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.
There are good reasons why Britain is the home of the wolf.
In 1281 King Edward ordered the extermination of all wolves from his kingdom. Organised hunts had been going on for years and bounties had been offered by monarchs in the past for wolf pelts, but this was a full on attempt to wipe the creatures out. From this point on, any reference to wolves are vanishingly rare in the British Isles and any attempt to spot the last wolf or pinpoint the date is silly. A throat was cut, an animal trapped, or a lonely sick old thing died in the depths of the forest and they were gone. But things that we destroy entirely have a tendency to haunt us in our imaginations. Hollywood shoots its Indians throughout the early days of cinema and right into the 70s as a tacit admission of the genocide. They have to be the threat. They have to be an existential threat. After all, there’s no point killing a whole population so entirely if you’re not going to do them the honour of dancing on their graves and pretending they constituted some kind of threat. Like muscle memory we are forced to kill what we have already killed over and over again.
And so the howling of wolves has a peculiar place in the British imagination, wrapped up with guilt and the prevailing westerly wind blowing through the ghosts of forests long since chopped and burnt. It is an atavistic fear, for once upon a time we were torn apart by those teeth, felt those eyes watching us from the dark, detected the movement of the pack out there where the flickering light from the camp fire wouldn’t reach.
The two earliest Universal adaptations of the ‘wolf man’ are both set in the British Isles. Interestingly the first less successful version, Werewolf of London (1935), has the threat come from foreign parts as a kind of revenge of Empire narrative. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is a botanist hunting an exotic plant in far-flung Tibet when he is bitten by a creature. On returning to England, he is warned by a mysterious stranger that he has been bitten by a werewolf and will ‘attack the thing he loves most’, clumsily tying lycanthropy up as the animal lust that stands in opposition to romantic love. Although the first werewolf in the cinema feels very much like a vampire/Jekyll and Hyde mash-up and was probably influenced by Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris, it firmly establishes the werewolf on British soil and will leave a clawed paw print on Warren Zevon’s hit song ‘Werewolves of London’ and John Landis’s 1981 comedy horror An American Werewolf in London.
Watch the trailer to The Wolf Man (1941):
The breakthrough came with Lon Chaney Jr.’s more famous follow-up The Wolf Man (1941). Set this time in Wales, the film sees a distinctly burly Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr.) return to his ancestral home to reconcile with his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry becomes romantically interested in a local girl named Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), but following a wolf attack Larry begins to change. The change itself became a moment of cinematic magic as the man transformed before our very eyes and a highpoint in all the subsequent sequels and spin-offs. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Universal wolf man had no literary precedent – if not the animalistic Mr Hyde or perhaps a hint of the demon dog from The Hound of the Baskervilles. This meant that screenwriters such as Curt Siodmak were free to invent and manipulate the lore as they wished. A popular character, the wolf man would reappear in early mash-ups like Frankenstein Vs The Wolfman, and with She-Wolf of London even get a female make-over in 1946, re-establishing the English location.
Unfortunately, the quintessentially English Hammer production The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), introducing Oliver Reed to cinema audiences for the first time, was set in Spain, somewhat oddly as it was based on Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris mentioned earlier. But An American Werewolf in London (1981) quickly recognised the home of the wolf. Sure, there was The Howling and Albert Finney in Wolfen, all released that same year, but wolfs in the backwoods of California or prowling New York City seem silly and will always seem silly compared to a foggy night on the Yorkshire moors, interrupted only by a brief respite in The Slaughtered Lamb. The Americans are natural innocents abroad, similar to Henry James’s heroines. And it isn’t only in the damp of the English evening that they find the horror, but also in the grimier reaches of Soho.
Watch the trailer to She-Wolf of London:
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1983) took on the grisly adult themes of fairy tales, bringing the sexual, erotic and violent subtexts to the surface. Unfortunately, this idea has curdled into a lumpy mess of origin stories such as Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and Maleficent (2014), but Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Carter’s story The Company of Wolves (1984) is an imaginative and at times genuinely disturbing take on the wolves that plague the English mind. Beginning in present day, the film frames everything as the nightmare of a pubescent girl, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). Her dream begins with the ‘nightmare’ of her sister being hunted and devoured by a pack of wolves, signalling immediately that nightmares – as Freud taught – are nothing more than fantasies we don’t want to admit to ourselves. A series of tales told by her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) all warn of the wolf as a male threat to a young girl, a husband who might respond to a call of nature at night and come back changed, a travelling man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, an aristocrat with frivolous interest in destroying a girl. Set in the woods of Shepperton Studio, Jordan complained about having to film the same 12 trees on an obvious sound stage, but the sunless dreariness of the woods, the claustrophobia – we are after all in a young girl’s head – all lend themselves to a growing sense of entrapment. In fact, there are animals throughout the film waiting to burst out, under the skin, in dinner parties, eyes shining in the night. And so it is with a dreadful inevitability that, as the film draws to a close, the line between waking and sleeping is also breached and the wolves crash through the windows of our cottages hungry for their ultimate revenge.
Though the words ‘hell is a teenage girl’ may have been the first line of dialogue in the 2009 Diablo Cody-penned horror movie Jennifer’s Body (directed by Karyn Kusama), it was over 30 years before in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) that Hollywood’s penchant for depicting damaged, dangerous and deadly female teens began to make its mark on the genre. Previously fodder for all manner of monstrous villains, the teenage girl began to transform on screen into a character to be feared with the arrival of Carrie White, whose tormented existence was so memorably portrayed by Sissy Spacek. The ugly duckling outsider possessed of supernatural powers, who wreaked a terrible revenge on the peers who made her life a living hell, opened the doors for future representations of teen killers of the female persuasion. Of course, Carrie White also engendered feelings of pity, sympathy and lust, muddying the waters in regard to audience identification. She was monstrous, but she was also lonely, put upon and wholly insecure. The female teen killer in horror movies flits between naivety, cruelty, seductiveness, deceptiveness, awkwardness, hormonal angst and outright murderous aggression. Are they projections of a patriarchal fear of females becoming more powerful in society? A humorous riposte to the countless depictions of females being helpless damsels in distress and/or objectified, sexual playthings? Do they break down the gender barriers, allowing for identification across the male/female boundaries? They’re a mixture of all of those things, and they make for complex, fascinating ‘monsters’.
On screen, the menstrual cycle, peer pressure and social status, bullying, sexual awakening, pushy parents and good old teen angst have driven a motley collection of adolescent girls to explode with vengeful fury. Off screen, second-wave feminism, tired genre conventions, changing cinema-going demographics and a growing fascination with the ‘cult of youth’ have all played their part in teen females morphing from always being the victim to just as easily being the victimizer perpetrating the horrors depicted. Sure, it hasn’t been a wholesale change by any means; teen girls still get slaughtered by the dozen in horror movies, but now there are a sizeable number of witches, psycho-bitches and the supernaturally gifted ready to seek revenge, cause chaos and generally flick the bird to the notion of adolescent females being any kind of weaker sex. Whether they are seen in TV movies, low-budget oddities, cult hits, slashers, body horror comedies, sequels or remakes, these contemporary daughters of darkness critique, reflect and exaggerate the fears, fantasies and troubles experienced by female adolescents in the modern world.
Watch the trailer for Carrie (1976):
Within two years of Carrie hitting the screens, producers eager to cash in on the unexpected success of De Palma’s breakout hit had given us the TV movies The Spell (Lee Philips, 1977) and The Initiation of Sarah (Robert Day, 1978; remade by Stuart Gillard in 2006), as well as the low-budget, big screen offering Jennifer (Brice Mack, 1978), with all three revolving around supernaturally gifted outsiders. A bullied, overweight teen, a belittled fresher and a poor girl among rich peers respectively may all be cardboard cut-out Carrie-lite figures bent on righting the wrongs inflicted on them, but they reflected the wider changing representations of females of all ages on the silver screen. The other unifying factor between them was that audiences related to them, not to their violent actions you’d hope, but certainly to the alienation, peer pressures and insecurities they displayed and experienced. Damningly, aside from Carrie, The Spell and Jennifer are two of the only films where the central figure genuinely looks like an ‘outsider’ or someone who doesn’t conform to the idealised ‘look’ that a patriarchal media is so keen to push on us, as most directors still cast pretty young starlets in the leading roles.
The 1980s were a fallow period for the female teen killer, in a decade dominated by alpha male action heroes and dream stalking killers, but in Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hiltzik, 1983), social misfit Angela (Felissa Rose) blew a complex hole in the gender balance of male/female killers and slasher genre conventions by being… well, if you’ve seen it you know, and if you haven’t I won’t spoil it. Two decades later, in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (Jonathan Levine, 2006), the slasher genre’s conventions were again toyed with, as Amber Heard‘s popular, titular figure proved to be less wholesome than she first appeared.
Watch the trailer for Sleepaway Camp:
Fast forward to the early 1990s, a few years after Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer helped cause chaos in Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988) and Drew Barrymore, then a 17- year-old hellraiser in real life, turned up in the lead role of Poison Ivy (Katt Shea, 1992). [SPOILER] Though not a horror movie, Poison Ivy deserves a mention, as Barrymore’s Machiavellian teen, a poor white trash ‘bad’ girl, inveigles her way into the affections of a wealthy family before offing the mother, attempting to kill the daughter and seducing the father. [END OF SPOILER] Ivy was a ‘monster’ in very human form; seductive yet deadly and a cold-blooded killer bent on getting what she wants, when she wants it. Ivy fits the mould without possessing the telekinetic powers or gifts/afflictions seen in other killer teen girls, her actions are grounded in reality, and that makes for a very dangerous ‘monster’ indeed.
Two more non-horror movies, Swimfan (John Polson, 2002) and Suburban Mayhem (Paul Goldman, 2006) continued in Poison Ivy‘s vein. Swimfan gave us Erika Christensen as Madison going into full blown Fatal Attraction mode after a one night stand with the object of her affection/obsession, while Suburban Mayhem, loosely based on a real Australian criminal case, saw Emily Barclay’s manipulative single mum Katrina plot to have her father killed. Ivy, Madison and Katrina stand out from many of the other unhinged characters seen across the spectrum of genres specifically because of their age and gender. What demons push ones so young, and ostensibly of the ‘fairer’ sex, to the edge and beyond? Though the real life rise in violent crime committed by adolescents (especially against other adolescents) is largely male driven, their onscreen female counterparts still reflect the unease at this grim statistic.
Perhaps the queen of the psycho-teen females, Lola Stone (Robin McLeavy), crashed onto our screens in 2009’s Ozploitation horror The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne). A demented, vicious and tongue-in-cheek spin on teen horrors and high school movies, The Loved Ones placed Xavier Samuel’s Brent in the, very dangerous, hands of Lola and her equally twisted father. Ivy, Madison and Katrina are mere amateurs in comparison to Lola Stone, whose monstrous behaviour stems from her father’s besotted, incestuous, attitude towards his ‘Princess’. An equally disturbing vision of female adolescence gone awry came in 2012 with Richard Bates Jr’s Excision. Replacing The Loved Ones‘ dark comedy with an hallucinogenic, nightmarish tone, Excision also flips its parent/child power play, as the desperately troubled Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord) sinks to horrific, surgical-based lows, to win the approval of her cold, domineering mother.
Watch the trailer for The Loved Ones :
Though the psycho-teen females are a striking bunch, those with supernatural abilities or body horror issues are more sizeable in number, in some cases proving to be catnip for both genre fans and academics. As the horror genre evolved, the representation of witches and witchcraft eventually moved away from traditional period pieces and into the modern world, and Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996) presented us with a coven of high school girls embracing their new found supernatural powers. The high school or college is, understandably, a central element to many of the films featuring adolescent females going gonzo, as it is often their whole world; a status-conscious battleground, fashion catwalk, tangible psychological minefield and potential mating ground.
Seductive and deadly, the girls in The Craft were no white witches, but ones putting their powers to use for their own selfish, sometimes murderous, gain. A spate of similar movies followed in its wake, including Little Witches (Jane Simpson, 1996), Kill Me Tomorrow (Patrick McGuinn, 2000), Birth Rite (Devin Hamilton, 2003) and Tamara (Jeremy Haft, 2005). Tamara upped the ante somewhat by having its central figure, a vengeful witch, carry out her monstrous acts from beyond the grave; in Haft’s movie even a dead teen girl is something to be feared. Veering in quality from OK to awful, these low-budget offerings all riffed off teen girls being ‘evil’, manipulative and selfish. Ostensibly disposable entertainments they may be, but the view of female adolescents as inherently dangerous is both troubling and intriguing.
Lucio Fulci returned us to the realm of telekinesis and psychic powers in 1987 with Aenigma, which nods its trashy, Euro-horror head to both Carrie and Patrick (Richard Franklin, 1978). Comatose teen Kathy (Milijana Zirojevic), victim of a prank at the girls school she attends, uses her telekinetic and psychic abilities to control the mind of fellow pupil Eva (Lara Lamberti), compelling her to carry out Kathy’s vengeful bidding. Kathy may have virtually disappeared from our collective movie-going consciousness but Carrie White is still very much alive. To underline the lasting resonance – culturally and financially – of Carrie (both King’s novel and De Palma’s adaptation of it), Katt Shea directed the less than stellar The Rage: Carrie 2 in 1999. Three years later a TV adaptation of King’s novel, starring genre regular Angela Bettis in the lead role, appeared, and last year Kimberly Peirce updated the story for the smartphone generation in a wholly unnecessary quasi-remake-cum-adaptation with Chloë Grace Moretz, somewhat miscast, as the outsider telekinetic teen.
One of the few horror movies, other than Carrie, to overtly place the menstrual cycle as a key narrative element was 2000’s Ginger Snaps (John Fawcett). The psychological and bodily effects of the transition from childhood to maturity are symbolically aligned with lycanthropy in Fawcett’s movie, as Katherine Isabelle and Emily Perkins’s sisters discover that ‘the curse’ is worse than they could possibly have imagined. More bodily horrors were experienced in Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth (2007) and the movie which kicked off this piece, Jennifer’s Body. A teen with vagina dentata in Lichtenstein’s comedy-horror and a possessed cheerleader in the Cody-Kusama movie cut a bloody swathe through their respective male gene-pools as sexual dominance and appetites, high school cliques, gender stereotypes and adolescent anxieties played out in both films in bloody, graphic fashion.
Watch the trailer for Teeth:
In a world where ever younger females are bombarded by ‘ideal’ body images by an unscrupulous media, social media sits in ever more savage judgement and society’s corrosive fascination with youth continues, these slices of pop culture remain pertinent and provocative. If hell is a teenage girl, then society as a whole has made her that way, and the movies in which teen girls go loco do a good job of reminding us of that.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews