#6 Film in Light and Motion : Watching American Werewolf in London, at aged six.
I could have been about 6 years old when I bought or was given a book called “Tricks of the Trade”. This was a massive hard-back book, filled with pictures and write-ups chronicling the most prominent advancements in movie making history to date. The subjects in the book covered industrial light and magic, puppetry, movie make-up FX and stunt work: how certain feats were achieved. It highlighted the string work of superman, the matt pass and motion camera movement of the meridian falcon from Star Wars to the ingenuity of the shark in Jaws.
What caught my eye however was the movie make-up part. The wolf head coming out of the man’s face in Company of Wolves, the zombie’s of the living dead, and all those other movie-cousins that followed into the world of gore-flicks. I focused on one piece about American Werewolf in London. Yes, you must know what I’m talking about already: the Rick Baker practical make-up magic that was the full body werewolf transformation.
I studied the book and wanted too much to see these effects on screen. After hearing so much about it, I was not fazed. It didn’t bother me to see all the gore because I knew what went into it: a lot of gloop, latex, fake blood, mechanical engineering etc… plus, all this stuff was beyond the realms of reality. It was gore-ifically wonderful and I wanted to see it for myself.
Having memorized my Dad’s video collection — which were organised in an elegant library of numbered volumes — I knew he had American Werewolf in there. I knew the number, even knew where it was positioned on the tape. Yes, I was that kind of child who obsessively took notice of little details but couldn’t hold a phone number or a birthday without writing it down.
I asked the all important question.
‘Dad, can I watch American Werewolf in London, pleeeeeeeese?’
I don’t exactly remember his reaction, but I don’t think it took him many moments to give the appropriate answer for a 6 year old asking to watch an 18 certificate movie.
‘No, you’re too young.’ Would have been the — no argument — answer, and no discussion was needed. I don’t think I asked again for I knew I would watch it eventually. I was a sneaky kid… right Pops?
Every morning, especially at weekends when people slept in a little longer, I would head down and watch my daily dose of cartoons (which I recorded in the week because I didn’t want to watch everything when it was told to me by the TV guide.) This particular morning, I wasn’t thinking Thundercats or Mysterious Cities of Gold, I was thinking, John Landis 1982 classic horror comedy, “American Werewolf in London.”
I raced through it with the fast forward button, stopping it when I saw something gruesome; I knew I had to take a peek, see what it was… and in the back of my mind, I remember thinking, glue, paint, latex… its not real… and I believed it, even though I couldn’t watch it for very long. It was make to look pretty real. Jack the dead zombie made his first appearance, very fleshed out, literally, but I remember seeing that the pieces of ripped off face were all wobbly, like plastic and seemed to make his face bigger, somewhat lumpy.
I kept my ear out for movement upstairs as I skipped through, waiting to see the transformation. I saw something very interesting to do with our protagonist and the female nurse in the shower, together, but seeing that it wasn’t in the “Tricks of the Trade” book I moved on.
Finally, I heard Bad Moon Rising, which was referenced in the book. I had the book open and I watched, quite soberly, without fear as the different stages of werewolf transformation took place. It was magic, but I was looking at it from the other side. In that moment, I knew that each cut away was a different setup, maybe even a different day. I knew it had taken weeks to perfect the stretching of the hands, the breaking out of the back legs, and the forcing of material to create the snout and fangs, and not always did it work out right, but the final cut of the movie, I was amazed. What’s more, I felt good knowing it was just make-up.
From that moment, I rewound the tape, put it back into the case and switched to cartoons. In my mind I was excited about the process of movie making. What I do not know however is why I didn’t get into the make-up artist side of things. I guess not having the materials in your own home, and most of that stuff was for eating! Maybe it just never occurred to me that I could do this, afterall, it was from a world far away from the quaint countryside where I grew up.
What this did was put me in a place of wanting to know all about the production side of movie making. I became fascinated by actors, directors, writers, and I read-up on as much as I could. Never am I simply content to just watch a movie and just leave it at that. I learnt through acting classes, through film-classes; all those assignments in media production courses that made you think about the mechanics, the construct, and the deliberate deception of creative motion picture art.
It was magnificent back then, and it is just as fascinating now. Of course, with the dawn of the information and then the digital age, most artists put out behind the scenes material on DVD’s, place commentaries and podcasts discussing their craft in detail. In a way, for people like me, it’s a great thing to get an insider glimpse of the creative process. Back in the 90’s we pretty much figured things out on our own and get yourself into the library and find that tiny, undervalued film section. If it hadn’t been for a special selection of books, such as Tricks of the Trade, Hollywood through the ages, “When the Lion Roars”, and monthly subscription to Empire magazine, I would never have even cared how many takes it took to make a werewolf come to life on the silver screen.
- Stephen Radford
American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)
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