For horror fans, Halloween is the most important day of the year. To celebrate horror’s official holiday, ADV presents the 31 Days of Halloween: each day in October, we will suggest a film or film series that we consider essential viewing during the season of fear. This isn’t a “Top 31 List” or a countdown of the “Best” or “Scariest” horror films out there, just a rundown of films that are sure to creep you out or otherwise put you in the Halloween spirit. Enjoy!
It seems 1981 was a good year for horror films. Not only was it the year Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead was released (our pick for the 31 Days of Halloween Day One), but that year also saw the release of three high-profile werewolf movies: Joe Dante’s The Howling, Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen, and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London. Though each these three films are actually some of the best werewolf movies ever made, that isn’t really saying much. Only Landis’ An American Werewolf in London separated itself from the pack, withstanding the test of time as a horror classic. While in part this was due to special effects master Rick Baker’s incredible werewolf transformations, which look as good as they did over 30 years ago, Landis’ deft directing, the film’s atmospheric cinematography, and the bitingly clever script makes it extremely watchable even today. This is an amazing achievement in the monster genre, where aging special effects can quickly make a film feel dated even a few years after its release.
The film opens with two American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) backpacking across the Scottish Moors. As night falls, they stop at a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, where the superstitious locals tell them to keep to the road and beware the full moon. If they followed this advice it wouldn’t be a horror movie, so they of course leave the pub at night, and while chatting, inadvertently wander off the path. There is of course some howling, running, screaming, and biting, and soon Jack is dead and David sporting a nasty wolf bite. As you can imagine, it only goes downhill for poor David from there.
John Landis wrote the movie as well as directing it, and his screenplay is one of the highlights of the film, being clever and even blackly humorous in places without tipping over into the realm of comedy. The dialogue and the characters’ interactions and reactions all feel far more genuine than what one expects to find in a monster movie. Landis’ deft direction coupled with Robert Paynter’s gorgeous cinematography make this film an atmospheric masterpiece, especially during exterior scenes. The moody score was composed by the great Elmer Bernstein, and also greatly contributed to film’s atmosphere. The soundtrack is unsettling and slightly off-putting: even many of the licensed songs Landis chose are ironically cheerful, even when played during disturbing scenes, and all of them refer to the moon.
As previously mentioned, Rick Baker’s special effects are another big reason why this film is so good. The werewolf transformations are just amazing, utilizing prosthesis, air bladders, deft make-up work, and truly disturbing sound design to create the illusion that the bones and muscles are breaking, reshaping, and realigning under the skin as thick black fur erupts from the hair follicles. It looks realistic and astoundingly painful, and remains the gold standard of shapeshifting using traditional special effects rather than CGI to this day. Another fantastic example of Baker’s makeup work is in the reanimated corpses of the victims of the werewolf, who appear to David as visions that only he can see, as gristly reminders of the weight of the werewolf’s curse. Each bears the wounds that killed them, and as time progresses they also decompose, reflecting the indignities that the grave that the werewolf inflicted on them. Jack of course is one of these specters, and his own transformation or degeneration throughout the film is another of its visual highlights.
John Landis, Rick Baker, and Elmer Bernstein would again work on a horror classic together just a couple of years later… on the music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, in 1983. Jackson contacted Landis personally to direct the video after having seen An American Werewolf in London, and Landis agreed because at that time no music video had ever been directed by a major movie director. Soon he had both Baker and Bernstein signed on, and they were joined by horror luminary Vincent Price, who provided a spooky narration to portions of the video.
Clocking in at an impressive (for a music video) 13 minutes, the video is framed by a story inspired by 1950’s B-horror. It also includes Jackson’s shapeshifting transformation into a weird were-cat inspired by the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London, as well as visual homages to a number of classic horror movies including Frankenstein, and, most significantly, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (although we recall the zombies dancing less in that one). Michael Jackson’s Thriller has also been referenced in a number of horror-related media since, especially the infamous “zombie dance”. All in all, the music video is a love letter to the horror genre, a guilty pleasure for many the horror fan, and proof that Jackson was frightening children long before the Neverland Ranch scandal.
Though there was eventually an official sequel to An American Werewolf in London in 1997 called An American Werewolf in Paris, it is far from the horror classic that the original was. Neither John Landis nor Rick Baker had anything to do with its production and it relied heavily on CGI for its special effects, having almost no practical special effects, which is just an insult to Baker’s legacy. Interestingly, John Landis’ episode of Master’s of Horror, “The Deer Woman” appears to take place in the same fictional universe as An American Werewolf in London, as it references the rampage in Piccadilly Circus in 1981, a clear reference to the film. In any event, we strongly recommend the double feature of An American Werewolf in London and Michael Jackson’s Thriller to scratch your horror itch and pay homage to John Landis and Rick Baker, two giants in the field of monsters.