Goth Chick News: Saving One of the Best Vault Treasures for Last

Goth Chick News: Saving One of the Best Vault Treasures for Last

An American Werewolf in London (Universal Pictures, August 21, 1981)

I am relieved to report that this is my final week of traveling which has been utterly unassociated with any fun save for my horror movie marathon. Notice how I carefully avoided additional adjectives like “classic” or “retro” for fear of catapulting you and me into a tailspin of denial. What I will say is that my binge-watching has been confined to movies that have celebrated their 40th anniversaries, so we’ll just leave it there.

Though nearly every evening of the last five weeks has seen me streaming my way through a list of titles inspired by my personal DVD archival vault (a couple of plastic tubs in my crawl space), I’ve chosen to do a deep dive on my favorites. This week’s marathon included The Lost Boys (1987), Prince of Darkness (1987), and Fright Night (1985), all of which would have made wonderful articles. But when the opening of American Werewolf in London (1981) started rolling on my laptop, there was no question what I’d be talking to you about today.

David Naughton in American Werewolf in London

AWL is not only a great story but was groundbreaking in several ways. Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne, and written and directed by John Landis, AWL, by Landis’ description, is a modern retelling of The Wolfman (1941), which starred Lon Chaney. According to a blurb in the trivia section of IMDB, Landis was inspired by an incident while shooting Kelly’s Heroes (1970) in the countryside of Yugoslavia.

He was employed on set as a go-fer, and while driving along a country road with a colleague, Landis encountered a Romani funeral. The body was being buried in a massively deep grave, feet first, while wrapped in garlic so it would not rise from the dead. Had he been in Romania he might have thought “vampire,” but given his location in what is now Croatia, his internal gears started rolling on a werewolf tale.

In case you need a refresher, check out the trailer for AWL.

So, what makes AWL so special you ask?

For starters, the film is particularly renowned for David’s (Naughton’s) werewolf transformation scene. This sequence, created by makeup artist Rick Baker, was revolutionary for its time. The use of practical effects, animatronics, and prosthetics set a new standard in the industry. Baker’s work was so impressive that it earned him the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup, a category added to the award list in 1981.

Next, AWL literally birthed one of my favorite sub-genres, the horror-comedy. AWL was one of the first films to successfully blend the two, creating a unique genre hybrid. Landis expertly balanced gruesome and terrifying scenes with dark humor and satire without tipping so far into the absurd that the horror wasn’t taken seriously or that you lost sympathy for the terrible situation the characters were in.

Finally, at a time when CGI was not prevalent, the film’s use of practical effects was groundbreaking. The physicality and realism of the werewolf transformation and the gore effects had a lasting impact on audiences and filmmakers alike, demonstrating the power of practical effects in creating believable horror.

In fact, a twenty-three-year-old Michael Jackson, basking in the glow of his Thriller album success, was so blown away by AWL that he asked Landis to write and direct the video for his title track. Landis, in turn, brought his werewolf A-team who had worked on AWL, to create the effects in Thriller.

AWL also has a special place in my heart due to David Naughton. Though Naughton went on to a successful Hollywood career, it’s probably safe to say AWL remains his most famous role. Consequently, he is a regular on the horror convention circuit and remains one of the few celebrity guests I have paid to speak to.

On his last trip through Chicago, his publicist let me know Naughton wasn’t doing “press,” but if I paid for an autograph, he would answer one question. This isn’t unusual for celebrity convention attendees, but it is not something I would normally agree to, given the strict Black Gate expense report rules. But for the chance to chat with Naughton, however briefly, I coughed up $40 and got in line.

When it was my turn, I asked Naughton to tell me one thing most people wouldn’t know about his involvement with AWL. Naughton told me he was cast because John Landis had seen him in a television commercial for Dr Pepper. However, Naughton was later fired from Dr Pepper because of his nude scenes in AWL.

Tragic, but from the opinion of a fan, ultimately so worth it.

AWL is available for streaming on literally all platforms, though I watched it on Amazon Prime. It also spawned a forgettable sequel entitled An American Werewolf in Paris.

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Thomas Parker

I don’t know; I’ve never warmed to this movie. I probably need to rewatch it (it’s been decades since my last viewing).

The horror/comedy blend is really hard to do. My favorite by far is The Fearless Vampire Killers. One of these days I’ll write about it, if I can figure out how to deal with the inexcusable Roman Polanski and the tragic Sharon Tate.

Eugene R.

Hmm, looks like a bunch of our comments vanished into the Ether. Oh well, let me just repeat my plug for Ginger Snaps, a 2000 Canadian werewolf film that would pair well with AWL for a lycanthrope movie night.

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