Category Archives: Retro Reviews (RetViews)

RetView #3 – An American Werewolf in London

Title: An American Werewolf in London

Year of Release: 1981

Director: John Landis

Length: 97 mins

Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne

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Some films you see during those impressionable childhood years make an indelible mark on you. Others scar you for life. For me, An American werewolf in London undoubtedly belongs in the latter category, and not just because I was obsessed with Jenny Agutter.

It should need no introduction, but for the uninitiated, the film starts with a pair of American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) hiking across the Yorkshire Moors (actually the Black Mountains in Wales). When night falls they take refuge in a charming little pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they find Rik Mayall having a game of darts and Brian Glover in a particularly prickly mood, but leave when things turn frosty and find themselves lost on the moors. As if that wasn’t bad enough, things take a huge downward turn when Jack is ripped to pieces by a huge wild animal, later revealed to be a werewolf. There’s no helping Jack, but a crowd from the pub arrive and kill the werewolf just in time to save David.

David wakes up in a hospital in London. We don’t know how he got there, or why he was taken there rather than somewhere closer as it’s about 200 miles from Yorkshire to London. But let’s not focus too much on pesky common sense and practicalities. It’s a werewolf film for fuck’s sake. Jack returns from the dead to warn his friend that next time there is a full moon, he too will turn into a werewolf. The banter between David and Dead Jack, fast, witty, and shot-through with humour, form some of my favourite parts of the film (example: “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”).

The anticipated change does indeed occur in a gut-wrenching yet iconic sequence which won an Academy Award for special effects (creator Rick Baker went on to win six more from eleven nominations. A record) and David goes on a bloody rampage across London. One of the defining scenes was set and filmed at Tottenham Court Road tube station, and anyone who has ever used that particular transport hub will surely agree that the only time you are likely to see it quite so empty is when there is a blood-crazed werewolf riding the escalator. David wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure of the zoo, and then sets about piecing together the events of the night before with the help of Alice (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who he somehow managed to pull at the hospital. It has to be said that she takes all the werewolf stuff remarkably well, which was just one more reason to love the woman.

One of the most terrifying scenes ever committed to celluloid is the dream sequence where David witnesses his family being brutally slayed by a bunch of mutant Nazi demons with machine guns in a home invasion. It’s as weird as it is shocking, and has been the cause of endless debate over the years. Was it included just for the shock factor? An extra element of controversy (as if it were needed)? Or is it a remnant of a sub-plot which was otherwise edited out?

It’s interesting to note that earlier on in proceedings, nurse Alice and her friend make what appears to be an off-hand Jewish remark dressed up as a dick joke, and the movie has been lauded in certain circles as a significant piece of Jewish cinema. A little digging reveals John Landis was born into a Jewish family, and with that kernel of knowledge, the sub-text swims into focus. David (the name of the first monarch of the Israelite tribes) is a walking allegory for Judaism itself. A displaced, wounded hero, a stranger in a strange land, struggling to come to terms with a tragic past. This article does a pretty good job of further exploring the Jewish connection. Personally, I’d never even considered the possibility until I re-watched it recently and started wondering what the fuck those mutant Nazi demons with machine guns had to do with anything.

When it was released in 1981, An American Werewolf in London formed one third of a holy trinity of werewolf films, which all came out the same year, the others being Wolfen and The Howling. Director John Landis (who is more commonly associated with comedy having been involved with such seminal films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Trading Places) claimed he was inspired to write the script after working on the film Kelly’s Hero’s in Yugoslavia. Whilst out driving, he stumbled across a group of gypsies performing a ritual on a corpse so it wouldn’t ‘rise again.’ At first he had trouble securing finances, with most would-be investors claiming the script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be frightening, before PolyGram Pictures eventually put up the $10 million budget. Happily, their faith was repayed as the movie became a box office smash grossing over $62 million worldwide.

In contrast, a 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which featured a completely different cast and crew, was a critical and commercial failure. As a curious postscript, in late 2016 it was widely reported that John Landis’s son Max would write and direct a remake. There’s been nothing but the sound of crickets ever since.

Trivia Corner:

In the Piccadilly Circus sequence, the man hit by a car and thrown through a window is none other than John Landis himself.

This is part three of my monthly #RetView series, following Lost Boys and Shock Waves.

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RetView #2 – Shock Waves

Title: Shock Waves

Year of Release: 1977

Director: Ken Wiederhorn

Length: 90 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Brooke Adams, John Carradine

Welcome to the second installment of my #RetView series, following last month’s Lost Boys feature, where I re-watch and review ‘forgotten’ horror classics. I love old horror movies, and it’s always fun to revisit them. Or in this case, belatedly discover them. I recently saw Outpost, and Outpost: Black Sun (aka Outpost II) on the Horror Channel, and decided I kinda like Nazi zombies. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the whole idea of twin evil. Total nastiness.

On watching the Outpost double-header, I realized that the whole Nazi zombie thing is an actual sub genre. Admittedly, this mini-revelation making me feel only marginally less of a freak. In recent years we’ve had the Dead Snow films, Blood Creek and several other notables that I can’t remember off the top of my head. This all reminded me of a film I saw when I was a kid which frightened the absolute shit out of me called Zombie Lake. The original plan had been to track it down and watch it again to see if it was still scary, or if the intervening three decades or so had lessened its impact.

Whilst searching for it online, I kept seeing references to this other film, which is credited with kick-starting the whole Nazi zombie craze long before Zombie Lake. When I saw that it starred Peter Cushing, I was sold. Come to think of it, unkillable Germans have been a ‘thing’ of mine for quite a while.

Carrying the impressively corny tag-line, ‘The deep end of horror,’ Shock Waves was directed by Ken Wiederhorn (best known for Return of the Living Dead Part II and Eyes of a Stranger) and unleashed on an unsuspecting public in the summer of ’77. For context, it came out just when serial killer Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) was at his peak, if that’s the right way to say it.

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The film opens with Rose (played by Brooke Adams, who is perhaps best known in horror circles as being Christopher Walken’s love interest in the Dead Zone) being rescued from a little boat in the sea. Slowly, she remembers how she got there. She’d been traversing some islands on ‘one of those small dive boats’ when the engine seized, stranding her with a bunch of other people including the captain (John Carradine) and his mate, Keith, who is afflicted with tragic hippy hair and a 70’s porno ‘tache. As the boat flounders in the water that night, it is stuck by a ‘ghost ship’ which isn’t really a ghost ship, not the supernatural kind anyway. It’s something much worse.

In the morning the captain inexplicably turns up drowned, which understandably sends the rest of them into a mild panic, and after finding the boat is taking on water decide to decamp to a nearby island which, conveniently, comes equipped with an abandoned hotel. Now you’re talking. When abandoned hotels are involved, you just know it’s gonna be zombie time soon. Except this one isn’t really abandoned, Peter Cushing lives there. Now the alarm bells would really be ringing, because murder, monsters and mayhem followed that guy around like herpes.

In Shock Waves Cushing plays the role of an eccentric recluse, who later reveals himself as a former SS commander who, during the war, was in charge of a fearsome bunch of misfit soldiers he moulded into an unkillable aquatic fighting unit. When they proved too difficult to control, he sank their ship. Or, he thought he did. Yep, it was THAT ship!

It all goes a bit south when zombies start coming out of the sea. Do you hear me? They come out of the sea! Eventually. I’m not sure why all needed diving goggles, but they otherwise seemed in extraordinarily good nick considering they’re supposed to have been literally dead in the water for thirty-odd years.

I was a bit disappointed to find that these aren’t the flesh eating kind of zombie. They’re more the throttling kind with a penchant for drowning people. In the sea, ponds, swimming pools, even, on one memorable occasion, a fish tank. Basically, if it has water, the fockers (sic) will find some way to drown you in it. This obviously limits their creativity somewhat. But still, I suppose any Nazi zombie is better than no Nazi zombie.

Things go down a predictable enough path from then on. The zombies slink about looking menacing, not saying much, and taking out the tourists one-by-one. They reserve an especially nasty demise for their old commander, who they presumably haven’t forgiven for trying to annihilate them. The film plays for atmosphere than shocks, which are few and far between, but one thing that really creeped me out is the musical score. For the most part, especially when the zombies are in attack mode, it’s a long, unbroken high-pitched whine, which is both annoying and unsettling. In the end, we come full circle to find Rose, rather the worse for wear, being rescued from the boat. The sole survivor. About those diving goggles, it’s revealed toward the end that if you remove them, the zombie dies. It’s never explained how or why this works, but fuck it, small details.

Shock Waves didn’t do much at the box office, and only really started receiving attention when it was released on VHS during the video nasty heyday of the 1980’s. Though it has attained cult status amongst horror movie aficionados, especially since being released on DVD in 2003, it has generally failed to impress in wider circles. Patrick Bromley of DVD Verdict summed things up nicely when he wrote, “More concerned with atmosphere than with shocks, it avoids a number of what would become the cliches of the genre; the flip side of that coin is that it delivers little of what we want from a zombie film.”

Trivia Corner:

Alternative titles used in various overseas territories included Almost Human and Death Corps, both of which are probably better than Shock Waves.

Come back next month for more #RetViews!


RetView #1 – The Lost Boys

Title: The Lost Boys

Year of Release: 1987

Director: Joel Schumacher 

Length: 98 mins

Starring: Jason Patric, Corey Haim, Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz

It’s a conversation which comes up every so often. There you are, semi-drunk with a group of colleagues, or on one of those awkward Tinder dates, when in an effort to lift the tension and find some common ground, somebody asks, “So, what’s your favourite film?”

Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s entirely subjective. But it’s still a bit of a loaded question. Say the wrong thing, and it could cloud someone’s opinion of you forever. What would your peers and prospective lovers think if you gave the accolade to Human Centipede 2? Or even worse, the Adam Sandler disaster Jack and Jill?

For me, there are a few contenders (neither Human Centipede 2 or Jack and Jill is among them, you’ll be glad to know). But for as long as I can remember, my answer has always been the same.

The Lost Boys.

It’s not always a popular choice. Horror buffs and 80’s film aficionados usually nod with appreciation, while others, especially the younger crowd, invariably frown and say ‘You what?’

Given that The Lost Boys came out exactly thirty years ago (July 29th 1987 to be precise) I suppose that’s an acceptable reaction. Upon release it was a modest hit but was no Top Gun or Dirty Dancing, and has since passed into the ranks of ‘cult classic.’ That said, it has certainly aged better than most 80’s movies. Have you seen Weird Science recently? Didn’t think so.

Anyway, directed by Joel Schumacher and made on a budget of just $8.5 million, the Lost Boys was a triumph of style over substance, in many ways encapsulating the 80’s as a whole. It was big, brash, gaudy, and ever-so-slightly camp. A bit like a 98-minute 80’s pop video. Yet by the same token it was funny, slick, and immeasurably cool. In the case of Kiefer Sutherland, it might also be one of the very few times a lead character rocks a mullet and gets away with it.

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The producers originally wanted to call the town where Lost Boys is set Santa Cruz, because during the 1970s Santa Cruz gained a reputation as being “the Murder Capital of the World” after three infamous serial killers (Kemper, Mullin, and Carpenter, aka the Trailside Killer) hunted victims there. However, the Santa Cruz council ‘strongly objected’ to the town being portrayed in such a negative manner and allegedly withheld filming permits, forcing the producers to change the name to Santa Carla.

For the uninitiated, The Lost Boys is the story of two brothers, Sam (Corey Haim) and Michael (Jason Patric) who move with their recently-divorced mother (Dianne West) to stay with her eccentric father in Santa Carla, California. Cue lashings of teen angst and despair about feeling isolated and not fitting in and stuff. At a local comic book store, Sam bumps into the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) who warn him that the town has become overrun with vampires and give him comics to educate him about the threat, while big brother Michael falls in love with Star (Jami Gertz) who happens to be in a relationship with a local gang leader called David (the aforementioned mullet-sporting Sutherland). Yup, you guessed it, David’s gang is actually made up of the very same vampires that have been terrorizing the town and making people disappear, and they want the star-struck (sorry) Michael to join their ranks. The story builds to an epic showdown between good and evil featuring a few fantastically creative kill scenes and some better one-liners.

At the time, Lost Boys represented something of a gamble by Warner Bros. Horror comedies aimed specifically at teenagers was an unexplored genre. To make things even harder, at the time, the main cast was comprised mainly of untested wannabes and even director Joel Schumacher was a largely unknown quantity with only The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) and St Elmo’s Fire (1985) on his resume.

Even with the benefit of having 30-years to think about it, it’s hard to pinpoint what makes Lost Boys work so well. The plot itself is a little thin with not many surprises, but the script is sharp and witty. A piece of marketing genius, the slogan (‘Sleep all day, party all night, never grow old, never die. It’s fun to be a vampire’) captured both the imagination and the mood of a generation, while the sleek MTV-style visuals are positively spellbinding, Kiefer Sutherland made the coolest villain ever, and Jami Gertz playing the little girl lost role sent pulses racing. As sultry and vulnerable as she appeared, you just knew she was as dangerous and ruthless as a coiled cobra. The haunting soundtrack, an essential component of any 80’s movie, was also a contributing factor. Even the dog Nanook deserves special praise for several show-stealing scenes.

However, despite all this, Lost Boys was much more than the sum of its parts, making an undeniable impression on the psyche Generation X and paving the way for everything from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the Twilight saga. The movie did spawn two low-key sequels of it’s own, Lost Boys: the Tribe (2008) and Lost Boys: the Thirst (2010) but neither set the world on fire, and a rumoured proper sequel, the Lost Girls, also directed by Joel Schumacher and which sounded fucking amazing, failed to materialize. The enduring legacy of Lost Boys ties in neatly with the source of the title, J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan who, just like vampires, never grew up. To my knowledge he didn’t end up dissolving in a bath of holy water and garlic or being impaled on a fence post either, so there’s that.

Trivia corner:

Actress Julia Roberts started dating Jason Patric just days after cancelling her wedding to Lost Boys co-star Kiefer Sutherland in 1991. Ouch.

This is the first installment of the RetView series.


Coming Soon… RetViews!

Regular visitors will know I post (or have posted) about whatever takes my fancy. In the past I’ve written about topics as diverse as Bruce Springsteen gigs and animals that shit coffee, but most of my posts are in some way related to teaching, sport, China, horror fiction, music or films. Sometimes, two or more of those categories bleed into each other, which makes me happy. What all these topics have in common is the fact that they’re all important to me. They make my world go around.

I realized some time ago that as our lives trundle on and we get ever older, our perceptions change, as well as our tastes. As our reserves of life experience swell, we come to see things in a different light. This logic applies to a lot of things. You could probably argue that it applies to everything. But it is especially noticeable with regards to music and films, these being the spheres where fads and fashions are most prevalent. For example, how many people were into Johnny Hates Jazz or the Christians in the late 80’s? And how many of those people still play Shattered Dreams or Harvest for the World? Probably not that many. Let’s not forget, the arts also serve as open forums for social commentary, which makes them especially relevant.

This is just one reason why I thought it might be interesting to revisit some classic cinematic moments, and take another look at them in a ‘modern’ context. Or at least, with the benefit of knowing some stuff I probably didn’t know before. Older movies have also generated more academic research, comments and opinions, which I can draw upon as I endeavour to provide some valuable insight, rather than a simple ‘It was rad!’ review.

I’m going to call this my RetView series. Short for Retro Review. See what I did there?

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I’m starting with films. Horror films, to be precise, and have earmarked such classics as An American Werewolf in London, the Evil Dead, Eyes Without a Face, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Thing and one of the Alien films (haven’t decided which one yet) for the RetView treatment. I will also re-visit some more modern examples, like the Blair Witch Project, Train to Busan and [REC]. In time I might branch out into other genres, or even music. Hell, I might even dig out some cassettes and fire up my old Sony Walkman. I might leave Johnny Hates Jazz and the Christians out of it, though.

I am well aware that this site needs some structure, so I am going to be aiming for a new a new instalment every month. On the 13th, to be precise, in keeping with the horror theme. Each RetView will contain essential information such as the year the film was released, who directed and starred in it, and a synopsis. Where possible I’ll also scratch beneath the surface to provide a bit of context, make observations where appropriate, and uncover a bit of light-hearted trivia to make the whole thing more slick. The fun starts next week with Lost Boys, one of the greatest 80’s films ever made.

I hope you read my RetViews and take something from them. Like I said, for one reason or another, these are all films that deserve some recognition. Comments, likes, shares and blow jobs are always very much appreciated, and don’t forget to sign up so you never miss an installment.


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