Usually at this time of the year, we launch our annual “Great Pumpkins” Halloween-week series with something like a state-of-the-art assessment of the horror film. For 2008 we’re hard-pressed to find anything worthwhile to say. Though this week we’ve had a pair of more than watchable European fright flicks (Let the Right One In, Fear(s) of the Dark), hushed Swedish vampire tweens and spooky French ‘toons are hardly reflective of any genre movement. As for American cinema, 2008’s been a horror wasteland thus far: Watch People Get Mutilated in Cheesy Fast-Motion While the Camera Whips Around Them Pointlessly Part V may be opening this week, and Quarantine seems to have a handful of admirers, but quality chills have been few and far between. Back at the beginning of the summer, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers raised a few hairs this side of the Atlantic, yet despite an effective set-up I not only found it enervatingly one-note and distasteful in its claims to doomed romance, but also often spatially incoherent and dully repetitive. Like Cloverfield, its “mercilessly single-minded” narrative is actually a front for dull nihilism. Both films had me wondering, “Why am I watching this?” from nearly first frame to last. Horror films should disturb, but I don’t want to resent the experience. (Related: Anyone remember The Ruins? Thought not.)
We knew from last year that the torture-porn bubble had burst (quick, someone tell the hilariously, appropriately named David Hackl), but this year studios and distributors seemed mostly uninterested in any kind of horror at all. (Kudos to Magnolia’s low-budget digi arm Magnet for putting out Splinter next week, which seems like an efficient little monster machine, judging from the first two-thirds of it I saw from my warped screener.)
This year, for my first pumpkin, I rewatched an old chestnut, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t reveal nearly everything that’s missing in horror today. John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London has a reputation as a horror-comedy, a dubious category that would soon be replaced by the broader Ghostbusters template (chuckles more important than scares) and which now has been taken over by the cheap sub-Hot Shots drek in the Scary Movie franchise. Yet while Landis’s film is certainly noticeably tongue-in-cheek, its occasional laughs are not intended to deflate or detract from the horror. Miraculously, the chuckles and the shocks stand side by side proudly; Landis, here just coming off of Animal House, proves himself a true showman: he’s one of the few filmmakers who has taken to heart both sides of that “Screaming/Laughing” equation put forth by film theorist and critic William Paul. The visions of grime and gore in American Werewolf are memorably sobering, and the frattish jokiness that surrounds them only serves to heighten a sense of uncanniness and dread. This is a world askew, and gallows humor can hold death and dismemberment at bay for just so long.
A great deal of the film’s success can be attributed to the gentle, unforced jocularity of David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as college-age backpackers hoofing it through Europe, whose bad decision to stay off the main roads on the windswept, rainy Yorkshire moors leads the latter to be torn apart by an angry beast and the former to be infected with a particularly lupine disease. Dunne’s constant reappearance as a chastising, cranky spook (whose hanging, pulpy flesh has Naughton likening him to a “talking meatloaf”) imploring David to kill himself before the next full moon, barely defuses the mounting tension, which reaches a head upon the first, appropriately lauded, transformation. Genuinely frightening even while it presages Buffy and Kevin Williamson-era know-it-all (there’s much eye-rolling over the recitation of creature-feature lore), Landis’s film injects humor only when necessary, stopping the film dead for a joke only once, with some goofy, Poirot-esque bumbling detective business. There’s a “cleverness” to portions of the film (especially in the first half, with a tricky series of horrifying, surreal nightmares within nightmares) that go beyond gimmickiness and enter the realm of the truly unsettling. And though Dunne’s sarcasm has been greatly appreciated over the years, proper credit must go to Naughton’s casual, everyguy sexiness; halfway between nebbish Jew and dreamy high-school jock, he’s a yankee in King Arthur’s court just relatable enough to care about but whose ultimately tragic plight thankfully never registers as more than a very sick joke.
Of course, no discussion of An American Werewolf in London is complete without remarking upon Rick Baker’s incredible makeup effects and the requisite mourning over the lost art of prosthetics in the face of overreliance on CGI bombastics (see the unfortunate An American Werewolf in Paris for evidence on how not to employ such visuals…that film’s monster looks like it absconded from Sega Genesis’s Altered Beast). But let’s face it, this shit still looks amazing, and yes, we it may sound rote, but let’s have another moment of silence for the early Eighties heyday of special effects (between this, The Thing, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Poltergeist, a case could have been made for just ending the creature-feature dead in its tracks by 1983). When Naughton doubles over in agonizing pain, shrieking as his body contorts and expands, as thick black hairs push through his tender skin like bristly daggers, and his face warps into a fanged demon mask, the realization settles in for the viewer that all this tactility would probably be foregone now for a quick digi-fix. But why lament? Just rent An American Werewolf in London; it growls and chortles still.