I really don’t like horror films.
I used to dig horror films. I was about to launch into an anecdote about the first horror film I ever saw, but I’ll save that for later. In the summer of ’85, when I was a fledgling, 9 year old film geek begging my mother for money to rent videos every single day, she decided to give me my first taste of film education. I could have a film a day, but I was to work through the oeuvre of Hitchcock. I don’t know why she chose him in particular, but that was the deal. If I was so intent on spending each afternoon in front of the box, I was to be getting education with my entertainment. And I liked Hitchcock. The experience somewhat broke through my self-imposed barrier of not watching anything in black & white (like eating greens and cleaning my room this is still an issue for me and launches me into a schizophrenic internal dialogue of mutual self-hatred ‘oooh maybe I’ll buy some spinach/you don’t like spinach, you’re just trying to feel grown up, you won’t actually eat it’ ‘oooh, I’ll take this film home tonight/it’s black and white, you won’t watch it/yes I will! I’ve been waiting to see this!/We’ll seee.’) I should stress that I do eat greens, keep my bedroom tidy and watch black and white films, it’s just that these actions are rarely unaccompanied by inner chaos. Where was I? Hitchcock!
Of all the Hitchcock films I was working through, there was a question rising within me. Was my mum going to let me watch Psycho? I had, of course, read about it in detail in my film books, which I treasured and pored over endlessly. I knew what it was about, knew it was a horror film, the day came and I pulled it off the shelf in the shop (Oxford Video – don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore) and handed it to my mum. She gave me a look for a moment and asked if I was sure. Of course I wasn’t sure but I was interested. Psycho was good. I don’t think I was ever scared, it was more the feeling of something scary might be about to happen that kept me on edge. When it was over, I thought it was pretty good. I retain to this day and certain honesty in my responses to films (and hopefully most other things). Whilst I believe it valid that people label Psycho as a work of genius, removed from the context of it’s era, it’s not really all that it’s cracked up to be. Yes, intellectually, I get it all, the sleight of hand of setting Janet Leigh up as the main character, then killing her so early in the film, the brutality, the twists – it’s a well-made piece but so many film-makers have picked up the ball and run with it since that as a visceral horror piece, it pales in comparison to – say – John Carpenter’s Halloween. I generally regard what people label as ‘classics’ with a certain amount of mistrust. Citizen Kane is boring. As is most of the Truffaut and Godard that I’ve seen. David Lynch is the greatest example of the Emperor’s new clothes in cinematic history. I’m not a heathen, I just don’t need to be told by received wisdom what are the ‘best’ films. These lists rarely include ‘Sullivan’s Travels, ‘My Life’, ‘Tootsie’, ‘Silent Running’, ‘Leningrad Cowboys Go America’ or…. well I’ll get to the last one shortly. Once again I’ve distracted myself and gone wildly off topic.
As a pre-teen and teenager, I liked horror films, that is really all I’m trying to say. I liked all films, really and it’s probably notable that I never put horror posters up on my wall or collected ephemera related to them. They were sordid, fun, challenging little experiences. Dad would tape some for me off late night TV, friends at school would lend me videos. I’d gather with friends and we’d inevitably end up at someone’s house watching something unsuitable. I vividly remember my first viewings of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining (we didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on) and the scariest of the lot – a little known film starring Anthony Hopkins called Audrey Rose. I’ve never seen it since – never even seen it available – and kind of have no interest in seeing it again since with age, experience and cynicism, it would only betray my memories.
Right through uni and into my mid-twenties, horror films meant the same to me as they had then. I didn’t *love* horror films or get much from them, but I enjoyed the experience of sitting with a group of friends with the mutual aim of getting a little scared and shaken up. Good times. Although I’ve watched many horror films alone, I find the experience a bit intense and pointless. You don’t go to a theme park alone and just ride on the scariest rollercoaster and then wander off home – you go with friends, you share the experience, the point of it is screaming together, creating shared memories and discussing it after.
A few years ago, I lost my taste for horror films – firstly on an intellectual, then an emotional level. I think what put me off was the film Final Destination and it’s first sequel. I thought these films were great. They were brilliant. the franchise basically distilled the entire modern horror genre to perfection. They gave the audience exaclty – and only – what the audience most wanted. For those who have not seen, the premise is that a group of teenagers – a school party – are about to board an airplane but one of them has a premonition that it is going to explode. He forced his friends off the plane, which takes off and promptly explodes. They have cheated death. But death is not happy about that. We don’t ever see death as a character – just as a force – as one by one in elaborate and brilliantly playful scenarios, each of these ‘lucky’ teenagers gets killed by ‘freak’ accidents. So, essentially, the filmmakers had worked out that horror fans don’t care for plot or character, they just want that constant feeling of ‘Oh shit – it’s about to happen!’ followed by a gory money shot of dismemberment and brutality. When I realised this, it upset me. I don’t want to be the kind of guy who gets his kicks from dismemberment and brutality – I’m not that kind of guy. Then as my teens got further and further away from me and I’ve grown to regard teenagers as – essentially – children, I genuinely started to find these films disturbing. Why is it ok – indeed fun – to show kids being brutally murdered? It just stopped making sense. how can people watch a news report about such a thing and say ‘that’s terrible and tragic and wrong’ and then slip in a DVD of exactly the same thing and say ‘this is fun! I like the guy who’s killing them!!!!’ As friends have started having kids, it’s been even more grating. When I was a teenager, the idea of seeing stereotypes of people I knew getting their comeuppance was very enticing and amusing but I no longer see teenagers as my peers – I see them as people’s kids. And however shitty a teenager may be, they deserve the chance to get past that hormonal rush and fulfill their potential. I understand this might seemingly contradict my last post which slagged off that whole generation. I don’t want to spend time with them, but I don’t think they should be hacked to death.
So. I really don’t like horror films.
But there is one that I love. In fact, love doesn’t even do it justice. Love is an emotional response, this film I love emotionally and respect intellectually.
Yesterday, I spent the day revelling in this film and watching it receive the retrospective and attention it was due as part of the Frightfest film festival in London. Truth be told, I felt a little gutted that I was not the only one there because since I was pretty young, this has always been my film. Until recently, nobody ever really talked about this film and that has always confused me as, for my money, it is simply one of the best films ever made ever. Ever. Ever ever ever. EVER. So to be sat in a huge cinema watching it, full of people, like me, who it meant so much to (including – frustratingly – Justin Lee Collins who, after having stood next to for a couple of minutes can confirm that *yes* he really is like that in real life) was a strange feeling. But then to be able to participate in a huge round of applause for the director John Landis and Director of Photography Robert Paynter, who were both in attendance, was one of the pleasures of my life. And to shake Landis by the hand and tell him how much joy and inspiration his film has brought me over the years was even better.
I use the film during some of the screenwriting courses I teach as a way of explaining the concept of theme. I ask the class – those who have seen the film, at least – to name films ‘like’ American Werewolf. I am always saddened, but never surprised, to get the same answers; ‘The Howling’ ‘Wolfen’ ‘The Wolfman’ – a list of werewolf or monster movies. This is why American Werewolf has always been overlooked. Because people think it’s a werewolf film. This means a whole section of society will never watch this film. It will be, has been, dismissed out of hand. You can tell by a film’s title if you’re going to want to see it. Just as I know I’ll never watch the film ‘Lovely and Amazing’ – despite not knowing ANYTHING bar its title, many would understandably avoid a film called ‘An American Werewolf in London’.
I show my class a clip from near the beginning of the film – David and Jack, two young American hitchhikers exploring the moors in Yorkshire have found shelter in a strange little pub – The Slaughtered Lamb. Although initially frostily received, their presence is tolerated until they ask about a five pointed star drawn on the wall, framed by candles. The question silences the room and they are told to leave. A debate breaks out as to whther they should be allowed to go – something is out there – but the boys go anyway with the advice ‘stick to the road’ and ‘beware the moon’. Pleased to just be out of the pub, the lads hike onwards for another village through the dark and rain. Goofing about, they inadvertently leave the road. By the time they realise, it is too late. Hunted by an unseen creature in one of cinema’s scariest scenes (and remarkably one of the few to capture fear so realistically – bad jokes punctuated by genuine laments) are subject to a brutal attack. Jack is ripped apart and David… well, I don’t want to give too much away.
Anyway, when I show this scene, those who haven’t seen the film usually want to watch more. But instead, I show them a clip from Alan Parker’s film Midnight Express. This is a film based on a true story about an American who tried to smuggle a fairly small quantity of hashish out of Turkey but was caught and jailed in inhuman conditions for a sentence of 30 years. The scene I show them is of the attempt to smuggle. Despite the extreme tension, he manages to get past customs and succesfully make it to the plane, but just as he starts to relax, a whole squadron of armed police turn up for him and find his stash.
At face value, the two films have nothing in common, yet thematically they are identical – a young likable American, away from home, doesn’t heed a piece of simple advice and ends up paying a cost so outrageously out of proportion to the crime, our sympathies lie with him in the extreme.
And I think it is this sense of sympathy that sets American Werewolf apart from anything else in its supposed genre. The only low point of my day yesterday was hearing Landis say how he hates hearing his film referred to as ‘comedy horror’ or ‘horror comedy’ (it is the deftest blend of genres probably ever. No, Shaun of The Dead doesn’t even come close), he claims the film is an outright horror film. I think he does himself a huge disservice with that tag. The tenets of the horror genre are gimmickry and a somewhat salacious need to see gore. American Werewolf IS gory…. but you really don’t see anyone getting killed. The gore comes not in the scenes of death but in the scenes of sadness.
An oscar was created for this film – Best Special Effects Make-Up. The film is now 27 years old and the special effects make-up are still BETTER than any such thing on screen since. You could say they were ahead of their time, well they still are. Watching the film on a brand new remastered digital projection yesterday, the effects still… look.. real. Despite the technical genius, you find that most film-makers light special effects in a very particular way – keeping as much in the dark as possible. The two biggest effects achievements of this film are done in FULL light.
The first is of these is three weeks after the attack, David has woken up in hospital in London and the case is practically closed – he is told that jack was killed, he was lucky to survive this attack from ‘a madman’. As he is recuperating, one morning David receives a visit from Jack. Although he has had the blood washed off him, Jack is still pretty fresh from the attack – his throat has been ripped out – flappy skin hanging down as he talks – and his face has been ripped into three by an almighty paw slash. Yet there he is, in full light, making jovial conversation as he warns david of his own fate. To have seen the attack in full light would have been horrible and not unnecessary but to see the effect in a calm, completely unscary scene is just kind of maudlin and sad. It isn’t a gimmick, it’s a reality David is faced with.
Ignoring Jack’s advice to kill himself, come the full moon, David transforms. Most transformations in horror films are rather quick, or shown in as much darkness or close-up as possible. This transformation seems to last for ages and we are shown the entire thing in full light and bone-crunching honesty. It hurts. It hurts David and we feel horrible for him. We feel worse for him than for his victims because their fates are quicker. It blows me away that this sequence is still as incredible to me today as it was the first time I saw it, mouth agape and wide-eyed.
Everything is just RIGHT about this film. The two leads – their first film roles – are so likable and natural. The supporting cast is made up of brilliant British character actors bringing gravitas to what, on paper, is a ridiculous story. perfect special effects, an amazingly tight and effective and tragic story. Beautiful photography. Bags of character. There is just no film like it. And like all the best stories, the simplicity is in the point of it, the central message, the moral of the story if you will.
As Landis wrote above his signature on my poster – ‘Stick to the road!’.