BD. Arrow. Region B. 18.
Just a couple of weeks or so into 2020 and I’m happy as a pig in shit (Mrs F just suggested that I also look and smell rather like one… thanks, I love you too Darling!) Following hot on the heels of the beautiful new Shameless edition of Fulci’s The Beyond, Arrow’s 4K restoration of An American Werewolf In London (1981) revives further vivid memories of a time, something like 40 years ago, when life wasn’t running too smoothly for Yours Truly but, guided by Starburst magazine (the fantasy film fanatic’s bible in those days) I was able to take regular solace down at our local fleapit, catching the original theatrical runs of such classics as The Evil Dead, The Thing, Tenebrae, Phantasm, Blade Runner and Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake, not to mention any amount of seminal slasher flicks, an unstoppable flood of ferocious Fulci fare and… last but by no means least… the item under consideration here.
John Landis was on a proper roll at this point (for a while there, my interest in his work rivalled my obsession with Dario Argento’s), AAWIL coming after Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Having attained pre-eminence as a director of Comedies, Landis now leavened the mix by indulging his fondness for the Horror genre, with such impressive results that countless subsequent British films (American Werewolf is sort of a British film… the final beneficiary of the Eady Levy, no less) have mixed the two genres… to generally woeful effect (though every so often there’s a welcome exception to the rule). Despite Horror and Comedy being proverbially two sides of the same coin, spinning them into a coherent movie is no mean feat. Landis not only managed the right blend of scary and funny, he also balanced elements of eroticism and yep, romance plus high octane action set pieces to supremely satisfying effect. Brilliant stuff…
… and yet, in the absence of a review copy, I’ve been studiously avoiding Arrow’s recent Blu-ray edition, following my adverse reactions to previous Universal DVD and Blu-ray releases of this film. For all the past promotional puff of Universal’s contemporary featurettes (included among the plentiful extras here), how could they possibly think they were doing justice to one of my cherished movie memories with those grainy travesties? And was there any realistic hope of the Arrow job looking any better? Doesn’t 4K just automatically exacerbate any such pixillated imperfections? (City Of The Living Dead, I’m looking at you!) Well, Santa having slipped a copy into my stocking while I wasn’t looking (what, you think I’ve got nothing better to do all day than sit around looking at stockings? Depends who’s wearing them…) its gratifying to be able to report that this new restoration from the original camera negative, supervised by Landis himself, finally looks and sounds (in blood-curdling 5.1) every bit as splendid as it always should have. To think I hesitated… (what a schmuck!)
Much of the cocky genius of Rick Baker’s masterful FX work (so good they invented an Oscar for him to win and never bettered… many have tried, but only Baker’s protege Rob Bottin came remotely close) was that it stood up to brightly lit scrutiny and now you can watch it unfold under optimal conditions in the comfort of your own lair… ditto the sublime spectacle of Jenny Agutter, at her career loveliest, as the nurse (Alex Price) for whom doomed protagonist David Kessler (David Naughton) takes an understandable turn.
… and of course there’s a woodshedload of extras for you to wallow in, some of them familiar from previous editions. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s audio commentary is a treasure trove of amusing anecdotes and reminiscences while Paul Davis, who authored the comprehensive guide Beware The Moon takes an appropriately “soup to nuts” approach. Davis beats Naughton and Dunne hands down for Landis impersonations and also contributes the feature length doc version of his book. Further documentaries, cast and crew interviews and featurettes (several of them dating back to the film’s release) reinforce each other in a compelling narrative of AAWIL’s Universal antecedents, its genesis in Landis’s encounter of supernatural beliefs while working as a runner on Kelly’s Heroes (1970) in Yugoslavia, his struggle to get it green lit, the simultaneous, synergetic emergence of The Howling by Joe Dante (one of the many luminaries interviewed here), its brilliant realisation, cult kudos / critical mauling and subsequent rehabilitation.
It would have been nice to see wider acknowledgment of cinematic lycanthropy outside of the mainstream tradition (e.g. the Iberian exploits of Mr Naschy, above) though of course the werewolf is the only member of the classic Monster pantheon whose rulebook is copped neither from some literary source (like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy et al) nor, contrary to popular belief, from ethnic folklore, rather from an earlier (Universal) film, George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), whose Jewish writer Curt Siodmak fled Nazi Germany and had harrowing personal experience of reasonable looking people transforming into wild beasts overnight.
In the video essay I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, Jon Spira labours a point that even the dimmest viewer must surely have got after the “nightmare within a nightmare” home invasion sequence, if not long before, i.e. that this film is an allegory of precarious Jewish consciousness in the second half of the 20th Century. Indeed it is, but Spira lays it on a bit too thick when he interprets Anne-Marie Davies’s line “I think he’s a Jew” as signifying her character’s barely concealed anti-semitism. By Spiro’s contention, Agutter’s Alex should have responded: “Why does it matter?”, but in the context of the nurses’ attempts to establish the origins of the mysterious patient, it’s by no means an inadmissible observation. And if Nurse Gallagher does have an ulterior motivation, is it really beyond the realms of possibility, in a film directed by the man previously responsible for Animal House, that it was the lascivious one to sneak a peek at a fit young guy’s dick? I would also suggest that if somebody as obviously smart as Landis wanted to personify privileged WASP bigotry, he’d have chosen a more appropriate avatar for it than a red haired nurse named Gallagher! Familiar with the expression “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish”, Jon?
There’s much discussion of the pre-CGI miracles wrought by Baker, of course (with fascinating “making of” and unused footage, plus SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store drooling over precious props and costumes from the film. Out takes include the amusing (unfortunately soundless) encounter between Landis and the See You Next Wednesday cast (Linzi Drew and co). You get the original (and now somewhat cack handed looking) theatrical trailer plus teaser and TV spots, also a gallery of over 200 images and the option to display this one on your shelf sporting either original or new Graham Humphreys art work.
It was great to see our old mucker Pete Atkins waxing eloquent about werewolf lore in one of the docs (I quoted one of his best lines earlier, for those of you paying attention), whereas David Naughton seems to have undergone an even scarier transformation that the one suffered by his character in the film, now bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to David Cameron! In a sadly ironic sidebar, during one of the contemporary promotional featurettes, while talking about running the three ring Piccadilly Circus climax to the film, Landis comments that “no movie is worth hurting somebody for”. Now there’s a line that came back to haunt him.