Archive for August 1981

An American Werewolf in London

August 21, 1981

An American Werewolf in London is not only the most compulsively watchable movie in writer/director John Landis’ portfolio; it is also one of the all-time great horror movies, a pitch-perfect mix of belly laughs and genuine scares fifteen years before Scream. Landis’ stroke of genius was to make his lycanthropic protagonist David Kessler (David Naughton) a Nice Jewish Boy as well as a witty college student. Like Landis, David has seen all the old werewolf movies on late-night TV and can’t quite take his situation seriously. But American Werewolf is far from a self-referential spoof. It acknowledges the unreality of its premise, but then treats it with all the realism that Rick Baker’s transformation effects (which won an Oscar) can provide.

David and his buddy Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) amble across the dingy green English countryside, laughing ruefully about old girlfriends, as if they were strolling down a New York sidewalk. Like many Americans abroad, they seem to have a bubble of self-protective Americanness around them — their surroundings don’t touch them except as something to snark about later. They happen across a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, peopled by the standard array of hostile country Brits. The boys receive vague warnings they don’t take seriously. But they take it seriously enough once they’re lost in the night fog as hungry growls circle around them.

Jack is killed and David is badly scratched, waking up in a London hospital and attended by a no-nonsense doctor (John Woodvine) and a friendly nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter). For a long while, American Werewolf coasts on the warm rapport between David and Alex as they take their patient-nurse relationship to the next level. Landis, with considerable help from Naughton, fleshes David out as an amiable, level-headed guy — the audience’s surrogate — who finds himself in the middle of a baffling supernatural conundrum. First come the dreams, sensationally effective, especially the one wherein Nazi monsters invade David’s home. Then come the animalistic urges — David gets hungrier and hornier. Then come the visits from the spectral Jack, in various stages of decomposition yet never losing his collegiate sarcasm (“Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring“). Then, finally, alone in Alex’s flat during a full moon, David undergoes the change and takes to the shadows of London.

For all its flashes of goofiness, American Werewolf never loses sight of its chief goal as a horror movie. A sequence in which the werewolf stalks a businessman through an empty subway station (the victim retains a hilariously English properness: “I shall notify the police“) is almost cruelly effective, getting its suspense not from shrieking soundtrack music but from the man’s terrified gasping and the click-clack of his shoes in mad, fruitless retreat. Landis has been ranked among the “masters of horror” for scenes like that (it sure isn’t because of Innocent Blood).

Eventually, Landis explicitly marries the goofy and the gory in a surreal scene in which David sits in a porno theater and has to face the mutilated ghosts of the people he killed. They all (including Jack) say the same thing: David must kill himself to end the curse. It’s something that’s occurred to him, too. Right before that, he calls home, wanting to say goodbye to his parents, and ends up talking to his younger sister. Here, Landis goes beyond comedy and horror. We never lose our affection and sympathy for David even though his rampages as a werewolf are horrifying. We want him to be cured. But we know he won’t be.

If you know where to look, American Werewolf is full of little in-jokes, like the prerequisite Landis See You Next Wednesday reference, and the appearance of Frank Oz in dual roles as an impatient bureaucrat and as Miss Piggy. The jokes aren’t pushed too hard and don’t call attention to themselves. American Werewolf is exceptionally light of spirit — it reaches towards life (think of that phone call) even in the midst of death. Landis wrote the first draft at age 19, and had years to fine-tune it while keeping the essence of what drew him to the material — the contrast between modern sensibilities and ancient superstitions. As it turns out, old-school wins.

American Werewolf gets in and out in 97 minutes, finding time for digressions that bring us closer to the characters (David riding the bus and making bizarre faces at the mohawked passengers) but covering the gamut of emotion. It’s a full package. If Landis is acclaimed as a master of horror on the basis of one film, this one film is more than enough to qualify him for the pantheon. It’s an achievement I’ve always wished he could repeat, but maybe this kind of lightning only strikes once.

Heavy Metal

August 7, 1981

When Heavy Metal was released in 1981, no less an entity than Variety called it a “classy anthology.” Anthology, yes; classy, no. I seriously doubt that any of the movie’s many fans (of which I am one) would confuse its adolescent, retro charm with class. To understand that, maybe you’d need a brief course in Heavy Metal 101. The magazine Heavy Metal, first published in 1977 by the same house that gave you National Lampoon, was an Americanized version of the French comics magazine Metal Hurlant. The American version did publish international artists (often in amusingly awkward translations), some of whom, like Moebius and Guido Crepax, really did aspire to and achieve Heavy Metal‘s stated goal of “adult fantasy.” However, the magazine also devoted itself more and more to routine adventure stories with T&A and gore; some of the stuff was like a softcore version of Conan or your choice of Marvel comic.

Not surprisingly, the major-motion-picture version of Heavy Metal — produced by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, featuring voices by Harold Ramis, John Candy, and Joe Flaherty (all five of whom had a hit that same summer with Stripes) — is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. Whenever possible, it goes for the fight scene, the sex joke, the jiggly breasts, and, in one case, drug humor (in the form of two aliens who snort up ropelike lines of cocaine, like an extraterrestrial Cheech & Chong). The movie’s secret, I think — what makes it so beloved, instead of a largely forgotten failure like its contemporaries Rock and Rule or Fire and Ice (though those movies have their cult followings) — is that it generally doesn’t take itself very seriously; essentially, it’s a comedy. It presents the standard adolescent power fantasies, but with a nudge and a wink.

Take “Den,” for instance. As originally conceived by Richard Corben, it was more or less a straight Conan rip-off. Adapted for the movie, it becomes a two-tiered satire in which Dan, a dorky teenager (voiced by John Candy), gets magically whisked away to another dimension, where he finds himself made over into a beefy bald warrior named Den, great in battle and even better in the sack. Though Candy also does Den’s gruff voice (“Where is the girl?”, etc.), he continues to do Dan’s dorky voice in narration, sounding goggle-eyed in awe over his excellent adventure. Den’s chief adversary is an obvious swishy stereotype, your usual decadent king who has a buxom queen but probably doesn’t look at her very often (which is why she falls so readily into bed with Den, one assumes); but he’s also been given an amusing New York inflection in which, say, “die” becomes “doy” — “She doys, you doy, everybody doys.” Odd little touches like that connect this world with that of Ralph Bakshi.

Bakshi’s influence can also be felt in “Harry Canyon,” the movie’s first story, prepared by scripters Blum and Goldberg for the film — it’s one of three tales not derived from anything that appeared in the magazine. That’s not to say it isn’t derivative, though; it’s a clearcut film noir homage, complete with hard-boiled narration by the eponymous taxi-driving hero (voiced by Richard Romanus, who did a lot of work for Bakshi’s urban toons), an obese gangster who wants something the hero has, a femme fatale — what we have here is a cyberpunk remix of The Maltese Falcon.

The McGuffin here, though, is a mysterious glowing green ball that figures in all the segments, representing the undying force of evil. The ball (called the Loc-Nar in “Den” and “Harry Canyon”) seems to corrupt or destroy anyone who comes into contact with it; the ball, in fact, is telling the stories we’re watching. The movie begins with an astronaut coming down to Earth in a white convertible (this is unquestionably one of the coolest opening scenes in film history); the astronaut enters a house and greets a little girl, showing her a green ball he’s brought back for her. The ball, expectedly, disintegrates the poor astronaut and backs the terrified girl up against a wall, gloating over how powerful it is, and we occasionally return to the house so that the ball can gloat some more and set up another story.

The ball, and the evil it embodies, seem to have the least to do with the penultimate segment, “So Beautiful, So Dangerous,” based on an Angus McKie story. This is the one with the two doper aliens, as well as a horny robot and a buxom redhead (there are no flat chests in the Heavy Metal universe). True to the artist it’s adapting, the segment is entertaining but meandering, arriving at a stop without actually having arrived at a point — it represents the magazine at its most self-indulgent. A much tighter tale, with perhaps the movie’s best animation, is the preceding segment, Dan O’Bannon’s “B-17.” In 1981, Creepshow had not yet come out, so “B-17″ was the first time in years that movie audiences got a taste of the ghastly EC Comics of the ’50s. When you watch this segment, which is chillingly well done (it concerns a bomber full of dead airmen who become zombies), you may laugh and realize that the movie’s creators are determined to take us through the history of disreputable pulp comics — or as much as they can in 90 minutes. Given Dan O’Bannon’s best-known films (Alien, which he wrote, and Return of the Living Dead, which he wrote and directed), the segment also functions as a best-of-O’Bannon in miniature.

The ball also doesn’t have a lot to do with “Captain Sternn” (based on a story by comics legend Berni Wrightson), though it seems to at first. An openly parodic treatment of the typical big-jawed space-cowboy hero (the titular character looks pretty noble to us until we hear the long list of charges brought against him, of which he’s apparently guilty as sin), this segment also benefits from the best timing, comic and otherwise, of any story in the film. The confident Sternn’s dialogue with his worried lawyer (“The best we can hope for is that you’ll get a secret burial so’s they can’t defile your body!” “I told you, Charlie … I got an angle“) has the back-and-forth rhythm of classic stage comedy (Eugene Levy was the voice of Sternn, Joe Flaherty is his lawyer), and when Sternn’s “star witness” Hanover Fiste morphs into a psychotic hulk there’s a terrific sequence when he corners Sternn, slamming the walls on either side of him into tatters as he walks.

The final, longest sequence is “Taarna,” which may be taken as a refutation of the decidedly pre-feminist women (damsels in distress, whores, bitches, bimbos) who have populated the rest of the movie. Taarna, a mute warrior, seeks revenge on the evil hordes (corrupted by the ball, what else?) that decimated her people. This is the segment that should have been called “So Beautiful, So Dangerous,” but never mind. Being one of the movie’s few characters to be rotoscoped from a live model (a favorite Bakshi technique), Taarna moves with considerably more grace than anyone else in the film. The movie seems to genuinely respect her, and when she’s captured and nude, waiting to be whipped by her nemesis, the scene ends before it can satisfy any whip devotees in the audience. Ironically, the “Whip It” boys themselves, Devo, appear in a tavern sequence here, performing “Through Being Cool.” The soundtrack by itself is worth owning, ranging from the popular (Cheap Trick, Journey, Blue Oyster Cult) to the obscure (Riggs, Nazareth, Trust).

It’s fitting, in a perverse way, that this boy’s-club confection of wanking, winking softcore pulp should end on a dual note of female empowerment. I think that without “Taarna,” the movie would seem much shallower; the elegance of the final sequence restores some balance. “See,” the movie is saying, “women can kick ass too, and do all the stuff you saw Den doing before.” (Significantly, she doesn’t have sex. It might’ve been too much to ask in 1981 for the moviemakers to create a sexual woman who could still kick ass. It’s often still too much to ask.) After all, the movie doesn’t climax with the adolescent power trip “Den” — it ends with “Taarna.” (And technically it begins with Taarna, too, if the ending is any indication.) When the movie was released, there were two ad design concepts floating around: a Corben painting of the muscles-on-top-of-muscles Den (and his woman kneeling at his feet), and a triumphant portrait of Taarna riding her endearing giant bird-creature. Guess which design was adopted for the soundtrack cover, the re-release poster art, and the home-video cover art. 5


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