Horror make-ups effects so impressive they invented an Oscar for it – Drew Turney remembers how An American Werewolf came to London.
There’s never been a werewolf movie as good as John Landis’ 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf in London before or since. It seemed that since the days of Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man, filmmakers were content with cheap-looking cross fades between the actor and cheesy rubber masks covered in yak hair.
Since then (with the exception of Neil Marshall’s 2002 breakout hit Dog Soldiers), most directors have opted for CGI transformation sequences that end up looking even cheaper than the old time greats. With make-up maestro Rick Baker, director Landis knew he had to show a real man changing into a real wolf to have the audience believe in what they were seeing.
And no worried looks, furrowed brows or fading between still images either – your skeleton and musculature shifting from that of a biped primate to a quadruped canine is going to hurt. Before a single rubber appliance has even been stuck on David (David Naughton) throws himself to the floor of his girlfriend Alex’s (Jenny Agutter) flat howling in agony.
He tears his clothes off, screaming about ‘burning up’ and already sweaty from the exertion. The transformation starts with Naughton holding his hand up to look at in terror, which we then change to watch over his shoulder. After the cut it’s an animatronic hand sticking up into the shot, the fingers stretching away from the palm as he looks on in horror.
In the next shot he’s wearing it as a fake prosthetic, and hair’s already been stuck all over him one strand at a time with aerosol glue. In each subsequent cut there’s a little more on his skin.
When his back starts to reform, we see Naughton from above and behind with inflatable rubber appliances stuck to him, muscles bulging out and his spine surging upwards with a horrible crunching sound.
He flips over and – along with yet more hair and facial appliances to give him a more canine nose – Naughton now has a dog’s body with rounded ribcage and slender abdomen. He actually spent four or five hours with his chest, arms, neck and head sticking up through the floor attached to an articulated lower body appendage that moved thanks to more animatronics. Every time the crew took a break during filming he had to stay there, stuck through a floor and attached to a rubber dog’s body.
In each subsequent shot, the rubber appliances on Naughton’s face become more pronounced to show the advance of the transformation. But before long we cut to Baker’s piece de resistance, the sequence that gave the film its iconic marketing image. When the mouth grows, it’s a fully articulated movable puppet head with a dog-like nose and thick animal hair. Motors in the jaw open and close the mouth as others stretch the rubber skin and jawbones outward to show a wolf’s snout growing out of the human face.
The final shot in the sequence is a long, sinister pan along the length of the animal’s body, David having almost completely changed from a young man into the most frightening werewolf committed to celluloid to this day. The entire sequence took six full days to shoot (including several four and five o’clock starts), Naughton talks on the DVD commentary track about imagining the day when it would all be over. It was worth the effort for all concerned, not just because of a result that’s still instantly recognisable 30 years later but because few among the cast or crew would ever reach such heights again.
Only Rick Baker’s star continued to rise as one of Hollywood’s preeminent make-up artists, and in 1981 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science created the Make-Up Effects award, his work in An American Werewolf in London making him the first winner.