|UK Quad poster|
John Landis came up with the idea whilst working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia in 1969. As he and a Yugoslavian crew member were driving to set, they came across a group of gypsies who were performing a ritual, burying the corpse feet first and wrapped in garlic so it couldn’t rise from the grave. The more he thought about it, the more Landis realised he wouldn’t want to confront the undead in real life and wasn’t sure how someone his age - he was 19 at the time - would handle it. “I thought it’d make a great idea for a film,” he said. “I didn't want to do a serial killer or a zombie, I wanted something where you really had to suspend disbelief. I settled on werewolves mainly because, other than ghosts, they're the only really international monsters - every culture has man-beast stories. Even Dracula can turn into a wolf!”
He wrote the first draft in 1969, taking the element of tragedy from the Lon Chaney Jr Wolfman film, “where he himself is the victim” but the script didn’t garner much attention and Landis shelved it. Two years later, he wrote, directed and starred in his debut film Schlock (1973) which introduced him to make-up artist Rick Baker, who also loved the werewolf script. In 1972, Landis met with John Whitney, now regarded as the father of computer animation, to find out if it was “possible for a computer to help the make-up process?” His idea was that Baker would do three or four stages of make-up and the computer would morph them together. Whitney told him it was possible but the technology didn't exist at the time. ILM developed the technique on Willow (1988) and Landis used it extensively in his Black & White music video in 1991.
After hitting it big with The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), he was able to secure funding (some $10m) for American Werewolf, though financiers at the time were worried it might be too frightening for a comedy and too funny for a horror film. "The picture was an independent, made as a negative pick-up - a financial arrangement in which a studio/distribution company agrees to purchase an unmade film upon completion - for Polygram in Europe and Universal in the US. We had complete control and it was fun!"
|John Landis and Rick Baker|
To facilitate the make-up process, Baker needed the actors six months in advance of shooting and, despite pressure from Universal, Landis resisted the studios initial casting suggestion of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. David Naughton got the lead role after an interview, saying “it didn’t hurt that John was an avid Dr Pepper drinker” (the actor appeared in adverts for the drinks brand) and had also cycled across England and studied acting in London. Griffin Dunne hadn’t acted in a film before and got the role after a ten-minute chat with Landis. Naughton believes they got the roles because they were largely unknown and worked well together. “It was the chemistry between myself and Griffin,” he said. Dunne recalls that Landis repeatedly asked if he was claustrophobic without fully explaining why. “I didn’t know what that meant,” he said in interview, “until I ended up in those masks.” British actress Jenny Agutter, who already knew Landis socially, made up the lead trio as nurse Alex Price. “He’s a terrific director, for an actor and brings a huge amount of energy to a film set.”
|The beautiful Jenny Agutter, just before the fantastic Moondance sequence|
|Like lambs to the slaughter - David Naughton (left) and Griffin Dunne|
|Rik Mayall (left) and Brian Glover (right) in The Slaughtered Lamb|
|John Landis and Jenny Agutter shelter from the rain in Trafalger Square|
|Landis on set|
|Filming on Piccadilly Circus|
|Production cars held up non-film road users|
The full transformation sequence was scheduled after principal photography ended (and began the day after the wrap party). David Naughton remembers the first thing Baker said to him when they met in California was “I feel sorry for you” because of the time it would take to make the casts and moulds, let alone the full make-up process. Griffin Dunne (who sounds wonderfully pessimistic) later said “Having that thing dry around your face with those two tubes, it did occur to me that if Rick was a psychotic all he had to do was take out those little straws and watch you suffocate.”
|Rick Baker attends to Griffin Dunne's first stage make-up|
|Top - how the hand extending was achieved|
Bottom - the full body puppet (with Naughton supplying the head and arms)
|Rick Baker with one of the Change-O-Heads|
Aside from Elmer Bernstein’s seven minutes of original score, Landis chose to have an ironically upbeat soundtrack featuring songs that all referenced the moon. Blue Moon by Bobby Vinton runs over the opening credits, Van Morrison accompanies David & Alex making love with Moondance, Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival plays as David spends the day alone, Sam Cooke sings Blue Moon during the transformation and the same song is covered by The Marcel’s over the end credits. Landis also wanted Bob Dylan’s version of Blue Moon and Moonshadow by Cat Stevens but the requests were denied (Yusef Islam, as Stevens was then known, objected to the subject matter even though Landis pointed out his song is about killing and dismemberment). I have no idea why Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London wasn’t included, that would have been great.
To me, An American Werewolf In London remains a terrific werewolf film, a cracking movie that expertly blends the supernatural with the modern world, humour with horror and monsters with a tender love story. Rick Baker’s special effects are as stunning now as they were 35 years ago and even though they’re shown in bright light, the full werewolf itself still manages to leave something to the imagination. If you’ve never seen it, I envy you the opportunity to do so for the first time and if you have, why not revisit it (as I did last year, on the night of a full moon, at an outdoor showing with my friend David).
|Vincent Price and Kim Hunter present Rick Baker with his Oscar|
The transformation sequence in all its glory (with the key 'Change-o-heads' at 2.01 and 2.09)…