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Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Post-Halloween Horror Hijinx
Finding myself with an excess of time on my hands over the weekend, I used it to sit down and watch some "under $5" DVDs I'd purchased recently, of films that I felt deserved to be in my collection, Alien and An American Werewolf in London. They're both good films (for varying degrees of "good") that I enjoy, but I'd never really placed them highly on my list of favorites. Taking the opportunity to watch them again, after not seeing either in probably at least ten years, offered a chance to reappraise them.
Now, I probably would have to say that Werewolf is the better film of the two. It has flaws, to be certain. It's better as a horror film with some darkly comic moments than as a comedy with some horrific moments. In retrospect, the inclusion of the continually decaying Griffin Dunne as the undead Jack never really works. I can see that it's a gag that writer/director Landis thought was unique and clever, but it just doesn't gell in the final film. Supernatural horror is tricky enough to pull off, and while a back-packing American turning into a werewolf just about falls into "suspension of disbelief" range, to have him haunted by zombies as well is just pushing things too far.
But apart from that, the film largely works. Most of the comedy comes believably from the characters reacting to their situations, and the horrific parts are suitably frightening. David Naughton gives a particularly good performance as a young man, cut off from his family and friends, in an unfamiliar place, who has suffered great trauma and is not quite sure if what he suspects is happening to him is really happening of if he's losing his mind. The film also features one truly masterful sequence. And while the absolute carnage that takes place in Piccadilly Circus is thrilling and proof, as if any is needed, that one doesn't need hordes of monsters to create a serious and credible threat to a large number of people, it's the stalking of the commuter in the subway station where the film truly is most successful in creating a sense of terror and dread and unease.
Somehow I had managed to see this film in theaters upon it's initial release. I'm still not sure how I managed that. My parents were fairly lax about letting me see R rated films, with horror films being the particular exception to that rule. I know I did see horror films as a child (Jaws is the first film I have memory of seeing in a theater), mostly with my father, but all I can think is that my dad heard of John Landis's involvement with this film and assumed it would be more in line with something like Blues Brothers or Animal House, and that the adult jokes would simply go over my head. Also, in seeing the film as an adult, I think I've pinpointed this as the moment werewolves became my supernatural monster of choice. Granted, as an adult the symbolism of werewolves appeals to me more than that of vampires or ghosts or witches, but as a pre-gay kid, I strongly suspect that the frequent nudity of David Naughton in this film helped cement the appeal for me.
A film I most definitely was not allowed to see in the theater was Alien. Watching it now, it's both better and worse than I remembered it being. It's better, in that it takes a lot of those elements that I tend to associate with the auteur-influenced methods of film-making popularized in the seventies; shots that are held for a prolonged period, a very slow and deliberately paced plot, naturalistic dialogue and acting, and a biting and somewhat cynical world view, and applies them to the science-fiction genre. And as a science-fiction film, Alien is definitely one of the classics. As a horror film, it's a bit of a mess. Partly that's because a creature we don't know anything about or understand killing off people with little to no personality one by one isn't particularly scary or terrible. It's just about half of a plot. But still, it's the only good film in the Alien series, and far and away better than the jingoistic militarism of Aliens.
Another thing that becomes more noticeable about Alien upon rewatching is that, despite Sigourney Weaver's Lt. Ripley frequently being cited as the premier strong female lead so often cited as lacking in action, sci-fi and horror films...she's not. Not really. Ripley is a strong character, absolutely, but she feels like a stronger woman than she really is because the only other female character in the film is the prone to hysterics Lambert. Apart from going back to save the cat, a remarkably human moment for a character that up to now has been portrayed as being preoccupied with rules and regulations (as evidenced by her willingness to leave Kane on the surface of the planet rather than break quarantine and her head-butting with Ash over protocol violations), Ripley is largely indistinguishable from her male co-workers. She's pretty much of the "man with breasts" school of "strong" female characters, an impression heightened when you consider that screen-writer Dan O'Bannon allegedly wrote the roles in the film as unisex. That still didn't prevent Ridley Scott from devoting an extended sequence in the film to watching Ripley strip. Still, given that most sci-fi/horror/fantasy fans are of the types that see something like Buffy as a deep feminist statement, maybe Ripley isn't so bad at that.