By 1980, John Landis had a string of successes under his belt — including "The Kentucky Fried Movie," "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers" — but the writer-director had long been unable to get his script for "An American Werewolf in London" off the ground.
Landis had written the script in 1969 as a teenager. The screenplay earned him a number of writing jobs in the ensuing years, Landis recalled this week, but "everyone, literally unanimously, had the same response, which was either 'this is too funny to be frightening' or 'this is too frightening to be funny.' And I kept saying, 'it's both.'"
Finally, Universal, home to many horror classics, released the $10-million picture in 1981, and it took in more than $30 million at the domestic box office (about $86 million in today's dollars). Its unlikely mix of intense body horror and wry comedy would prove influential for years to come and earn the movie status as something of a modern classic.
The movie will screen Saturday night at the UCLA Film and Television Archive's Billy Wilder Theater along with Landis' 1983 music video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Appearing with Landis at the event will be makeup artist Rick Baker, producer George Folsey Jr. and costume designer (and Landis' wife) Deborah Nadoolman Landis.
"It's not like I invented something, but the movie has a lot to answer for because it was very successful and had huge influence," Landis said. "For a while there, horror films felt they had to be funny."
"An American Werewolf in London" begins with two Americans (played by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) backpacking through the remote moors of Northern England. After they are attacked by something, one awakes to find himself in London to the news his friend is dead. When the moon is first full he transforms into a frightening creature.
Landis, who in 2011 published a book called "Monsters in the Movies," noted that he certainly wasn't the first to add a dark humor to horror films. Even classic era films such as "The Bride of Frankenstein" or "The Old Dark House" also brought a dry wit to their scares. However, just as contemporaries such as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were revisiting and revising older genres in films such as "Star Wars," "Jaws" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Landis brought a modern twist to the horror film.
"It manages to achieve a mix of horror and comedy where the level of intensity of the imagery in 'American Werewolf in London' is obviously well beyond something like 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,'" said Paul Malcolm, programmer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. "It's so vivid and intense and surreal, just terrifying imagery."
The centerpiece of the film is when Naughton's character first transforms into a werewolf, seemingly right before the audience's eyes in an era well before computer-generated effects. Baker would win an Oscar for the film's makeup effects, the first time the award was given in that category.
"I had no idea how we were going to do it," Landis said. "In the screenplay it was the worst possible thing for an effects artist, it specifies that it happens in bright light and it's extremely painful. And I wanted to show it.
"I wanted to take something that is impossible, does not and cannot exist and make you believe it while you're watching it," he added. "And that's why Rick's work is so important. When I saw the movie last, I thought I showed the wolf way too much. I think I was just so enamored of what Rick had accomplished."
Landis' own personal 35-millimeter print of his 13-minute video for "Thriller," in which Jackson transforms into a cat creature as well as his iconic dancing zombie, will also screen. Landis discovered the print in his garage some years ago while moving and donated it to the UCLA archive.
The two films make an appropriate pair — it was because of "Werewolf" that the filmmaker first heard from Jackson.
"He called me up, was a big fan of 'American Werewolf in London' and he was especially taken with the makeup work of Rick Baker," said Landis. "My only marching orders were, 'I want to turn into a monster.'"
Utilizing much of the same core creative team as "Werewolf," including Baker, Folsey and Nadoolman Landis, "Thriller" was a chance for them to continue the transformation effects they had pioneered in "Werewolf."
"What we did on 'Thriller' was the opposite of what we did on 'Werewolf,'" added Landis. "In 'Werewolf' it was designed to have no cutaways and be in bright light, completely unforgiving and unfair to the technicians and to Rick. It's the opposite of the way you want to shoot that stuff. Deliberately.
"So on 'Thriller,' you'll notice it's in the dark, we keep cutting to the girl screaming, it's just the opposite. And much more like an old monster movie."
Ahead of the UCLA screening, "Werewolf" also showed last weekend at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to about 4,000 people (under a full moon no less).
Landis can laugh off the ups and downs of the film business, noting that his 1977 comedic spoof "The Kentucky Fried Movie" remains likely his best-reviewed film, while the 1988 Eddie Murphy comedy "Coming to America" was the most profitable. (Not "Animal House" as is commonly thought.) Landis is content that the work has lasted and "Werewolf" is well thought of today.
"'Werewolf' is now considered a classic film and when it came out it wasn't necessarily well-treated," said Landis. "But so what?"
An evening with the makers of 'An American Werewolf in London'
Where: Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles