Ironically Howling at the Moon with An American Werewolf in London

American Werewolf in London 2
An American Werewolf in London

The soundtrack to John Landis’s much-loved horror comedy inventively subverts the clichés of the genre.

John Landis’s 1981 classic horror film An American Werewolf in London was something of a pet project: the script was written by the director many years before but the studio thought it either too funny or too scary to green light. Following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis found himself with a carte blanche for his next project. Despite its odd comedy/horror mix An American Werewolf in London became yet another box-office smash. In 1981 it was a film everyone was talking about – particularly horror makeup man Rick Baker’s first-rate gore and the great man-to-wolf transformation scene. Landis and Baker would team up again in 1983 to zombify Michael Jackson in Thriller.

After all these years the inventiveness of the film remains striking. It is clearly in the horror genre and yet sidesteps cliché at every turn, and nowhere more memorably than with the soundtrack. There’s no scary music; instead we get mood music so subtle it is hardly noticeable and handful of pop songs with the word ‘moon’ in the title. All great songs and used with irony and humour.

The film opens with a shot of the moors, but not the foggy storm-battered moors of horror classics. These hills are pleasant and green and lit by a slowly setting sun. These shots are accompanied by the first of the film’s three moon songs, Bobby Vinton’s classy 1963 version of ‘Blue Moon’. It was recorded for his ‘blue’ concept album along with his hit records ‘Blue on Blue’ and of course ‘Blue Velvet’. This smooth, sweet, almost sugary confection stands as a paradigm of American pop music between rock’n’roll and the British invasion. With its lush production complete with subtle tasteful instrumentation and backing vocals whispering ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, this is perhaps the piece of music with the least tension ever to open a horror film.

There is a gap of an hour featuring a visit to a pub, a wolf attack and a few dream sequences before the next song accompanies the young lovers: the werewolf attack survivor and his nurse take a shower to Van Morrison’s 1970 ‘Moondance’. Although less obviously ironic than the other songs its light jazzy swing is certainly at odds with the typical wailing saxophone that usually enhanced such scenes in 1981. The third moon song follows shortly after. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s apocalyptic stomp ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969) accompanies our lycanthrope as he spends a weekday afternoon battling boredom (he even tries British daytime television), a strange restlessness and lack of appetite. It is a truly great song and a great stripped-down production with one of the best drum sounds ever recorded, and it is completely at odds with the scene. Boredom never seemed so much fun.

Two more versions of ‘Blue Moon’ follow. Sam Cooke’s unique soulful phrasing plays over the painful transformation scene. And after the heartbreaking ending, the end titles are accompanied by the famous ‘bom-di-di-bom’ of The Marcels’ upbeat doo-wop version. It is now the most famous version of the song written in the mid-30s by show-tune specialists Rodgers and Hart. The joyful ending seems so perfect for a film imbued with the love of making movies. Landis’s career went from strength to strength and many more box-office successes followed. Those subsequent films were tight and entertaining but his love of cinema was never again so obvious.

Paul Huckerby

TAKE THREE GIRLS: THE DOLLY MIXTURE STORY

Dolly Mixture

Screening at: Barbican (London)

Date: 4 November 2008

Part of the Pop Mavericks season

As part of Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne’s Pop Mavericks season at The Barbican, November 4 saw the premiere of two new documentary films by Paul Kelly – Take Three Girls: The Dolly Mixture Story and Lawrence of Belgravia, the latter about the eccentric Go-Kart Mozart, Denim and, most famously, Felt singer/songwriter Lawrence Hayward. Kelly himself is also a musician, playing in bands such as 80s Byrds botherers East Village with his brother Martin, and with his partner Dolly Mixture’s Debsey Wykes in Birdie. Both Kelly and Wykes have for many years been auxiliary members of Saint Etienne.

To say there is nepotism afoot here is understating the case, but the members of Saint Etienne have always been fans of music and popular culture, and Bob Stanley in particular has tirelessly championed indie and 60s pop as a writer for music magazines such as Mojo, as the curator of events at the Barbican and the Southbank, and via his own record labels, even re-issuing the sole Dolly Mixture album in 1995. For the past few years he has been curating a film series at the Barbican, scouring the vaults (or scraping the barrel) to find the weirdest (Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains with Ray Winstone as a punk-rock star) and most wonderful (erm…) examples of the British pop music film. At times, the screenings seem more like cultural studies lectures on 70s youth cults and are often taken from the BBC’s Play for Today series and the like. The films are never very good but somehow always fascinating. However, although appearing under the same banner, the Kelly films are something quite different.

Kelly is known for having made Finisterre in 2003 (co-directed with Kieran Evans and in collaboration with Saint Etienne) – a bizarrely narrated slide show consisting of an endless sequence of close-up shots of almost recognisable London landmarks. It features voice-over interviews with some of the capital’s favourite cult figures (ATV’s Mark Perry) and art stars (Julian Opie). It is a slow hypnotic film set to one of Saint Etienne’s most ambient albums.

Here, Kelly has been able to adapt his visual style to something more suited to the raucous post-punk pop of Dolly Mixture. Formed in the late 70s, Dolly Mixture somehow garnered some press and a few top support slots (The Undertones, The Jam) and were even signed to EMI off-shoot Chrysalis, who tried to capture the band’s punky/poppy girl-group style with a decent but uninspired cover of the Beatles/Shirelles classic ‘Baby It’s You’. Despite the failure of that and all subsequent releases the band found fame (with many memorable Top Of The Pops performances) as Captain Sensible’s backing band on such hits as the UK number one ‘Happy Talk’, ‘Glad It’s All Over’ and ‘Wot’! Their association with the Damned guitarist’s novelty pop may have harmed their career, although if truth be told there are many many reasons why good bands get ignored. The band self-released their sole album (a 27-track double disc) before breaking up in 1984. This story was told in a BBC documentary made at the time, which was screened as part of one of Bob Stanley’s previous Barbican film seasons.

It’s claimed that despite their lack of success the Dolly Mixture were influential – I am not sure this is true. If Dolly Mixture had any lasting influence then surely music today would sound better than it does. It does seem as if Saint Etienne are making and promoting films about themselves and their friends – it might be approaching self-mythologising but, hell, someone has to do it. The sad truth is that Dolly Mixture should have been influential, should have been more successful and should be remembered (and still listened to). Dolly Mixture were a great band; Debsey Wykes’s voice was smooth as Cadbury’s caramel (Tracey Thorn take note); they had more great tunes than The Go-Go’s; and certainly had more star quality than Bananarama. They could have been bigger than The Bangles.

Paul Huckerby

SUPER SIZE CINEMA: THE ART OF GLUTTONY

Taxidermia

In an effort to be seasonal we take a look at ten different approaches to gluttony from the stuffing-centric Taxidermia to Oldboy‘s infamous live-octopus-devouring scene via the heroic overeating of Cool Hand Luke before finishing with Luis Buñuel’s inverted view of eating and defecating in The Phantom of Liberty.

1- La Grande bouffe (1973)
A fate worse than death by chocolate: for La Grande bouffe (1973) Marco Ferreri corralled Europe’s leading fatuous males – Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli and Ugo Tognazzi – alongside the ineffectual Philippe Noiret, as a group of successful but jaded gastronomes taking their food obsession to its ultimate conclusion. Each wraps up his daily business surrounded by admiring female subordinates before heading off, like podgy avatars of Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, to Noiret’s secluded mansion to await the arrival of van-loads of flesh, and a gaggle of apparently obligatory but ultimately supernumerary hookers. Into a whirl of lounging, vintage porn slide-shows and cake art, wanders Andréa Ferréol’s primly fleshy schoolteacher. As the hookers are eclipsed by their hosts’ cuisine-bonding, and possibly disgusted by Piccoli’s heroic struggle with flatulence, only Andréa remains. Ferreri’s always impressive misogyny never came closer to seeing its preposterous logic. Poor Marcello and Michel: they can only declare their love in the language of cake. Skinny pink turtlenecks over seventies waistlines abound. Sadly for our heroes it was probably the additives that did it for them before the calorific. STEPHEN THOMSON

2- Se7en (1995)
The image of gluttony in Se7en is a memorably grotesque one – a massive, sauce-spattered figure lies face down in a plate of spaghetti and vomit, flies buzzing around his swollen head. The first victim of Kevin Spacey’s biblical psycho, poor Gluttony has been force-fed to death, his wrists and ankles bound with barbed wire, made to eat until his intestines ruptured, a human foie gras. To be honest, it seems somehow unfair to lump this poor sap in with the more intentionally greedy monsters on this list, but we are assured by the coroner that he was already quite rotund and therefore, presumably, deserved it. Perhaps there are worse ways to die than shovelling spaghetti sauce until your guts burst, but offhand I can’t think of any. TOM HUDDLESTON

3- The Meaning of Life (1983)
The most obvious movie glutton is of course Mr Creosote – Terry Jones in perhaps the world’s largest fat suit projectile vomiting in a chic French restaurant. Carefully perusing the menu (once John Cleese’s head waiter has wiped off the vomit) before grumpily announcing, ‘I’ll have the lot’. However, watching it nowadays, I realise I may have misunderstood the punch line. I’d always assumed the ‘waffer-thin mint’ to be the straw that made the camel’s guts explode. But having recently discovered the cinematic delights of YouTube I now understand the science behind it all: it is the combination of mint confectionary and fizzy drinks (mixing six crates of brown ale and a Jeroboam of champagne with an After Eight). PAUL HUCKERBY

4- Cool Hand Luke (1967)
One of the more bizarre but ultimately winning displays of gluttony in cinema appears in this 1967 prison camp classic, as Paul Newman’s eponymous inmate (jailed, in a similar display of wilful recklessness, for cutting the heads off parking meters while drunk) forces himself to down fifty hardboiled eggs for a bet. The sight of our hero forcefully cramming yet another slippery white oval into his already overstuffed maw is at first amusing, then worrying, then horrifying, then depressing, and finally sort of heroic. This is gluttony as rebellion against the system, even if the system doesn’t really notice, or care. TOM HUDDLESTON

5- Taxidermia (2006)
While many American films look outward at ‘the other’ to disturb audiences, Taxidermia finds horror in looking inwards by telling the tale of three generations of Hungarians who like stuffing themselves. The first character likes stuffing his favourite appendage into whatever he can, his son likes stuffing his face and his grandson likes stuffing dead animals. The first two, more comedic, acts of the film contain horrific scenes (a pig being graphically slaughtered and an eating contest where the massively obese gorge themselves and then regurgitate) that will elicit gasps and laughter in equal proportion; but it’s the third act, concentrating on the life of the taxidermist that slips over into full-blown horror. I’d like to think I’ve got a strong stomach, but this is one of the few films that has made me feel somewhat faint and genuinely nauseous, so be warned! ALEX FITCH

6- The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
In British cinema rough working-class types have no place in fine dining restaurants. Mr Creosote and East-End gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover are no exceptions to this rule. Usual social faux-pas, such as using the wrong cutlery, don’t even register. You wouldn’t wish customers like these on Gordon Ramsay. Both share a similar bullying way with restaurant staff (beating them or puking on them) and they can be disturbing to fellow diners (stabbing forks into their cheeks or drenching them in semi-digested food). They are both unimpressed by the restaurant’s pretentiousness – ‘Give it some more parlez-vous Franí§ais’, Spica advises a hapless waiter. And they feed on delicacies in a most indelicate manner – Creosote orders foie gras, caviar, truffles and quails’ eggs all mixed together in a bucket (with the eggs on top). But of course gluttony is a deadly sin and both Creosote and Spica get their come-uppance in memorable fashion. PAUL HUCKERBY

7- Stand by Me (1986)
Heroic gluttony is a rare thing, but Davey ‘Lardass’ Hogan, like Cool Hand Luke before him, is a pioneer in the field. Appearing in a campfire yarn told by budding writer Wil Wheaton to his childhood compadres, Lardass’ story is one of pies, intrigue, humiliation, revenge, and more pies. Swearing vengeance on the town that spurned him, Lardass drinks a pint of castor oil, swallows a raw egg and enters the Tri-County Pie Eat, shovelling down five whole blueberry pies with both hands tied behind his back. Needless to say the results are deeply disturbing. Never have the words ‘when the smell hit the crowd’ brought on quite such a Technicolor display of human explosion. TOM HUDDLESTON

8- Super Size Me (2004)
Along with Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock is one of the most successful documentarians of his generation and like Moore, he picks obvious, albeit clearly guilty bad guys. With McDonalds he has one of the easiest targets on the planet, associated with obesity and the never-ending Americanisation of our culture. Shock value and tabloid paranoia make this a fascinating but repulsive film to watch. When Spurlock vomits his Supersize meal on what is only the second day of his experiment, it almost seems too soon and too predictable but as is often the way with modern documentaries, the points have to be made disturbingly loud and clear. For your average Guardian reader this is preaching to the converted – of course eating every meal at McDonalds for a month will make you ill – but this is a credible exaggeration of a lifestyle that doesn’t send enough people to the vomitorium. ALEX FITCH

9- Oldboy (2003)
Having just escaped from a mysterious prison where he was kept locked up for fifteen years without ever being told why, Oh Dae-su sits down in a sushi restaurant for his first meal as a free man. The waitress places a live octopus in front of him but before she can chop it up for him Oh Dae-su grabs the mollusc, stuffs its viscous grey head into his mouth, viciously tears it off and proceeds to masticate with frightful determination while the beast’s tentacles squirm and writhe in his hand. Most filmmakers would have shown Oh Dae-su’s thirst for revenge by having him gun down a roomful of villains but Park Chan-wook puts all of his character’s pent-up rage into this brief but intense display of primal gluttony. Almost unbearable to watch, it brilliantly conveys Oh Dae-su’s equally unbearable inner turmoil. VIRGINIE Sí‰LAVY

10- The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

Today there is going to be gold.

This micro-feature is supposed to be about gluttony but being the contrarian that I am I prefer to look at gluttony’s occult, shit.

A social gathering in a bourgeois house. Guests sit at a large dining table and chat and gossip banally about their hair-do’s, sex lives, politics, business; they do so sat astride rather fine porcelain toilets, trousers at their ankles, skirts hitched up to their hips. In Luis Buñuel’s 1974 portmanteau film The Phantom of Liberty the conviviality of a typical middle-class dinner party is inverted. It is the norm to defecate socially and collectively but to eat is another matter; to do this the guests cough lightly and ask to be excused from the niceties of group defecation in order to go off and eat in the illicit confines of a special cubicle that is reminiscent of nothing other than a lavatory. A true Freudian surrealist, Buñuel makes the process of eating appear to be a socially embarrassing act to indulge in and a grotesque thing to listen to too. Buñuel really exploits the mystifying echo-chamber-like acoustics of lavatories and the bestial chomp and slather of eating.

In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about the toilet being a conduit between us and a primordial underworld and not just a conduit between us and the equally fascinating worlds of plumbing and sanitation. One only has to gaze briefly at the 1968 version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to see a connection between effluvia, greed, plumbing and terrifying nether worlds. The greedy Bavarian boy Augustus Gloop drinks from a faecal-looking chocolate river and is eventually sucked up a large colon-like pipe. But as the end of this featurette encroaches upon us, let’s move from Dahl to Dali, and close with a quote from a man more than au fait with excrement. In his diary (Diary of a Genius) entry for September 1st, 1958, he states: ‘At daybreak I dreamt that I was the author of several white turds, very clean and extremely agreeable to produce. When I woke up I said to Gala, “Today there is going to be gold”’. PHILIP WINTER

FILM GOES BEAT – POP MUSIC FILMS IN THE MID-SIXTIES

Catch Us If You Can

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 June 2007

Distributor: Optimum

Title Catch Us If You Can

Director: John Boorman

Cast: Dave Clark, Barbara Ferris, Lenny Davidson, Mike Smith

UK 1965

91 mins

Title Gonks Go Beat

Director: Robert Hartford-Davis

Cast: Kenneth Connor, Frank Thornton, Pamela Brown

UK 1965

90 mins

Title Pop Gear

Director: Frederic Goode

Cast: Jimmy Savile, Peter Asher, Eric Burdon, Spencer Davis

UK 1965

68 mins

The sixties are often considered the heyday of British pop music and British filmmaking but rarely both at the same time. In fact the pop music film in any country (or at any time) has a pretty low reputation. But with young people making up a large percentage of cinema audiences producers have always looked to tap this rich vein. Elvis’ endless stream of rock-a-hula beach parties were at least financially successful if not critically. The British Elvis, Cliff Richard made similarly successful films – replacing dragsters and surfboards with double-decker buses – while within a year of their breakthrough The Beatles were being signed up to star in their own vehicles. This was an era when the entertainment industry was coming to terms with a’changing times. Three films from 1964-65, Catch Us If You Can – The Dave Clark Five’s answer to A Hard Day’s Night -, Pop Gear – Jimmy Savile introducing some of the best bands of 64/65 – and Gonks Go Beat – a truly awful film with some great bands and great songs – illustrate this moment perfectly.

As Matt Monroe sings in Pop Gear, ‘the Beatles started it all’. Although perhaps not as musically innovative as is often thought it was the huge success of The Beatles that sent every A&R man looking for the next best thing and prompted every skiffle band to trade in their banjos and washboards for electric guitars and drums. Similarly the success of A Hard Day’s Night set many producers thinking how to turn the beat boom into successful movies, especially after the Beatles and The Dave Clark Five (followed by the rest of ‘the British Invasion’) made it big in America.

Pop Gear was a cinema release from before the days of pop videos or YouTube. It features a collection of mid-sixties greats and also-rans miming to their hits (in Techniscope and Technicolor). It holds together surprisingly well as a film with the exception of the tacked-on low quality footage of the Fab Four at the beginning and the end, which looks like it must have been acquired through some copyright loophole. The rest of the film is directed by Frederic Goode who avoids the fast cutting style that became de rigueur for pop videos and concentrates on finding imaginative ways to frame the bands. The performers are all dressed in matching suits purchased by managers like Brian Epstein (although The Animals somehow still look grubby). The performances vary from Billy J Kramer’s trademark awkward stiffness to Tommy Quickly’s irritating chirpiness (playing a rhythm and blues version of Humpty Dumpty) to The Four Pennies going round and round a fountain almost in a daze. The minimal sets are often a bit too literal – balloons and alphabet blocks for BJK’s ‘Little Children’ and eyes for The Honeycombs’ ‘Eyes’. There is also some cross-over into light entertainment with a couple of unnecessary interludes – silly dance routines straight from Sunday Night at the Palladium – and three songs from the old crooner Matt Monroe. It is not quite the swinging scene of Austin Powers but we at least get the glasses and the ‘English teeth’ (Peter and Gordon, Herman’s Hermits).

As Jimmy Savile says, it was a big year for rhythm and blues. Thus The Nashville Teens (from Surrey) sing about living in a shack on Tobacco Road or catching fish in the Mississippi, The Animals (from Newcastle) sing of brothels in New Orleans. But despite this emphasis on the blues all of the performers are white. It is notable that the only black face in all three films is a black and white minstrel costume in Catch Us If You Can. Supposedly one of the reasons that the British invasion was so big in the US was that white Americans were more likely to buy black American music if it was performed by white British singers like Billie Davies.

Catch Us If You Can features those great exponents of the Tottenham sound and the Fab Four’s first major rivals, The Dave Clark Five. The ‘Tottenham sound’ being Merseybeat with a saxophone (and also seems to be played solely by the DC5). It is also noteworthy as director John Boorman’s first film and the only film of the three where the direction is as ‘up to date’ as the music.

The plot seems to have been written to match the title of one The DC5’s hit records – although in America it was named after another equally suitable song from the soundtrack – Having a Wild Weekend. Basically, an actress (Barbara Ferris) and a stuntman (Dave Clark) abscond with the boss’ Jaguar whilst shooting a TV commercial for meat. Dave Clark was a former stuntman and drama student as well as being the band’s manager, producer, co-songwriter and drummer. The rest of the band play fellow stuntmen and flatmates who all live together in an old church – complete with a pipe organ alarm clock. Unlike The Beatles the DC5 don’t just play themselves – although only Dave Clark’s character has a different name – Steve. Dave Clark is a bit wooden in the lead role and, as with the band, lead singer Mike Smith steals every scene he’s in. There are a few poor attempts at Beatlesque quirky dialogue and a few zany antics – bouncing on trampolines etc. but it soon moves away from A Hard Day’s Night imitation.

The episodic structure takes them on a variety of adventures from a masqued ball in Bath to wild-west horseback riding in Devon whilst the evil world of advertising tracks them down. We meet some early hippies (who deny being ‘beats’) who try to get the super straight Dave Clark to try drugs. He later turns down offers of cigarettes and sherry claiming, ‘tried it once didn’t fancy it’. This is perhaps why the DC5 failed to make the transfer to the late sixties. Right there in a shed on a military exercise base somewhere in the West Country the future of rock’n’roll is made. If only he’d taken the spliff the DC5 could have made that great psychedelic concept album (imagine an upbeat stompin’ Sergeant Pepper) but instead they were playing Merseybeat (with sax) on the cabaret circuit by 1968.

Gonks Go Beat exploits that curious sixties fad for shoddy handicraft (remember Humpty from Playschool), although the gonks themselves make only a very brief appearance. I wonder if kids took their gonks to see it – although the fad was probably over by the time the film came out. It is a film so poor that even its star, Carry On‘s Kenneth Connor, an actor whose single talent is his unrivalled ability to say ‘phwoar’ to saucy nurses, seems embarrassed by the proceedings. The special effects are sub-Dr Who (in his 60s incarnation) and the story – a war between country of up-tempo music Beatland and its rival Balladisle, whilst two star-crossed lovers search for a happy compromise – is just daft. Even Jimmy Savile seems a better option, even Cliff and ‘the young ones’ putting on a show to save the youth club would have been better. It also features the worst battle scene in the history of cinema – a dance with guitars for guns and drumstick hand grenades. The only highlights are a few great songs by the much undervalued producer/songwriter Mike Leander (the man who gave the world Gary Glitter) performed by likes of The Graham Bond Organisation and Lulu.

Not many people realise it but 1965 was the greatest year in pop music history; even the Eurovision winner was a truly brilliant song. Experimentation was rampant, albeit confined to three-minute pop songs, and yet that year is often dismissed as the transitional period from rock’n’roll to rock. The recent BBC2 series Seven Ages of Rock typically starts with Hendrix and completely ignores this important era. I recently got an email encouraging me to sign a petition to get The Monkees enrolled in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. I think I’ll sign that one and start one for the Dave Clark Five (unless they’re already in). Critical reputation still seems based on a band’s ability to make ‘great albums’ (the DC5 were a singles band) although maybe this will change with the increase of the pick’n’mix i-tunes selections. The Dave Clark Five and some of the great one-hit-wonders from Pop Gear deserve better than to be languishing on compilation albums with names like ‘Now that’s what I call the swinging sixties’ given away free with The News of the World. And Catch Us If You Can is a good film (a great pop film) although in cinema as in music The Dave Clark Five were never quite as good as The Beatles.

Paul Huckerby

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews