AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981):
Has there ever been a stranger combination of humour and horror as An American Werewolf In London? Sure, the 1981 cult favourite is best known for Rick Baker's groundbreaking, Academy-Award winning transformation effects (amongst lycanthropy enthusiasts, the question of which werewolf movie--American Werewolf or The Howling--had the coolest shapeshifting effects is the equivalent of the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones argument among music nerds). But this movie, written & directed by comedy juggernaut John Landis, hot off the blockbuster success of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, is equally memorable for its uniquely scattershot approach to evoking both laughs and scares. At times it's an incredibly gory monster movie, at others it's a doomed love story, and at other times still it's a fish-out-of-water farce. Despite a wildly uneven tone, though, AAWIL succeeds as both a horror movie and a comedy, largely due to the chemistry between David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as two unlucky college students backpacking across the British countryside. The chemistry continues working even after Naughton's David Kessler has succumbed to the werewolf's curse, and Dunne's Jack has returned from the grave as a surprisingly good-humoured walking corpse. The romance between David and his lovestruck nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) is sweet and ultimately tragic, and the soundtrack is loaded with pop songs about the moon (like Van Morrison's "Moondance", CCR's "Bad Moon Rising", and versions of "Blue Moon" performed by Bobby Vinton, Sam Cooke, and The Marcels). And, of course, there are those much talked-about special effects, which hold up to this day--the gradually decaying Jack is every bit as memorable as the famous werewolf transformation. Thirty-one years later, An American Werewolf In London is still scarier than most horror films of its day, and still funnier than most comedies.
THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS (1980):
There's a legend among horror fans of a certain age that the original ending of The Watcher In The Woods was so scary, Disney ordered it changed and buried the existing footage, not even allowing it to be used on retrospective DVDs. The truth is a lot more mundane--the visual effects for the original ending weren't completed in time, and in its place, a new abridged ending sums up the plot in a quick dialogue wrap-up. That's a shame, because this film could use all the help it can get, and both alternate endings included on the DVD release (neither of which is allegedly director John Hough's preferred ending) are more interesting than the one Disney went with. A rare foray into horror for the Mouse House, The Watcher In The Woods begins as a family moves into a creepy old house owned by a mysterious woman (Bette Davis). The eldest daughter, teenaged Jan (played by a perpetually wide-eyed Lynn Holly Johnson) almost immediately begins seeing strange apparitions, like ghostly blue circles of energy and a blindfolded girl calling for help from the mirror. She senses a sinister force in the nearby woods, and she eventually learns of the disappearance of a young girl named Karen during a seance thirty years ago. Jan resolves to learn what happened to Karen, even as the incidents increase in intensity and power. Both alternate endings reveal the Watcher of the movie's title--a kind of insectile apparition--as an extradimensional visitor who accidentally traded places with Karen during the seance, and who is unable to return home until the ceremony is recreated. The Watcher is a pretty cool animatronic puppet, who enfolds Jan in its wings and briefly takes her back to his home dimension before safely returning both her and Karen home. The hurried explanation that takes the place of this effect in the released version is a lot more unsatisfying, especially after you've just sat through ninety or so minutes of harmless, sanitized Disney-approved supernatural shenanigans.
Lifelong genre enthusiast. I made the comics SCENESTER and SLAM-A-RAMA (both available at tucocomics.blogspot.com and slamaramacomic.com), I write comic and movie reviews for NerdSpan (nerdspan.com), and I'm sure I do other stuff that I'm not remembering right now.