Tag Archives: RetView

RetView #12 – Ringu

Title: Ringu (Ring)

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Hideo Nakata

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato

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It would be a huge generalization to say that I love them all because like anything else, the genre can be a bit hit n’ miss. But I’ve spoken at length before about my fondness for Japanese horror movies. Ringu (the original version of the Ring, followed in 2002 by a big-budget and hugely successful American remake) is quite possibly the king of J-Horror. It’s without doubt the movie responsible for sparking a western fascination with Asian horror movies which was mined extensively over the next decade or so with varying degrees of success. Think Pulse, the Grudge and Dark Water, all of which were remade for western audiences.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that until Ringu burst onto the screens in all its grainy glory, western horror cinema was going through a notoriously bad time. We were still bogged down in the deranged serial killer/slasher genre, which was getting decidedly old by then. There are only so many cheap scares and bloody, increasingly imaginative kills an audience can tolerate before they get desensitized to the whole thing. We wanted something new. Something that wasn’t the same as everything else. Then came Ringu.

The film begins innocuously enough, giving barely a hint of the edge-of-the-seat creepiness to follow. Two cutesy teenaged girls, Masami (Sato) and Tomoko (Takeuchi) are messing around in an apartment and discussing a cursed videotape which supposedly kills its victims after they receive a phone call seven days after watching it, when one of them confesses to watching just such a strange tape a week earlier. Then the phone rings. Some time later, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Matsushima) learns that her niece Tomoko (Yup, thadda one) and three of her friends died under mysterious circumstances, and sets about investigating. The trail leads to a cabin in the Izu area of Japan. There, she finds an unlabelled video tape. Obviously, she watches it, thereby starting off a trail of events which might just be the death of her. She enlists the help of her ex-husband (Sanada) and together they attempt to break the spell and avoid Reiko’s imminent fate. More than two decades on, that unforgettable scene where Sadako the ghost girl climbs out of a well (and then through a television screen) remains one of the simplest yet most evocative slices of cinematic history ever committed to, er, videotape? Though many have tried to replicate the effect, it has never been emulated.

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Adapted from the 1991 novel Ring by Koji Suzuki who, in turn, based the story on an urban myth , the movie has long been noted as examining Japan’s obsession with the clash between tradition and modernity. This is only one of the many subtexts critics have pointed to, another popular one being that ghost girl Sadako is a model for the modern woman and how independence conflicts with the traditional core values of motherhood. Whether you agree with any of that or not, it’s clear that Ringu is an extraordinarily complex film that works on many levels. It is a visually stunning piece of work, so heavily steeped in Japanese culture that as a westerner it’s practically impossible to grasp all the subtleties. It draws on many aspects of history, folklore, and even theatre, to create a mash-up that is much more about fostering a pervasive sense of dread rather than going for cheap jump scares. Much was made at the time about Sadako’s jerky, twisty, hauntingly deliberate movements. These were actually based on a kind of interpretive Japanese dance called Butoh, which became popular after the Second World War. Even Sadako’s classic look is no accident, having been based on a specific species of ghost called the yūrei, which invariably feature stark white faces, long black hair, and white kimonos. The reason yūrei appear this way is because that’s how Japanese women looked when they were buried.

In fact, everything about Ringu was designed to creep the viewer out. One way it achieved this was through use of a technique called ‘Ma,’ where sound effects and musical scores are deliberately punctuated with sequences of rapid pauses or even long, drawn-out silences. This was another way the film differentiates itself significantly from Western films. While Western horror uses sound to let the audience know how they should be feeling, J-Horror (and Ringu specifically), uses Ma as a way to keep the audience thrown off balance. This is just one reason the Guardian named it the 12th Best Horror Film of all Time. By the way, you can watch it in its entirety (with English subtitles) HERE.

Trivia Corner:

In what proved to be a shrewd and innovative move at the time, both Ringu and its sequel Rasen (not to be confused with Ring 2), were released in Japan on the same day, January 31st 1998. Both films had different writers and directors, yet shared many of the same cast members. Shrewd and innovative this may have been, but successful it wasn’t as Ringu was an international hit and Rasen a comparative flop.

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RetView #11 – Thinner

Title: Thinner

Year of Release: 1996

Director: Tom Holland

Length: 92 minutes

Starring: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney

Thinner

Adaptations of Stephen King books are almost always given a rough ride. Even such classics as The Shining and Misery are not without their detractors. I don’t really understand why that is. My theory is two-fold. On one hand, there are a lot of Constant Readers who place the books in such high regard that they are considered untouchable. Woe betide any director who dares change the smallest detail, let alone put his own stamp on it no matter how talented he is (Stanley Kubrick being a case in point). On the other hand, there are others who just don’t like his work and are resentful of his success. I feel the same way about Justin Bieber. Another possibility is that the ‘good’ ones suffer from being associated with the shit ones. Who can forget Lawnmower Man? In that sense, Stephen King movies draw eerie parallels with his beloved AC/DC. For every Highway to Hell, there’s a Fly on the Wall.

Unlike some SK movies, usually those adapted from short stories which struggle to provide enough material for a full movie, Thinner benefits from a good, solid premise. Billy Halleck (Burke) is an arrogant and morbidly obese lawyer who has gotten rich keeping mobsters and crooks out of jail. One night he is out driving with his wife (Jenney) after celebrating a big result when she decides to give him a spontaneous (and ill-advised) blow job. That’s one way to tear his mind away from food. Understandably distracted, Billy knocks over and kills an old gypsy woman. Being personal friends of his, the local police chief and the judge conspire to have the case dismissed, and Billy walks free. Outside the courtroom, he is accosted by the old gypsy woman’s 104-year old father, who touches Billy’s face and whispers one word, “Thinner,” before leaving the scene. Almost instantly, Billy starts losing weight. At first, he is elated, then starts to worry about his health. He undergoes medical checks, which come back clear, leaving him in no doubt that he is being afflicted by a gypsy curse. He investigates and finds that the police chief and the judge have also been cursed, the former with the word ‘leper’ and the latter with ‘lizard.’ As Billy’s health wanes, he comes to the realisation that he needs help and enlists the services of one of his old mobster friends to track down the gyspies and make them lift the curse. From there, the situation escalates to a thrilling, and shocking finale. At the movie’s end you’ll be left with two, ahem, take-aways.

1: Never attempt oral sex when you are in control of a vehicle.

2: Don’t eat the cherry pie.

Thinner (originally titled Gypsy Pie) was first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1986. Though it garnered some good reviews, it wasn’t an immediate hit, selling ‘only’ 28,000 copies. After being outed as King, sales jumped to 231,000. Ultimately, it is a story of revenge, and the lengths people will go to in order to get even. Contrary to most King books, Thinner benefits from a very downbeat ending, something typical of King writing as Bachman. Burke (Robocop 3, Tombstone, Simple Men) is superb as Halleck. Okay, he looks a bit silly in the first quarter of the film when he is parading around in an outrageous fat suit pulling funny faces, but once that is out of his system and the horror sets in, he plays the part a bit too convincingly. The dialogue is passable, and the tension expertly built by director Tom Holland who cut his teeth in the horror world on films such as the original Fright Night (1985) and Child’s Play (1988). It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s all campy fun.

Reviews of the film were mixed. Noted critic James Berardinelli claimed, “Thinner could have been an opportunity to examine the ethics of a slick lawyer who refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Unfortunately, questions of morality are of secondary importance to a film that emphasizes its Death Wish aspects.”

It didn’t exactly set the box office alight, either. In fact, it barely broke even. But this is another example of a film overcoming an indifferent initial reaction to slowly evolve into an underground cult classic. In a 2011 review, www.horrornews.net said, “Thinner, commonly mistaken for a mediocre movie, is in fact a crap-tastic masterpiece.”

I concur.

Trivia Corner:  

Thinner is partly based on an episode in Stephen King’s own life. He weighed 236 pounds and was warned by his doctor that he needed to lose weight and stop smoking. He began to contemplate what would happen if someone were to lose weight and then be unable to stop.

For the previous entry in the RetView series, please see here.


RetView #10 – Eyes Without a Face

Title: Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage)

Year of Release: 1960

Director: Georges Franju

Length: 90 mins (uncut version)

Starring: Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob, Alida Valli, Juliette Mayniel

Eyes without a face

Eyes Without a Face can legitimately lay claim to being one of the first gore films ever produced. In theory, at least. During production, a lot of effort was made to satisfy the strict standards of the various European censorship committees yet despite all the restraints, it still caused quite a stir in both the snotty establishment and the cinema-going public. Initial critical reaction to such an avant garde, experimental work was mixed, to say the least. Some praised the film’s bravery and innovation, while others were simply too disgusted by some particularly grisly scenes, along with the core subject matter, to delve any further and walked off in a huff.

However, as the years passed, the film gained more and more plaudits, and these days is often cited by modern filmmakers as one of the most significant movies ever made. Its influence doesn’t stop there. In 1983, almost a quarter of a century after the film was made, English punk singer Billy Idol recorded the song Eyes Without a Face in homage to the cinematic classic. When released as a single the following year, it proved to be one of his biggest ever hits. By the way, you’ll need subtitles for this one, unless you can speak fluent French.

You know you aren’t dealing with your average piece of European cinema the moment the manic funfair music kicks in over the opening credits. Nothing slow and brooding here, which is completely at odds with the slightly disturbing visuals where we see a woman driving a dead body around in a car then dumping it in a river. Even though the corpse is disguised in a raincoat and hat, you get the sense something isn’t quite right about it. Apart from it being a corpse, obviously. And so it proves when the body apparently turns out to be the recently disappeared daughter of the renowned Doctor Genessier (Pierre Brasseur), whose face had been hideously disfigured in a car crash. So severe were her injuries that only her eyes were left intact, hence the film’s title. The doctor identifies the body and has it interred in the family crypt with that of his wife, who’d died four years previously. So far, so creepy.

The ick factor increases when the doctor and his assistant Louise (the woman who had disposed of the body) return home where the real daughter, Christiane (Edith Scob), is hidden. The body in the river was that of a test subject who had died after the doctor surgically removed her face in an effort to graft it onto his daughter. Problem is, her flesh keeps rejecting the new tissue, causing her shiny new features to literally rot away. Doctor Genessier promises he will eventually succeed, and until then urges his daughter to wear a mask. A precaution necessary because although all the mirrors have been removed from the house, Christiane still catches sight of her ruined face in shiny reflective surfaces from time to time and it never fails to freak her out.

True to his word, Doctor Genessier does indeed keep trying to restore his daughter’s face. He and Louise, who feels indebted to him for fixing her own face (one can only assume there were a lot of face accidents in post-World War II France) lure a young Swiss woman called Edna (Juliette Mayniel) to their lair, chloroform the shit out of her, then set about carving her face off and grafting it onto Christiane. This is the part that riled the censors so much, and for a film almost sixty years old, it’s pretty graphic stuff. Edna later escapes and when she discovers what they’ve done to her, throws herself out of a window, leaving the doctor and his assistant with another unsavoury mess to clean up. Meanwhile, an understandably traumatized Christiane keeps calling her fiancé, who thinks she’s dead, and a friend of Edna’s reports her disappearance to the police who see a pattern emerging. Soon, the net begins to close and as matters come to a head (or a face?) it becomes clear that Doctor Genessier isn’t the only one who can come up with dastardly plots.

Based on the novel of the same name by Jean Redon This was director Georges Franju’s (1912 – 87) first legitimate feature film. Until then he had primarily been a documentary film maker, the Nazi occupation of Paris and Industrialization featuring heavily in his subject matter. Perhaps his most controversial work was Blood of the Beasts, an unflinching look inside a French slaughterhouse. Eyes Without a Face works on many levels. Scratch beneath the surface (sic) and far from being a simple horror flick, you’ll find it rife with symbolism, offering a systematic study on the effects of guilt, remorse, unconditional love, isolation, and the misguided importance society places on superficial beauty. Unique, divisive, harrowing, and utterly brilliant.

Trivia Corner:

During its screening at the 1960 Edinburgh Film Festival, seven audience members reportedly fainted prompting director Franju to remark, “Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts.”


RetView #9 – The Evil Dead

Title: The Evil Dead

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Sam Raimi

Length: 85 mins

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich

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I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was in my early teens, and my folks had one on holiday leaving me home alone. I scared myself so much that I stayed awake the entire night with every light in the house switched on. Apart from an early encounter with An American Werewolf in London, that was my first experience of being absolutely shit scared by a film. During subsequent viewings, I learned to appreciate the crude humour as well as other aspects like the kick-ass script and innovative cinematography. But that first time, it was all about pure, unadulterated fear. I was absolutely terrified, and traumatised for weeks afterwards. It was brilliant. If I had to pin down the single most frightening aspect of the whole movie, it would be the trapdoor leading to the cellar. It still gives me chills thinking about it now. I’d love to live off the grid in a secluded log cabin in the woods. But if it has a trap door leading to the cellar, you can fucking keep it.

Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little. If you haven’t seen Evil Dead (why?), it goes something like this…

Five college students go on vacation to a secluded log cabin in the woods which, as I mentioned, has a trapdoor leading to the cellar. You could probably attach any kind of metaphor to this. It could represent hell (the underworld), our subconscious mind, or any number of other things. But for the sake of argument, let’s just call it what it is. Obviously, the college students go exploring, and find some audio tapes made by a researcher who talks about something called the Book of the Dead, a book of spells and incantations bound in human flesh and written in human blood. The tapes summon demonic entities which, one by one, possess the students. The next thing you know, people are speaking in tongues and getting raped by trees left right and centre. The scene where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) initially falls under the influence, levitates, and stabs her friend through the ankle with a pencil before being locked in the cellar is utterly horrifying. She keeps pushing her hands through the gap in the trapdoor and making gurgling noises. Ew. As you can probably imagine, things deteriorate drastically from that point on and pretty soon Ash (Bruce Campbell) is locked in a nightmarish battle for survival. Things don’t improve much when he realises the only defence against his possessed ex-friends is dismemberment with a chainsaw. Needless to say, it gets messy. Real messy.

The only thing letting the side down is the quality of the special effects, which though innovative for the time, sometimes come across as cheap and tacky. But you have to remember The Evil Dead was made almost forty years ago and cost around $350,000. Finances were such an issue that the crew consisted almost entirely of Raimi and Campbell’s family and friends. Largely as a result of an appearance at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where it was seen, and later emphatically endorsed by one Stephen King) the movie did manage to generate around $2.6 m, small potatoes in comparison with the $212 m raked in by that year’s biggest hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Germany, it was released in theatres and on video at the same time, and dominated the charts only to be banned shortly after. A heavily-censored version was released in the nineties but the ban on the original wasn’t lifted until 2016. This version is still preferable to the 2013 big-budget re-boot, largely because of the unpolished, rough and ready approach. It’s no surprise, either, that none of the original cast with the exception of Campbell went on to have much of an impact on Hollywood.

Trivia Corner:

At the end of filming, the crew put together a time capsule and left it inside the cabin’s fireplace. The cabin was later destroyed (Sam Raimi has claimed to have set it on fire himself, but he might have been joking) but the time capsule was discovered by a couple of Evil Dead fans. Hooray!

 


RetView #7 – Severance

Title: Severance

Year of Release: 2006

Director: Christopher Smith

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Danny Dyer, Laura Harris, Tim McInnerny, Toby Stephens

To non-British readers this might be one of the more obscure entries in the ongoing RetView series, but its inclusion is entirely justified. Severance mixes humour, bravado, and some of the most brutal body horror this side of the Saw franchise to great effect, making it one of the stand-out Brit Horror films of the past two decades. It’s actually a British/German/Hungarian collaboration, but is quintessentially mainly due to the casting. Danny Dyer, perhaps best known for roles in Human Traffic, the Football Factory, The Business and, er, Eastenders, is a bit like Marmite. You either love him or hate him. Me, I think he’s a fackin’ legend. By his own admission, he’s banged out more than a few stinkers in his time. But as he says, he has to get paid somehow. He isn’t perfect, and has suffered from typecasting in the past, but he’s a criminally underrated actor. Severance, while probably being the best of his horror films, isn’t the only one. He also starred in Devil’s Playground, Basement, Dead Cert and Doghouse, none of which were quite as well received as this often-overlooked little gem.

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The plot revolves around a group of office staff from a weapon manufacturing company who are sent to Hungary on a team building exercise. As you would find in any office, there is an eclectic and varied cast of characters, all living up to certain long-held stereotypes. True to form, Danny Dyer plays everyman Steve, in a kind of reprisal of his role in Human Traffic (1999) who sees the weekend getaway as the perfect opportunity to get off his tits. He’s munching magic mushrooms and puffing on a spliff in the coach toilet before they even arrive (“Have I pissed meself?”). A spanner is thrown into the works when they find their route blocked and their driver fucks off with the bus, leaving the team meandering through a remote bear-infested forest. When they finally find the lodge they are supposed to be staying at, which offers very little in the way of home comforts, they discover it may or may not have been a lunatic asylum for war criminals and the ‘welcome pie’ has a human tooth in it. Then follows a wince-inducing scene with Gordon (Andy Nyman) and a bear trap, which is made all the more harrowing by the use of an actual amputee as a stunt double, and just when they think things can’t get any worse, the hapless office team start falling one-by-one to a progressively brutal spate of vicious attacks. But who is doing the attacking? And why? Surely those stories can’t be true…

If it hadn’t been for the presence of Dyer who positively excels, Tim McInnerny (perhaps best loved for his roles in Blackadder) would have stolen the show as insufferable jobsworth manager Richard. Shades of David Brent in The Office here (“I can’t spell ‘success’ without ‘u’). In fact, Severance is a kind of mash-up between that and Hostel. The humour is as black as you can imagine, and the gore comes by the bucket load. The ingenious tagline ‘Another bloody office outing’ sums things up pretty well. Suffice to say, not many of the office workers show up for work the following Monday.

Written and directed by Christopher Smith (Creep, Triangle, Black Death) and filmed largely on location in Hungary, Severance was met with generally favourable reviews across the board. Except high-brow whingers the Guardian where Peter Bradshaw gave it only two stars, bemoaning “the basic implausibility of the setup, (and) that weird, niggling wrongness for which there are not enough compensatory laugh-lines.” Ho-hum. This treatment could be partly attributed to the divisive nature of Dyer himself who has never been the broadsheet’s favourite son. The fact that we never find out what the killer’s motivations were also became a point of contention. Never-the-less, in 2012 Total Film named Severance the 36th best independent horror film of all time, and stands as one of the best British comedy survival horror films you are ever likely to see.

Trivia Corner:

Media interest in Severance was revived in 2008 when one of the kill scenes was (allegedly) recreated in the real-life murder of 17-year old student Simon Everitt, who was tied to a tree and forced to drink petrol before being set on fire. Lovely.

 


RetView #6 – Dog Soldiers

Title: Dog Soldiers

Year of Release: 2002

Director: Neil Marshall

Length: 105 mins

Starring: Sean Pertwee, Emma Cleasby, Kevin McKidd, Liam Cunningham

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“It puts things into perspective when you have to scoop your mate up with a shovel and put him in a bag.”

So says Sgt Wells (Pertwee). There haven’t been many British horror films over the past decade or three more worthy of praise than Dog Soldiers. From the opening scenes, when a couple camping in the Scottish Highlands are ripped apart by a ferocious beast, you’re left in little doubt that this is a werewolf flick. The signs are definitely there, not least the inclusion of a solid silver knife, which the couple don’t use to defend themselves. Doh. Cut to a few weeks later, and a group black-clad SAS fellas as part of a training exercise. Whilst sitting around a fire telling war stories and complaining about missing the football, a mashed-up animal carcass somehow gets chucked at them. I think it’s a deer, but it’s pretty hard to tell. While investigating this strange occurrence, they stumble across their SAS adversaries. Except they’re all dead, the only survivor being a severely traumatised Captain Ryan (Cunningham) who is full of gory tales of his company being attacked and torn apart. Luckily, they left their guns and ammo, which our boys gleefully commandeer as they were only given blanks. I sense a plot hole here. I mean, if it really was a training exercise, how come one side was given live rounds? Anyway, moving on, it soon becomes apparent that what they are up against isn’t human. At least, not all the time.

Soon after they come under attack and Sgt Wells almost gets ripped in half. (“My guts are coming out!”). He doesn’t die, though. In fact, being mortally wounded just seems to piss him off. He keeps soldiering on and swearing at everyone. A passing zoologist called Megan (Emma Cleasby) saves the day when she drives up in a Land Rover and offers them a lift. Yes, please! She takes them to an isolated farmhouse, where they hope to regroup and radio for help. Obviously, things don’t quite work out that way, and a bloody battle to the death between soldiers and werewolves ensues. Can they survive until dawn? Will it make any difference if they do? Why is the SAS bloke acting so sketchy? And perhaps most importantly, who won the footy match they were all so concerned about?

The answer to that last question is England, as the match they are referring to is believed to be the World Cup qualifier on September 1st 2001 in Munich when they thrashed Germany 5-1. The best scene is when Sam the sheepdog keeps trying to eat Sgt Wells’ guts as they spill out of his body, one of the other guys sees it, and throws up on Captain Ryan’s head. Soon after, they perform some much-needed first aid on him with the help of a bottle of whisky and some superglue.

“How’re you feeling, Sarge?”

“Absolutely fucking top bollocks!”

Despite his woes, Sgt Wells makes a splendid recovery and outlives most of the others. Must have been the whisky. Or the fact that he’s slowly turning. The cast is like a who’s who of English acting talent as we see a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Kevin McKidd teamed up with a pre-Game of Thrones Liam Cunningham and a post-ID Sean Pertwee whose character is named Sgt Harry G Wells, a clear nod to the sci-fi writer HG Wells. Throughout the film there are also references to Zulu, the Matrix, An American Werewolf in London, and Evil Dead among others, making it an anorak’s dream. Even 90’s lad show They Think It’s All Over gets a tongue-in-cheek mention. The director, Neil Marshall, went on to be involved with The Descent franchise, Doomsday, Centurion, as well as episodes of Westworld, Hannibal and Game of Thrones. If you like your horror bloody, funny, and gore-tastic, you can do a lot worse than Dog Soldiers. You’re probably never going to see another northern bloke holding a flare aloft and singing, “Come and ‘ave a go if you think you’re ‘ard enough!” to a group of rampaging lycanthropes ever again. That man, incidentally, was played by Chris Robson, and he’s a French teacher in the north of England now. Famed for it’s (very) black comedy elements, upon its release, Dog Soldiers achieved cult status in the UK, but I have no idea how it was received in the rest of the world. A much-anticipated sequel Dog Soldiers 2: Fresh Meat was supposed to have been released in 2014 but wasn’t forthcoming. More’s the pity. The world needs more movies like this.

Trivia Box:

Although set in the Scottish Highlands, apart from a few aerial shots the movie was filmed almost entirely in Luxembourg.

This is the latest installment of my RetView series. For past entries, please go here.


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 large 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, is 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 repaid 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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