I was recently directed to “Wolfman versus Werewolf“, an entry in Roger Ebert’s “Our far-flung correspondents” feature. Gerardo Valero writes what is ostensibly a review of “An American Werewolf in London” (AWIL), but he touches on a larger (and to me, more interesting) conversation about the potency of fear when its subject is imagined or unseen. Valero says that “Landis directs this film [AWIL] with a clear awareness that the things that scare us the most, reside in our imaginations, never just on the screen.” I agree that keeping werewolf David (mostly) hidden from view after his transformation was the right call– it allows the special effects to shine without revealing any zippers, and it makes for a better story. In fact, I think virtually every werewolf movie released since AWIL could have been improved if their makers had handled the screen presence of their lycanthropes in the same way.
First, consider the state of special effects in 1981. Yes, the effects work done by Rick Baker and his crew were so far ahead of their time that they inspired a new awards category at the Oscars. But not being able to see into the future, and with only $10 million to spend on the entire production, Landis had to assume that even Baker’s most realistic efforts to create a fully transformed werewolf, if shown full-body and in decent lighting, would have been read by the audience as “dude in a suit”. Instead of fear, the audience’s reaction would become one of artistic / technical appraisal, and it’s difficult to be scared of a monster when you’re looking for its zippers or rubber claws (or CG equivalents like bad compositing or flat textures).
The decision to limit the werewolf’s screen presence isn’t merely practical. Like Valero says, it’s all about the imagination. By showing only brief closeups and the occasional half-body tracking shot of werewolf David, the AWIL audience gains just enough exposure to trigger the mind into creating something far more ferocious than a costumed actor or an animated prop could represent. This is why even the most amazing combinations of CG and physical effects still fall flat today. Baker’s work on the recent “Wolfman” remake, for example, was amazingly, startlingly detailed… but was it scary? The survey says “no“. Everyone who was even remotely interested in the film knew what the Wolfman looked like well before the film came out, and even those who avoided spoilers got to see the beast in full detail before the first hour of the film was up. The initial shock at the vivid detail wears away, and there’s no suspense anymore, no mystery or fear of the unknown. Those are potent elements of fear, and they are easily lost when too much light is shed on the monster.
Every film tries to tell a story, and most werewolf movies are meant to be horror stories. Sadly, rather than being truly horrific, werewolf movies tend to fall into the schlocky domain of the “creature feature”, in which audience-avatar protagonists are menaced by a monstrous presence. In these movies the monster is only a character insofar as it possesses frightening qualities to highlight its “otherness” and status as a threat. The audience wants a clear look at the foe before it’s destroyed; otherwise there’s no payoff or gratification. Zombies, for example, are usually shown in exquisitely gory detail because there’s nothing there with which to empathize. Even if you can see the humans they once were, zombies aren’t people; they’re merely monsters, and are designed to eat housewives and businessmen until they’re destroyed by flame or a 12-gauge blast. The monsters in creature features might be frightening, but as characters they’re no more engaging than the interchangeable aliens foes in Space Invaders. We can’t identify with them, nor do we want to.
Then there’s David, the protagonist of AWIL. We spend a lot of time getting to know David as a character before the appearance of the werewolf. Much of that getting-to-know-you time is spent with the audience well aware of what’s to come, and we empathize with him. He talks with his friend Jack, he canoodles with a pretty nurse, he loafs around a London flat reading books and watching television… and then the moon rises, Rick Baker works his magic, and David becomes the creature we’re meant to fear.
And we do fear it, but why? How is this scenario more horrific than what Lawrence Talbot or Ginger Fitzgerald faced? Like Valero, I think the answer lies in how the werewolf is portrayed: as a shadowy and unknowable presence, seen only in glimpses and heard as menacing sounds from the dark. Just as David has no memory of what he becomes or what he does while in his bestial form, the audience doesn’t really know what the werewolf looks like, so has no way to associate the monster with the man it used to be. This underscores David’s (and therefore the audience’s) horror of the “other” he becomes. Other than the traumatic transformation scene there’s no screen-based connection between David and the werewolf; to the viewer, David is not just transformed but utterly annihilated. Without clear visuals of the beast he becomes, there’s no easy way to equate the likable mop-haired American with the glimpses of fangs and yellow eyes his victims see before they die. Yet we know it’s him, because our minds tell us so, and from that knowledge and our own empathy for the character, a stronger horror is born than that which is derived from an overexposure to props and effects.
What if Wes Craven’s “Cursed” had been filmed with these points in mind? How about any of the “Howling” sequels, or even the dire non-sequel “An American Werewolf in Paris“? No amount of editing or tweaking would turn these into Oscar material, but I think each one could have been more interesting and enjoyable (and less embarrassing to werewolf fans) if the filmmakers had left their werewolves in the shadows like Landis did with AWIL. By focusing on what makes the werewolf a genuinely frightening creature instead of stretching the effects budget in an effort to shock and amaze, I think the the intrepid filmmaker might actually be able to produce a werewolf film worth watching.