoted to all Rick Baker’s early work, up to 1984).
Later, Rick Baker made up Eddie Murphy as radically different characters in Landis’ Trading Places and Coming To America – early multiple roles for the actor who still uses the technique as a regular basis for his Hollywood comedies.
I don’t want to spoil the many anecdotes. It’s full of stuff I didn’t know and it’s great to see everyone again. It helped me appreciate more about the agonies of make-up effects, as well as the trials of seemingly easy location shoots. With jokers Landis, Naughton and Dunne providing a lion’s share of the stories, the documentary is as funny as it is engaging. Davis has succeeded in both exploring his obsession, as well as explaining it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. It’s rare that a feature-length documentary about a movie can be so entertaining.
Behind the behind-the-scenes documentary
Before the premiere, there was a Q&A session with the the documentary director Paul Davis, director John Landis, and the star David Naughton.
Landis said he was initially shocked to hear that someone had started on a movie documentary without sorting out clearances and copyrights first – normally the way it’s done. He said that the whole project could have been doomed from the start, never to see the light of day. (Thankfully, with his help, this has now been sorted out).
He was amused to have been tracked down for his Beware the Moon interview via MySpace, but was sufficiently impressed by the roster of interviewees that and is now a strong supporter of the documentary. He even announced that it would be included in a Blu-Ray release of American Werewolf within the next two years – much to the surprise of the director, Paul Davis. This is the logical place for the documentary, but I hope it gets more public screenings when it’s complete, and even finds a wider audience, possibly on TV.
David Naughton talked about first getting cast werewolf and admitted that the nude scenes looked a lot less intimidating in the script than when he actually had to perform them. Naughton looks very different today, mainly because his hair is now strangely uncurly. Perhaps it was the experience of filming…
The next day I talked to Paul Davis and his producer Romy about this big project that started out small. They had all travelled from London for the screening.
Spookily, Davis was born while American Werewolf was being shot (the porn theatre scenes, he reckons). He first saw it on VHS at the age of three! Indelibly impressed with the film, but exasperated by the lack of extras on a DVD release, he decided in 2006 to interview everyone connected with the movie.
Romy Alford-Sancto took a year out from her film production course to produce Beware the Moon, and described the process as a domino effect, that got easier once people heard who’d already been interviewed. The crew ended up visiting New York and Los Angeles to get the biggest names.
Cameraman Anthony Bueno shot it all on HD video and also edited it – arguably the hardest task. They also travelled around so that Paul Davis could present the documentary from the original filming locations as they appear today. Beware The Moon therefore also serves as a great guide to making your own American Werewolf pilgrimage – London Zoo in Regents Park, Tottenham Court Road Underground Station (doubling for Piccadilly Circus) are easy to find, but the original Slaughtered Lamb exterior was shot in darkest Wales, and was almost impossible to locate, as it is now a private residence. Romy described a chain of coincidence that helped them find it eventually f. Apparently John Landis still has the original prop of the legendary pub sign.
Thankfully, most of their wishlist of interviewees agreed to appear. The only notably missing contributors are the late Elmer Bernstein, who composed the original music, and actor Brian Glover who issued the original warning “Beware the moon, lads…”. They both have a good excuse for not being interviewed, as they are unfortunately neither living or undead.
As a fan, and having shot hours of usable footage, Paul Davis would ideally like it to be much longer, while Landis is advising a shorter cut. But Beware the Moon will officially be completed in Los Angeles later this year, hopefully adding more of the rare behind-the-scenes footage. I can’t wait to see it - it’s marvellous when your favourite films get this much attention.
A complete list of participants, and a couple of clips have been unveiled on their ‘KesslerBoy’ (it’s the name of Naughton’s character) MySpace site and the website is also being prepared.
As the original script for The Wolfman (1941), written by the late Curt Siodmak, is being reinterpreted for a new wolfman movie, it’s the ideal moment to spend time with An American Werewolf in London. They’ll have a tough time making a better film.