In 1978, Superman The Movie was marketed with the tantalising tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Three years later, a movie was released that could so easily have been sold as “You’ll believe a man can turn into a werewolf.”
Today, we’re almost blasé about special effects. There’s little now that can make our eyes pop like King Kong scaling the Empire State Building or that seemingly endless Star Destroyer zooming overhead in the opening moments of Star Wars.
Given that virtually everything is reachable now in terms of visuals, it’s hard to be dazzled by something cooked up on an iMac Pro in the way cinema-goers of the past were. And so it was on 21 August, 1981, when John Landis’ cult horror-comedy An American Werewolf In London hit cinemas, that audiences witnessed something they’d genuinely never seen before. Through the trailblazing work of prosthetics supremo Rick Baker, we saw a werewolf movie that, for the first time, felt and looked absolutely real. And there wasn’t a computer pixel anywhere to be found.
Watch the iconic transformation below.
Landis’ movie celebrates its 40th birthday this month and there are few films of its vintage that stand up so convincingly, four decades on. That’s in part due to its whip-smart, knowing script, which balances the laughs and the horror with a deftness that few since have managed, and it’s also due to its grisly, innovative special effects.
Rick Baker was just 31-years-old when he scooped the inaugural Academy Award for Best Make-Up in March 1982 for his work on An American Werewolf In London. When Landis first floated the idea of doing a modern-day werewolf movie to Baker eight years before on the set of the director’s micro-budget debut, Shlock, the make-up artist could never have known it would end with him on stage at Los Angeles’ Dorothy Chandler Pavilion picking up an Oscar from Vincent Price.
There had, of course, been werewolf movies before An American Werewolf but Landis’ film was the first one to make the transformation scene its money shot. On screen, the sequence lasts just under two minutes, yet it took an entire week to film.
Baker’s crew had spent months preparing, creating numerous heads and body parts (dubbed “Change-o” limbs by the crew), to swap throughout the lead character David’s transformation. From the moment he looks at his hand stretching out (soundtracked by Sam Cooke’s easy listening classic 'Blue Moon') to when his face swells to that of the werewolf he’s rapidly becoming, it's all horrifically, viscerally believable.
“Rick Baker was a perfectionist,” David Naughton, who played David in the movie, told Morbidly Beautiful in 2016. “I didn’t realise that so early in my career I’d be working with one of the best that Hollywood has ever had. It was the first day when I got to Rick Baker’s shop that I realised what I was in for. I went into a small rented space, and Rick came out and asked who I was. I told him I was David, and I was playing the role of David Kessler. He said, ‘I feel sorry for you!’”
While it’s easy to heap all the praise on Baker for making David’s transformation so horribly plausible, it’s also David Naughton’s tortured screams that help sell the scene. Landis wanted this metamorphosis to hurt.
No horror film before had answered the question, how does it feel to turn from a man into a werewolf? The answer, Landis showed us, was that it’s agony.
And the fact that it’s filmed in a brightly-lit London flat, not obscured by shadows like so many of the classic lycanthrope flicks, gives it a thrilling verisimilitude. More kitchen sink drama than Hammer horror.
Of course, while the transformation scene is Baker’s display case moment, his work also sings elsewhere. Griffin Dunne’s Jack Goodman is killed off in the first 20 minutes, his face ripped open on a dark Yorkshire moor, but then reappears later in the film in increasingly decayed states of undeadness. And then there are the shots of the werewolf itself, which, Baker has admitted, he based on his own dog, a Keeshond named Bosco. We can only hope that Bosco wasn’t as bloodthirsty as his cinematic lookalike.
In many ways, An American Werewolf in London is the poster boy movie for old-school effects. Sixteen years after its release, an unasked-for follow-up arrived. An American Werewolf In Paris had no involvement from any of the cast or crew of the first film, and it showed.
Instead of the tangible, in-camera sfx work of the original, its sequel was a messy CGI-fest that was, quite rightly, savaged by the critics as brutally as Jack Goodman was on that moor nearly 20 years before. “The computer animation of the monsters here,” growled USA Today, “is a herky-jerky cartoon blur that is anything but scary.”
Sadly, the rise of CGI finally put Rick Baker out of business in 2015. At 64, he finally said sayonara to the industry that he’d started out in 40 years before, because, in his words, “I like to do things right, and they wanted cheap and fast. That is not what I want to do, so I just decided it is basically time to get out.”
Four decades on, An American Werewolf In London has dated better than many movies half its age. In fact, there’s been a snowballing backlash against CGI of late, which begs the question, are handcrafted effects back in fashion? It’s interesting that, as part of the marketing blitz for The Suicide Squad, director James Gunn promised “more practical effects and sets in this film than any big budget comic book film ever.”
An American Werewolf In London’s cultural influence looms large. It’s difficult to imagine Shaun Of The Dead being quite the same film had Landis’ movie never existed (Edgar Wright has said of it: “I love how it manages to do several things: it's laugh-out-loud funny, it's genuinely very scary, but it's got a lot of heart as well”) and there are visual nods to it in Zack Snyder’s recent Army Of The Dead.
There are some movies of the past where it’s hard to see past the occasionally shonky effect. Not An American Werewolf. In an age where computer whizz-kids can de-age Robert De Niro, take us inside ‘a dream within a dream’, or paint a photo-realistic Africa in The Lion King, that two minutes of film from 40 years ago still has the ‘wow’ factor.
Happy 40th birthday to a cinematic classic.
An American Werewolf In London is streaming on Shudder.
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