An American Werewolf at FrightFest

FrightFest 2009 at the Empire, Leicester SquareIt’s Friday afternoon at the Empire in London’s Leicester Square. A few days ago, the billboard out front declared that the venue was home to Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince, but now… well, it’s all gone a bit X-certificate. A Nazi demon prowls the crowded foyer looking for victims, while the gathered clientele are dressed to kill, a variety of horror-themed T-shirts literally rubbing shoulders as they wait for the theatre doors to open.

The occasion is Film4’s FrightFest, which has taken over the Empire 1, the capital’s biggest non-IMAX cinema screen, for its annual five-day festival of blood and terror. Today sees the world premiere of the remastered An American Werewolf In London, ahead of its 28 September release on Blu-ray. The film’s writer and director, John Landis, is here to introduce it and, afterwards, field questions from the assembled throng.

First, though, the brand new making-of, Beware The Moon, has its premiere – its UK one, at least (a slightly longer cut was screened last year in Pittsburgh). This exhaustive 98-minute documentary started life as a fan project. Its roots show as director Paul Davis self-consciously talks to camera while visiting locations, but once the interviews kick in the film transcends its origins. It’s well shot and edited, employing a structure that dissects American Werewolf in sequence, giving a satisfyingly complete picture of Landis’s film, from David and Jack’s arrival on the moors, through the astonishing daylight transformation, to the climactic carnage in Piccadilly (amazingly, the bus stunt took just two minutes to clear up).

John Landis interviewed for TV at FrightFest 2009Most of the surviving cast are interviewed (all the leads), plus the director and assorted crew, including make-up/effects man Rick Baker. Some of the anecdotes are familiar from the original American Werewolf DVD, but that’s only to be expected – facts are facts, after all. So often, making-ofs are cobbled together bags of not very much. With its refreshing respect for the viewer, Beware The Moon is an example of how to do the job right.

And so to the main event: John Landis takes to the stage to introduce the remastered version of his 1981 movie. I met Landis briefly at the 2008 London Film & Comic Con. I was delighted by his real-life demeanour, which matched the enthusiastic and highly animated personality I’d seen in various documentaries over the years.

Though he was a guest at the event, he was clearly there as a punter too, using his time away from the signing desk to wander around and soak up the atmosphere. To steal a line from Tod Browning’s Freaks, Landis is “one of us” – and we look after our own. The applause that greets his arrival on the Empire stage is phenomenal.

David Naughton in An American Werewolf In LondonI first saw An American Werewolf In London in the mid-1980s, when I was a young teen. I was captivated by the film; I’d never seen anything quite like it, and I still find it difficult to accurately describe its tone to the uninitiated. The film is scary, truly earning its shock moments, and funny, yet as Landis quite rightly says (today, as well as down the years), it’s no mere ‘comedy horror’. The humour, says the director, was woven into the screenplay to help the viewer suspend disbelief.

One member of today’s FrightFest crowd says that the comedy “underscores” the horror, which I think describes the effect beautifully. It’s a naturalistic, often dark, humour that allows the audience a release of tension without reminding them that, actually, this is just a film and there’s no need to, y’know, care about its characters. It’s a long way from Saturday The 14th, a horror spoof that was released the same year.

John Landis talks to the press at FrightFest 2009Even as a gore-hungry 14-year-old, I was struck by American Werewolf’s tragic elements: the diseased David facing the choice between ending his own life and taking others’. The heartbreaking scene in the phone box, as he calls his kid sister to say “I love you”, before holding a knife to his wrist and wrestling with his survival instinct, sums up his marble-loosening predicament with admirable efficiency. Despite its fantastical elements – walking corpses, Nazi demons et al – the film is affecting as a human drama, resonating far beyond its (admittedly wonderful) make-up and effects.

Landis says that he hopes today’s presentation of An American Werewolf In London looks as good as the one he’s seen on Blu-ray, though he acknowledges that “the projectionist always has the final cut”. It must be a relief for him to see a clean, clear, vibrant picture up on the Empire screen. There’s no doubt about it – the film looks amazing. Unfortunately, the lip sync is slightly out.

For a while, I think I’m imagining it, but then Brian Glover tells his “remember the Alamo” joke and his mouth movements bear very little resemblance to what he’s actually saying. Thankfully, it only lasts a few seconds and the film continues to play, for the most part, with the sound just a few frames out of sync. It’s easy enough to ignore (especially for a crowd raised on dubbed Italian movies), and it’s perhaps imperceptible to some, but it still blots what should be a flawless presentation.

Signed poster for An American Werewolf In LondonThere’s no mention of the problem afterwards, as Landis again takes to the stage, along with a collection of crew that worked on the film, to answer questions. The only cast member to make it along is Linzi Drew, who plays Brenda Bristols in See You Next Wednesday, the blue movie (as we used to call them) glimpsed during the Piccadilly porno theatre scenes.

Landis works the stage like a theatre pro, discussing everything from aspect ratios to Michael Jackson, before declaring that he’ll be in the foyer to sign stuff and will then be hanging out at FrightFest to watch movies, adding with typical humorous candour: “Please leave me the fuck alone!”

I join the signing queue, get the splendid poster you see pictured, and then leave John Landis “the fuck alone”. If there’s a full moon tonight, things could get hairy.

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