SEPTEMBER 14, 2009
If it were up to me, every film ever made would have a full length documentary chronicling its production and/or its legacy. Nowadays, we have EPK crews following a production every step of the way, allowing for some great fly on the wall type pieces such as what became Lost In La Mancha. But for older movies like American Werewolf In London, footage shot during production is comparatively scarce. Luckily, we have guys like Paul Davis to bust his ass and put together great retrospective documentaries like Beware The Moon to satisfy our movie-doc fix.
You don’t even have to love the source material to appreciate the dedication and execution of this film. In a world where you have a “special edition” of Fletch in which Chevy Chase doesn’t even appear in the extra features, it’s remarkable how many cast/crew Davis was able to assemble here. From the big players (John Landis, Rick Baker, David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, etc) to the minor ones (the corpses in the theater, various production crew), it seems just about everyone you can hope for that is still alive appears in the doc. The only curious exception is Frank Oz, who not only doesn’t appear, but isn’t even mentioned to the best of my recollection. Granted his role in the film is small (but important, since his character’s name is Collins!), but given his relationship with Landis, I was a bit surprised by his absence. Still, when the only notable exception is a guy who appeared in the film for about 60 total seconds, you know you’re dealing with a labor of love and, more importantly, a film that the cast and crew are still willing to talk about nearly 30 years later.
Like most docs of its type, the film deftly takes us through the film’s conception, pre-production, filming, editing process, and aftermath. But in a rather unique fashion, Davis literally walks us through the entire film from start to finish. His host segments are shot in the same locations as our characters, and he manages to stick to the usual template in relation to the film as it plays out in sequence (the runtimes are even pretty close to identical). So as David and Jack arrive at The Slaughtered Lamb, we hear Landis and co. discuss their arrival in London to begin filming. Given its legacy, it would be easy to make an entire film about Rick Baker’s transformation scene, or at least get to it ASAP, but it’s not until roughly halfway through the doc that the effects work discussion takes center stage, just like it is halfway through London itself that the scene occurs.
One minor quibble about this setup - the doc gets a bit clip heavy at times. Maybe it’s because we watched AWIL right before it (and I mean RIGHT before it, the Bev didn’t give us our usual 10 minute break in between the films for some reason), but I started getting a bit restless watching the scenes again. Obviously the clips are important to give context and such, but having just watched them, I wanted to get back to stuff I HADN’T seen yet. The doc is packaged with the new release (buy it HERE); I would suggest perhaps giving yourself a day in between viewings. Or, if you’ve seen the movie a million times anyway, skipping right to the doc to learn something new, which you almost certainly will.
Having never gone through the special edition’s extras or read anything more than a brief Fangoria article on the subject, I loved watching one of these things and hearing “new to me” stuff nearly nonstop. While the Halloween and Friday docs obviously had a few nuggets of new info, for the most part I felt like I was listening to things I already knew (Haddonfield is really Pasadena! Harry Manfredini literally phoned in half of his scores!), but that was not the case here. I never knew Baker was originally involved with Howling and left for London out of loyalty for Landis, or that Griffin Dunne was actually controlling his own puppet’s mouth during the theater scene, or a few dozen other tidbits that horror nerds like me love to hear. And Landis’ recollection of John Belushi’s reaction to a particular negative review is worth the price of admission alone.
As the film is a celebration of the original classic, the shit-tastic sequel American Werewolf In Paris is completely ignored (how I would love to hear the ever-candid Landis talk about it though...), which is fine, but I was hoping for a little more about the film’s on-going legacy. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Jason doc (and footage from the upcoming Psycho Legacy), but I would have enjoyed hearing from a few filmmakers (past or present) discussing how the film influenced them, even if briefly. Its impact is mostly limited to Landis pointing out that the reviews weren’t great but it has become well-regarded over time, which seems to be shortchanging it a bit. It even has its own (at least one) tribute song by Wednesday 13 (quite a good one I might add)!
But the only real drawback is that the film isn’t available on its own. Not only is it worthy of its own release, but I would love to hear about ITS production in turn (i.e. the process of finding/interviewing dozens of people, finding the shooting locations, etc). It’s an incredibly professional and well-constructed film, so I hope owners of the previous release find it in their hearts and wallets to understand that this is worth the upgrade (on standard def I mean; if you are a Blu-Ray owner, there’s no question that this is a justified double-dip).
And to Mr. Davis, if you’re reading this... now that you’re in good with Universal, I am curious: what are your thoughts on Shocker?
What say you?