An American Werewolf in London is, for many people, a textbook horror film. It’s routinely name-checked as a stock favourite by fans and directors of the genre, successfully combining, as it does, visceral scares and belly laughs in equal measure. What’s odd though is that the film is a complete anomaly – rather than providing a boilerplate template for horror films it’s a giddy mish-mash of genres, styles and moods. It manages to take in an anglophile’s love of parochial Hammer horror, a stand-up fan’s worship of Groucho Marx’s razor-sharp banter, and a gore-hound’s joy at splattery, innovative special effects, all at the same time. Nonetheless it still coheres brilliantly into a thrilling piece of pure cinematic enjoyment.

John Landis, an absurdly precocious and talented young director at the time, maintains a vice-like grip on the tiller presenting a film that manages to be a love letter to its cinematic antecedents while never crumbling into pastiche. It is a taut, atmospheric horror; a ribald comedy shot through with sharp one-liners; a tender love story; and ultimately a tragedy. It shouldn’t work, but it most emphatically does, as a brilliantly weird, yet reassuringly solid film. Countless film-makers have tried to emulate it but few have come near. American Werewolf has become part of the lexicon of horror for a generation of film fans; a touchpoint that manages to encapsulate a world of crowd pleasing cinematic thrills into its idiosyncratic 90 minutes.

I first encountered the film as a nervous but curious kid, literally peeking through the crack in our living room door to illicitly watch a film I’d sternly been warned off by my parents. My Dad had mentioned how much he was looking forward to watching it, which naturally piqued my interest, but I was curtly informed that it was definitely not suitable for me. Which of course added fuel to the already flickering fire of curiosity in me. I planned on somehow seeing this adult horror film that promised so much from its strange title alone.

I hated sleeping at that age and was constantly bobbing back downstairs in my pyjamas with spurious reasons for being out of bed. It was a nightly, tiresome ritual for my parents to the point that I had managed to master the art of hovering quietly out of their periphery for long stretches of time. So it was the night that American Werewolf was shown, after the 9 o’clock news.

Already hyped at the expectations of what contraband thrills I could expect from a film that had been so firmly denied to me, I cautiously watched from behind the slightly ajar door, trying not to alert my parents. The film started.

The impact of the first 15 minutes of American Werewolf on my appreciation of horror films cannot be understated. From the opening shot, to the culmination of the attack on Jack and David this remains to me one of the perfect cinematic sequences. It doesn’t put a foot wrong building from a moody and restrained beginning through to an utterly terrifying climax. The first moment we hear a distant, muted howl from the relative comforts of inside The Slaughtered Lamb, we know the boys are doomed. The pair are tracked and stalked, the wolf coming ever closer with brilliant use of sound alone to create the building tension. Jack and David’s increasingly nervous banter dwindles as Landis ratchets up the fear.

I could, and do, watch it endlessly. The effect upon me as an 8 year old however, was seismic. At the point of the wolf’s frenzied, vicious attack on the likeable bantering American college boys I knew in an instant that my Dad had been right and that, yes, this was indeed too much for me. I scrambled up the stairs, Jack’s anguished screams still ringing in my ears. Buried under the covers I remember wishing fervently to un-see the sequence, to wilfully expunge it from my memory. To no avail, obviously. The sequence was seared onto my brain, the next few nights were sleepless. I strained at every gust of wind, every cat yowl outside.

One of the wonderful things about American Werewolf is the evocation of a specific time and place. For an outsider Landis does a remarkable job of capturing the colour and texture of Britain at the fag-end of the 1970s. From the establishing shots that capture the bleak, dreary majesty of the Yorkshire moors, to the multicultural vibrancy and grime of a London still shaking off the dregs of post-war despondency, the film is a fantastic cultural snapshot. Landis artfully sidesteps the usual pitfalls of an American’s view of Britain, but he still wrings some laughs out of the relentless stiff upper lips and weak chins of the English in the face of an increasingly out-of-control supernatural menace. This is a Britain that has disappeared and American Werewolf has become a surprisingly potent historical document of it.

Of course the film would not have so firmly secured its place in the horror pantheon if it wasn’t scary, which it most definitely is. Aside from the aforementioned opening scenes there are some truly iconic, perfectly executed scares. The isolated commuter waiting for the last tube home in a virtually empty underground station has a truly nightmarish quality; the fatal stumbling running up the escalator a standpoint of many a terrifying dream. The yuppies killed tantalisingly close to their home, the tramps taken out in the park – the wolf in this film is a vicious, primal thing that stalks and tears people apart in frenzied jump-cuts and pacey chase sequences.

The gore is vivid, and plentiful. Still today the film is surprisingly bloody and the final carnage-filled showdown in Leicester Square ups the ante to almost comedic levels. There’s an obvious glee to all this from long-time schlock fan Landis, but it’s never played for laughs specifically. Even the wonderful, surreal ongoing sight-gag of David surrounded by his ever-decaying undead victims is shot through with the gruesome realism of Rick Baker’s special effects. The sight of Jack’s exposed trachea undercuts the humour of Griffin Dunne’s droll, bemused performance. That dissonance is the film in a nutshell. You’re laughing, but at any point the whole thing could pivot into absolute horror, like the Nazi wolf-men that butcher David’s family in one of his lycanthropic fever-dreams.

American Werewolf is the best werewolf film. There’s some other good ones out there; The Howling, Ginger Snaps, Wolfen, and of course the original Wolfman. But Landis’ smart, assured, utterly unique film is the quintessential text. It’s one of the few horror films that retains the same power over me as when I first watched it. Age doesn’t diminish it and the potent alchemy that makes this weird, dissonant mixture of styles and tones coalesce remains elusive to other film-makers.

My own experience of seeing the film has become my personal ur-text for watching horror films. That perfect, crystal moment of transgression, peeking through a door at something that you shouldn’t be watching, but can’t stay away from.

“Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware the moon lads.”

Beware the moon.

Or: We are all of us in the shadow of the dicktree – by Kelly Kanayama/Maid of Nails

“Imagine out of all the gigs in town, right? You’re thinking — how hard can it be to stare up at the stars every night for a living?”

Those are the opening lines of Nameless, the most unsettling comic I’ve ever read (including a bit of Crossed, which didn’t unsettle so much as rub garbage all over your soul).

With the introduction of an astronomer who murders his family and scrawls mysterious words on the wall in their blood, we soon find out exactly how hard it can be to stare up at the stars every night. The stars, where J’onn J’onzz made his home, where the guardians of Oa hold court, from which Superman crashed into our world to help us believe a man can fly. Staring up at the stars is an act of hope, and in Nameless, for the most part, there is none.

You think, for instance, that people are dismembering each other with their bare hands, faces smeared with blood and human filth.

The doctors explain it was only a dream; it was all in your head.

What happened outside your head — when you were outside your head — is much worse.

Heeeyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

Still fired up from February’s discussion of what’s worth watching on American TV, Mindless twinset Mark (Amypoodle) and Adam (Adam) have written an Experts Guide to HBO’s ‘True Detective’ and weird comic book fiction for Comic Alliance.

There’s a lot of great stuff about Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti in that post – if you’ve read any of Mark or Adam‘s stuff before, you’ll know what to expect, and if not you’re going to enjoy finding out!

Superhero Horror #2

March 5th, 2012

Give me skeletons over zombies any time.

Zombies have no charge for me anymore. I mean, I get it. I understand completely why everyone obsesses over them, what they *mean*, but it took watching that sequence from Mean Streets again recently, where the drunk, bullet riddled barman continues to lurch towards his would be assassin even though he should’ve keeled over and died five minutes before, to make me feel horrified by the undead again. All the hallmarks of the zombie were there, the shambling flying dutchman of an un-person complete with lolling eyes and outstretched arms, persistance of movement and ‘mission’ inspite of massive structural damage…. But this time I needed a real body, something more literal, less of a symbol (and, now, not just a symbol for scary stuff we’d all rather not think about, but a portal to a whole genre of entertainment/fandoms/an industry, etc. – a tangled mess of associations, many of which I find boring/slash annoying), to make me re-experience the supernatural horror of undeath and thence the very real, physical body-horror it points to. It was an assbackwards way to get there, but it worked.

But we’re here to talk about skeletons, right?

Note 3 – Left 4 Dead

November 25th, 2011

notes from the borderlandFirst of all, a confession: I’m not very good at computer games, in the same way that I’m not very good at telly, or at keeping up with my friend Jessica (whose collected editions of Uzumaki I eventually had to get The Boy Fae the Heed to return, due to my shameless ineptitude).

I don’t know why, but in my flailing attempts at adulthood, some things have ended up getting pushed to the side and properly playing computer games has been one of those things.  For perspective: I don’t think I’ve properly lost myself to a full-length computer game since the original Half-Life, or maybe Deus Ex.  I still play the damned things, of course, but it’s more of a social occasion or a light distraction – a little bit of Death Tank on the weekends with my pals, a wee bit of Arkham Asylum when I need to feel like Batman and eating Mulligatawny soup just won’t cut it.

So sure, I can admire the way Jason Rohrer tries to make the simplest game mechanics into little tests of your capacity for guilt and sentimentality, just as I can giggle when people take pot-shots at his work, but put something like Bioshock down in front of me and I’ll have to admit that I just don’t have the time for it.

I am a grown man, after all, and like all grown men, I’ve got comics to read!

So why is it that when I started to think about horror, about what I could possibly contribute to Notes From the Borderland, that I couldn’t escape from a pair of zombie computer games that I play for laughs with my friends?

Ah, well, maybe it’s the friends that are problem here.

What’s worse, after all – to stumble out into the borderlands on your own, or to do so with your friends, knowing that you’re going to betray them, or be betrayed by them, or that you’re at least going to let each other down when the real nastiness shit starts?
Click here 4 a little taste of that Borderland madness!

Telly Terror: Threads

October 26th, 2011

notes from the borderlandaka the obvious one…

Like Elephant, I didn’t see Threads at the time. It was deliberate this time, another video, borrowed years later on the strength of fearsome reputation. I think – but these memories could well  be half invented, half-recounted – I think I can remember the day after Threads was first shown.  Shocked and ashen elder sisters, parents bravely pretending everything was just the same as before.

We all knew we had a neighbour not 20 miles distant, forever an unwelcome megatechnological interloper into our innocently bucolic existence, who even if not an obvious first-strike target, still had that doorstep Chernobyl possibilty about it. Parents had explained roughly what it would mean if it went tits up, and I was shocked that there wasn’t something they could do about it. There was an apocalyptic timebomb just down the road. How did they go on without panicking? Why weren’t they screaming, shaking their neighbours and duly elected representatives by the shoulders, awakening them to the threat, begging for something to be done? How could normal life as I had always known it be so permanently close to the precipice of extinction?

Watching Threads again now, as the hardy among you will, that’s still the frightening thing – the destruction of the parental superego, manifested as the pathetically heroic, hopeless efforts of the municipal employees, those clerks and accountants, supervisors and secretaries holding onto the world, to save us all through continuation of a neat and orderly bureaucracy. The accumulated ballast of human society, those cultural codes and social securities, worthy words and high hopes, and all their inevitable extinction in the awful new reality beyond the opening of the atomic portal.

The sickest joke is the collapse of all those habits and symbols would not be instant and total. They’d persist in their broken, poisoned, ineffectual form for a short time after the  initial massive surge of human casualties. The words and numbers we use to organise our newly nonexistent world would be walking around undead in the fallout, scorched and sick but stumbling shortly on, for some time after we were sick and starved and gone, prior to the eventual (and as it turns out, unlikely) dominion of the cockroach.

_______________________________

Other posts in the Notes From the Borderland series:

The Overlook Hotel – Kubrick’s The Shining

Telly Terror: Elephant

 

Aggravastard Aggrebastard

September 24th, 2009

d26-rko-pictures

free telly horror special

Bunyan would have blushed

August 11th, 2009

or Crisis? What Crisis? (part one)

This one:

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Think of him as 2000AD’s awkward cousin. He and Tharg used to get on great for a bit, but while The Mighty One went into his teens still drunk on the heady surge of Thrill Power, Crisis was always a bit serious. Self consciously so, you could say. You know the routine: went veggie. CND badge. Amnesty membership. Morrissey lyrics sung at high volume to that face in the bedroom mirror. Didn’t make friends that easily, and sometimes seemed to try hard not to be noticed at all, but on rare occasions he’d come out with something that would really be worth paying attention to.

You’d get such a shock you’d probably jump in the ocean