Visual effects (including special makeup) can be “imaginative, even astonishing, but [they] are ultimately there to sell a world, a character or a moment,” writes Press Play‘s Aaron Aradillas for a two-parter about horror and makeup. “One of makeup’s greatest triumphs is 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, which became the first film to win an Oscar for makeup in regular competition. Overseen by Rick Baker, who supervised all of the film’s makeup effects, it shows a man changing into a werewolf in real time…right in front of your eyes.”
And the first time I saw this I felt mildly deflated. For me it was a time-out, a prosthetic musical number, a demo reel showing everyone how necessary it would be to hire Baker when and if they made a horror film. For me werewolves were always half-wolves and half-men, so why did we have to do the big trans-species transformation? I didn’t care if David Naughton could grow a real wolf snout and wolf ears, and in fact would have much preferred him becoming a two-legged, Lon Chaney-style werewolf running around in a snarly, feral mode and half-resembling himself. It’s all a metaphor anyway so who needs prosthetics that turn him into a generic four-legged hairball with fangs?
Landis and Baker and all those dug-in, highly-paid special-effects industry guys had to do better. They had to do more. They had to show off, and most horror fans, being the low-lifes that they are, loved this. Gradually horror films, especially with the advent of the digital era, became defined by narrative and thematic coherence getting nudged aside by the effects themselves. It was during the ’80s that effects became the films.
The best parts of American Werewolf were (a) the backpacking section with Naughton and Griffin Dunne, (b) “dead”, torn-apart and progressively rotting Dunne coming back to chat with Naughton, and (c) Jenny Agutter‘s scenes.