Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them. As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them. Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind: “An American Werewolf in London.” Here’s why:
There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true. Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar: the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased). This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem. But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more. Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.
For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage: the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth. The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there. Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success. Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.
Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again. So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!