John Landis Brings His Iconic ‘American Werewolf in London’ to Halloween Horror Nights

Movie Talk
An American Werewolf In London
An American Werewolf In London

Fans of a certain horror classic are in for a treat at Universal Studios this fall as filmmaker John Landis and creative director Mike Aiello bring "An American Werewolf in London" to Halloween Horror Nights.

"American Werewolf" is the latest in a series of movie-themed mazes featured at Universal's annual Halloween season attraction, which turns the normally friendly-family theme park into an almost post-apocalyptic land of terror, where guests walk amongst chainsaw-wielding maniacs and other ghouls as they embark on a Halloween adventure they'll never forget.

This year's Horror Nights will feature mazes based on "Insidious," "The Cabin in the Woods" and even "Curse of Chucky," but "An American Werewolf in London" is Aiello's personal favorite ... indeed, bringing the game-changing 1981 horror comedy to life has been something of a passion project that's taken several years to realize.

"The notion of creating a maze for 'An American Werewolf in London' is something that we've been wanting to do for a long, long time," said Aiello in a phone conference with Yahoo! Movies and other outlets this week. "We'd actually tried a couple of times before but this year the planets aligned and we were able to do this. Out of all the mazes — the ones we've announced so far and the ones we have yet to announce — this one is for me and the team probably the closest to a passion project that we could possibly get with all the content this year."

Indeed, Aiello is a self-professed fanboy of the film, which is perhaps most notable for its astonishing transformation scene in which David Kessler (David Naughton) slowly — and painfully — transforms into a wolf, courtesy of makeup and effects whiz Rick Baker and his team.

"'American Werewolf' is a film that me and the design team watch at least once a year," said Aiello. "It's resonated for me for years, since I was a kid — it ranks right up there with the classic monster movies."

In order to create the most authentic "American Werewolf" experience possible, Aiello turned to the man with the highest authority on the subject: director John Landis.

"John was here with us for a four- or five-hour brainstorming session where we took him through a CG version of the maze as we had designed it originally," said Aiello. "John challenged us on some of the items that we were considering and actually moved us into other avenues that we hadn't even considered. It was a great creative session that we had with John and his involvement from that point has been very consistent and amazing."

Director John Landis
Director John Landis

Landis himself is very impressed with the project and has enjoyed being a part of something that's very different from filmmaking.

"It's a very peculiar and specific discipline," said Landis, sounding genuinely excited. "First of all, it's a theatrical event, an all-immersive theatrical event. It's very different from a film. What I hadn't considered before sitting down with the team was they have these practical realities of getting a certain number of people through, and just the logistics of the whole thing is complicated."

The maze will feature key locations from "An American Werewolf in London," which have been recreated in painstaking detail.

"What I've come away with is I'm very impressed with how ambitious Mike is — they're building these very elaborate sets, fully realized reproductions of the Slaughtered Lamb, a bit of the tube station, Piccadilly Circus, the hospital," said Landis. "It's really an attempt to 'recreate in the flesh,' so to speak, an experience for the guests."

Landis is also impressed with the dedication of the maze's cast of "scharacters," as Aiello affectionately calls them.

"There's a tremendous amount of manpower with this — it's a total cast of 60," said Landis. "These guys really are passionate about this stuff, there's a level of enthusiasm that's just infectious and wonderful. A lot of these performers are going to be in these very elaborate makeups and kind of uncomfortable puppet things where they're in the floor and in the wall and I'm thinking, 'My lord, this is your job — you're gonna spend eight hours in a makeup chair, you're gonna be wearing this incredible uncomfortable stuff for 10 to 12 hours so that every hour and a half you can spend 30 minutes scaring the s**t out of me.' [laughs] They love it, they really do!"

Aiello knows what the guests are most excited to see, though: the wolf!

"We're just finishing the prototype of the wolf that will appear multiple times in the maze," he said. "This is a puppet to a scale that we haven't done before in any of our mazes, and that was a big challenge for us going into this — it's all about the wolf, and if you don't nail that, you don't have much of a maze."

Watch the original trailer for 'An American Werewolf in London':

The conference then opened up to questions from the entertainment journalists on the call, all of whom seemed to be big fans of "An American Werewolf in London" themselves.

While most of the mazes at Halloween Horror Nights are based on contemporary properties, why reach back all the way to the early '80s for "An American Werewolf in London"?

MIKE AIELLO: Why not? For me there is never a distinction in horror. Horror is horror, and when horror is good, you want to latch on to it. We've been trying to do "American Werewolf" at Universal for years now — we went back to treatments that we did as far as five or six years ago. And I think it's very important for Horror Nights, while we are in a very contemporary realm, it is important to take a step back and ask, "How did we get here? What were the steps that were taken to get horror where it is today?" That's in line with some of the classic monster mazes that we've done in the past — that concept is very important to me and this team, to make sure that's still prevelant.

JOHN LANDIS: Sure, I think Jack Pierce's design for the original 1931 "Frankenstein" and Boris Karloff's performance — it doesn't get better than that!

MA: In our realm, there's really no distinction between time and place. For us, it all lies on the same plane. If it's good and we think people are going to have a great time with it, and we know that we can put our all into it, we're gonna go after it.

John, do you have any particular fond memories from shooting the film — was there a particular good day or moment where you thought, "Oh we nailed that!" — and did those kind of behind-the-scenes memories contribute to the development of the maze at all?

JL: Oh, gee ... huh ... that's an interesting question! Well, I don't think the experience of making the movie necessarily contributed to the maze — the finished movie did, of course. [laughs] Making the movie was a pleasure — I wrote this script in 1969 when I was 18 years old and I made it in 1981, so I was very happy to get the opportunity to realize this. Plus it was a "negative pickup film" for Polygram, a Dutch company, at the time — "negative pickup" is a way where I go borrow the money, and so the filmmaker is taking all the risk, but what you get is completely control — I mean, I was signing the check. So the production was a total pleasure, it was a British film and I had a wonderful crew — the only Americans involved were me, Rick Baker and his guys and my wife [Deborah Nadoolman], the costume designer. It was a joy, it was really fun. It was cold! [laughs]

One of my favorite moments in filming was Rick Baker had asked me at the time, "Look, if we're gonna do this and try to be this ambitious and really realize this ..." — remember, this is before CG, so we're gonna do it all practical on camera — he said, "I need the actors six months before filming to make molds of their bodies and then I'll need six months to build these things." And so I storyboarded the metamorphosis so he would just build the specific things.

And then, we had the last week of filming for the transformation sequence, so it just came down to [actor] David Naughton and a skeleton crew, no pun intended. So Rick would show up at 2 in the morning and start doing makeup and the crew would show up at 8 and then we'd get our first shot at 9. And I remember, David would come out and we'd get ready and I'd yell "Action!" and we'd do the thing and I would say "Okay let's do another take — action ... good, okay, cut. All right, Rick, go prepare the next thing." And Rick looked at me and said, "What do you mean, you're gonna do two takes, that's it?" And I said, "Does it do anything else?" And he said, "Well no, but I just spent so much time and it was so hard!" And I said, "Rick, we're on to the next one." And I just remember he was so depressed! [laughs] He did all that work.

And then it wasn't really until he saw the finished film that he sort of went, "Oh, okay, all right." [laughs]

The film is so much about the internal experience of David — what he's becoming and what he's doing. How do you translate that to a broader experience for something like a maze?

JL: Well, there's two things to remember that Mike's doing here. One is it's one experience for people who are very familiar with the movie ... and it's something a bit different for people who've never seen the movie. I think it'll be a little more shocking for them. [laughs] But there are aspects of the maze ... they really are being extremely ambitious, they reproduced the Slaughtered Lamb, the moors, the tube, the hospital, and you see one of David's nightmares — it's quite horrific — and the movie theater, the Piccadilly Circus. These things are all realized full-size and it's an immersive experience and something I'm excited about is they're so specific about trying to capture the ambiance of the film and what's going on in the movie that they actually went to where I sound mixed the original picture and got the original tracks and stems. So they're using the original sound effects, the music ... it should be pretty intense.

MA: Yeah, for any fan of the movie, it is a completely authentic experience. The reasoning started with the fact that we wanted to make sure that we could have the wolf sound like it does in the movie — the wolf's howls and roars are iconic and anyone who's in love with that film knows those sounds. If it doesn't sound that way, you as a fan are going to know. So that was really important to us that we had access to those materials. One thing that I'm actually really excited for people to hear is there is some scoring in that movie.

JL: Elmer Bernstein wrote it, it's about seven and a half minutes, it's a brilliant score.

MA: Yes, which we are featuring in the maze. That was important for me, I'm a huge Bernstein fan and I wanted to give that some resonance in the maze. The maze is really a montage vista of things you're going to remember from the movie. We want to make sure that if you're a fan going through this maze and you have a checklist of things in your hand, we want to make sure all those boxes are checked before you leave. That's how we attack these sorts of mazes.

JL: That's interesting, I'd never heard that before. For me, it's equally important for people who haven't seen the film, because some of the stuff I have to say is pretty intense and visceral. These mazes work on a number of levels — they create the ambiance and the atmosphere, it's the lighting, and the fact that they've gone through so much trouble to build this total environment, you're really in these places from the film. And some of it is — what's the word — gruesome. [laughs] Some of it I think, "Really? Uh, yikes." Do you have ratings on these things?

MA: We recommend that no one under 13 attend the event but there is no specific rating for Horror Nights.

JL: But, like, children under 10 aren't allowed, right?

MA: We allow our guests to make that decision for themselves.

JL: [pause] Well, okay.

MA: [laughs]

JL: I don't know ... if I see any little kids, I'll be like, "Don't let your kid go in there!"

MA: [laughs] How about we can keep you out front and you can monitor?

JL: Okay, I'll be the hall monitor. [laughs]

The film is also very funny. Will the maze feature any of the dark, twisted humor that John put in the movie?

MA: I think it's in the aesthetics. One thing we agreed on in our beginning stages is we wanted people to be scared of this maze —we wanted them to walk out horrified. Yes, there are many funny moments in the film, but we're not really latching on to them specifically because we only have so much time with our guests in the maze. We've done comedically-driven mazes in the past and the conversation kind of landed on the fact that really we just wanted to bring out the intensity of the film.

But I will say that you're gonna hear [the closing credits song] "Blue Moon" as soon as you leave — that is one moment I love in the film, the last horrific image you see is cut off with this '50s song that immediately changes the tone. I love that moment in the film as a final little jab, and that does happen in the maze.

Is there going to be a [longtime inside joke in John Landis films] "See You Next Wednesday" reference in the maze?

MA: Oh yes, are you kidding?

JL: There is a film within the film called "See You Next Wednesday" and I think they have a poster for that, for sure.

MA: We do, it's as you're going into the theater!

JL: Oh yes, and Jack [Griffin Dunne's character] is there! One of the things that's fun for me is that they created a specific Oscar to award Rick Baker's extraordinary work on the movie, and he's won seven of them now. His techniques and practical effects that are in the film and were so remarkable — that's in fact how they're doing it in the flesh, so to speak, for real, in front of you. They're really replicating exactly what we did only right in front of you. That to me is great fun.

Halloween Horror Nights in Hollywood and Orlando will commence on Friday, September 20 and run through Halloween night.