Almost thirty years on from its initial release, John Landis’ culture-clash horror An American Werewolf in London remains a deeply odd movie. The film’s premise is classic genre stuff; man bitten by wolf turns into werewolf at full moon, and goes on killing rampage. The waters of an ostensibly simple tale are muddied, however, by a series of bizarre tonal shifts from broad comedy to dark psychological thriller, spatial dislocation (why, oh why, does David end up in a London hospital when he’s attacked in Yorkshire?) and a bracingly abrupt ending that verges on the upsetting.
Werewolf begins with two young American tourists traversing the terrain of the Yorkshire moors. David (David Naughton) is clearly the more enthusiastic traveller of the two, with Jack (Griffin Dunne) ill-at-ease in unfamiliar surroundings, betraying his disdain with a stream of sarcastic asides, and more interested in discussing his preferred female conquests. Clad in primary-colour bodywarmers and sporting similarly lustrous brown hair, they enter an ominous pub named The Slaughtered Lamb seeking refuge and sticking out like proverbial sore thumbs. The pub, populated by a collection of stony-faced, flat-cap clad locals (including Kes‘ despotic PE teacher Brian Glover and, in a very early screen appearance, Bottom‘s Rik Mayall), offers them a particularly stony reception. After a terse exchange, they are cast out into the moors and before long, are lost. Suddenly, Jack is mercilessly savaged by a venomous lycanthrope who soon goes after David but only succeeds in injuring him. That, as they say, is that for Jack. Well, it should be, but in a masterstroke from writer-director John Landis (also responsible for Michael Jackson’s visually resemblant Thriller) Jack is soon to return to haunt David as a particularly laid-back corpse languishing in the afterlife.
Already sardonic in the land of the living, Jack becomes positively louche in limbo. In his first post-death appearance, he pays David a visit at his hospital bedside, livid with blood and with skin flapping from his neck, casually urging David to kill himself to avoid any further wolf-based mayhem, and to free him from oblivion. David can’t decide whether Jack’s appearance is merely another of his frequent fever dreams, and is even less certain when he appears for a second time, in a state of further decomposition, at the house of his new girlfriend (his nurse, played stiffly by Jenny Agutter). David fails to heed his friend’s warnings and embarks on a series of murderous jaunts in the form of the wolf (including one memorably tense sequence shot in an eerily empty Tottenham Court Road tube station).
Jack’s final appearance, fittingly for his slightly sleazy nature, finds him rotting away in the back of a seedy porn theatre in Piccadilly Circus, decomposed to the extent that Dunne is now voice-acting only, having been replaced in physical form by a particularly diseased looking animatronic dummy. The jaded Jack is now the de-facto leader of a chorus of corpses in various stages of degeneration, all of whom ghoulishly suggest ways in which David could commit suicide.
Jack is a great character for a number of reasons. Firstly, his close connection with David adds an extra degree of poignancy to the unwitting murders that Jack commits and his ultimate demise; he is giving his friend the best advice he can, but his words of wisdom go unheeded as David gradually loses his grip, eventually succumbing to a barrage of police gunfire; it is worth remembering that at the heart of this story lies the tragic death of two young innocents abroad. As an essentially comic construction however, Jack also strikes just the right note of absurdist humour, simultaneously wry and horrific. Furthermore, in our modern age of bloodless, unemotive CGI, Jack’s appearance (along with David’s spellbinding homo-lupine transition) magnificently showcases a golden age of cinema in which convincing make-up and special effects were a tangible labour of love. Dunne had to sit in make-up for hours each day with Special Effects wizard Rick Baker (Videodrome, Thriller) to achieve the believable look of a man who was certainly dead, but not quite dead enough to preclude him from wandering around the back streets of Soho for a few days.
Jack is portrayed with laid-back elan by Griffin Dunne, a New York actor/director almost certainly best known for his defining lead role in Martin Scorsese’s pitch black 1985 comedy After Hours, in which he essayed a white collar drone way out of his depth in New York’s own SoHo. His performances in these two films can only make one wonder why he didn’t make more of an impact as an actor. After all, how many films can you name in which a sarcastic, decomposing corpse steals the show?
As difficult – nay impossible – as it is to imagine now, Walter Hill’s gaudy gangbanger romp sparked huge controversy upon its release back in 1979. Perhaps the tough-talking tagline (‘These are the Armies of The Night. They are 60,000 strong. They outnumber the cops three to one. They could run New York City. Tonight they’re all out to get the Warriors’) was a touch rich for the ultra-conservative Reaganite cultural protectors of the time.
However, anyone who clapped eyes on the film would know within moments that it was not one to be taken particularly seriously. In the famed opening sequence, the gangs of New York are revealed to be a collection of preening, slender, extravagantly costumed prancers with more in common with the cast of Glee than the Bloods and Crips of L.A. or Compton. If anything, the sight of so many feline, metrosexual gentlemen should have given the NYPD a real morale boost. Over-the-top in the right way (CAN YOU HEAR ME, DARREN ARONOFSKY?) The Warriors rattles by in a flash of colour, music and expertly choreographed fight sequences.
Perhaps the least palatable element of the film is its pathologically retrograde sexual politics; the one female character given voice is a scantily-clad prostitute threatened with rape by the most noble Warrior, and told that she’d probably enjoy it. The all-female gang The Lizzies (geddit? GEDDIT?) turn out to be laughably awful at fighting, although to be honest, only the most hard-line feminist could surpress a chuckle at their shambolic attempts at scrapping.
In the middle of all the camp and circumstance, one turn stands out as particularly ridiculous; in David Patrick Kelly’s Luther, we are treated to one of the most singularly unthreatening screen villain performances of all time. With the frame of a child, the voice of a teenage girl, and the hair of Rod Hull, Luther eats up the screen, screeching and snivelling all the way. In later years, Kelly developed a reputation as a wiry, intense character actor (as well as turning up in Commando as Sully) but here his performance is hysterical in a ‘so bad it’s almost literally mindblowing’ kind of way.
The leader of denim n’ leather bad boy outfit The Rogues, Luther is first spotted in the crowd that gathers to watch big boss Cyrus deliver a booming basso keynote speech. Apropro of nothing, Luther decides to cap Cyrus, and pin the blame upon The Warriors, thus kicking the chase plot into action. In the course of the next hour-and-a-bit, Luther proceeds to indimidate his bovine, cowardly lieutenant and throw a petulant wobbler at a kiosk girl who reasonably demands payment for some sweets (What kind of hardcore gang distributes sweets to its members?) Luther’s coup-de-grace is his nails-down-a-blackboard mantra of ‘WARR-EE-ORRRRS… COME OUT TO PLAY-EE-AYYY’) and subsequent capitulation on a Coney Island beach.
London’s wonderful Prince Charles Cinema recently screened the film, although unfortunately in its bowdlerized “director’s cut” version, replete with catastrophically rubbish cartoon transitions which absolutely destroy its momentum. However, for all the disappointment that caused, it was more than made up for by the chance to see such an outrageous performance on the big screen.
Here are Luther’s best bits, thanks to wonderfully named YouTuber killpoo1111111111111.
Of Spike Lee’s myriad achievements, one that is often overlooked is his crucial role in developing the careers of some of the best actors of the last couple of decades. The likes of Samuel L Jackson, Delroy Lindo, Denzel Washington (and even the redoutable Charlie Murphy of Chapelle Show fame) all worked regularly under his direction on their road to notoriety. Perhaps his most intriguing working relationship, however, is with the chameleonic character actor John Turturro, whom he has directed on no fewer than nine occasions . Here, I have chosen to focus on Turturro’s role in Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, and how he manages to transcend some of the mercurial, talented filmmaker’s less appealing habits.
As the generically-named American-Italian shop worker Paulie Carbone (consider that Wesley Snipes and Samuel L Jackson get to be called Flipper and Gator Purify, respectively) the amazingly versatile character actor imbues Lee’s fundamentally messy (and largely quite depressing) interracial relationship drama Jungle Fever with real heart and hope.
We first encounter the rather limp Paulie as the long-term companion of Annabella Sciorra’s Angie Tucci, who soon embarks on a risky affair with her architect boss Flipper. Freshly dumped, yet enamoured with Tyra Ferrell’s friendly Orin Goode, and dismissive of his ignorant crew’s ingrained bigotry, Carbone keeps a level head when all around are losing theirs and bravely pursues a relationship with the black lady. Although Erin is cautious, there is more than enough spark between them to suggest that a bright future may lie ahead.
Whilst the film is certainly honest in its intentions, it exhibits Lee’s familiar difficulty with self-editing, as well as his habit of introducing a variety of ideas without giving himself the scope or narrative space to fully develop them. Therefore, the subtlety of the subplot around Paulie and Orin, buried underneath the sturm-und-drang of savage famililal beatings, religious fundamentalism, police harrassment and crack addiction, is not only rare evidence of Lee’s lesser spotted lighter touch but a necessary respite amongst the drama and relentless issue-raising.
Turturro’s performance is even more remarkable when viewed in contrast with his vicious turn as the racist Pino in the director’s earlier Do The Right Thing. In Jungle Fever, he manipulates his unusual features (framed by a pretty shoddy haircut) into a sympathetic visage. When he takes a beating from his friends in one scene, and pops up battered and bruised at Orin’s door in the next, the effect is uplifting. Similarly, when he virtually ignores a jettisoned, tail-between-legs Angie, you feel like cheering.
Turturro’s grace and dignity are greatly appreciated in a film rife with wildly uneven performances and laced with incidental caricature. On the plus side, Samuel L Jackson is utterly convincing and frankly terrifying as Flipper’s crackhead brother Gator. However, Tim Robbins and Brad Dourif are beyond parodic as the smarmy partners of Flipper’s architecture firm and the late Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn, in particular, as Paulie’s controlling father, turns in a performance so hammy that his rushes must have dry-cured overnight.
As in Do the Right Thing, The Big Lebowski, Five Corners, The Colour of Money and To Live and Die in L.A., we should be grateful for the shadings of a superb character actor at the top of his game. It’s a shame he’s not had more leading roles such as his greatest ever moment in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece Barton Fink. It’s a wonderful thing that Lee is able to bring the very best out of him.
Surely only the Coen Brothers could make time in such a lean, spare thriller as Fargo for an ostensibly meaningless character to temporarily derail the action so late into the film. Colourful bit-parts are par for the Coen course in their wackier fare (David Thewlis’ preposterous artist Knox Harrington in The Big Lebowski springs to mind), but when small-town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) sits down to dinner with old school friend Mike Yanagita, Fargo grinds to an initially bewildering halt.
The dinner scene is funny-excruciating. Mike’s flirtatious and frankly sinister attempt to sit next to (happily married) Marge is rebuffed with clinical haste, and before long he is wailing about being lonely, and tearfully tells of the sad death of his wife Linda from leukaemia. The two part ways, Marge sympathetic. However, it is soon revealed to Marge in a phonecall from a friend that Mike had made the whole thing up – Linda is alive and well, they were never together, and Mike lives with his parents (“He’s been struggling”). And that’s that for Mike Yanagita…
Yet there is more to this sadsack fantasist than meets the eye. In a perceptive analysis on the Kinosaur website, it is suggested that Yanagita’s interjection is crucial to the forward mechanic of the plot; Marge, upon discovering that she has been lied to by Mike, is piqued by her own gullibilty and subsequently catalysed to pay a second visit to the wheedling car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy), thus prompting him to flee in desperation.
Furthermore, Yanagita’s fantasist ways act as a subtle counterpoint to those of Lundegaard. His tragic fabrication of a wife and her demise is certainly sad, and not a little twisted, but exists in his head. Conversely, an equally perverse confection from the mind of Lundegaard, manifested in his doomed kidnap plot, makes it to reality and culminates in the decimation of his own family, leaving his son Scotty without a mother (deceased), grandfather (deceased) and father (jailed). On a side note, it always gnawed at me slightly that the Coens didn’t show us a little bit more of the tragic impact that the whole familial house of cards had on young Scotty.
Yanagita is played by the veteran character actor Steve Park, who you may recognise from his role as the spirited Korean grocer from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. He also appeared in the brothers’ 2009 masterpiece A Serious Man as the deadpan father of a blackmailing student, inviting the hapless protagonist Larry Gopnik, in the film’s key line, to “accept the mystery”.
It’s not Matt Damon, nor Leo DiCaprio (yet to adopt ‘jaw-wired-shut and haunted with a slight moustache’ as his stock-in-trade) who, to be fair, give solid turns. It’s not Jack Nicholson, so over the top here that he makes Jack Torrance look as restrained as the girl who won’t talk from Corrina, Corrina. And it’s certainly not Ray Winstone, who mistakes a convincing Boston accent with speaking Cockney in a slightly lower register than usual.
No, the man who steps up to the plate is Mark Wahlberg, inhabiting his Boston roots with utter relish as Staff Sgt. Dignam, and stealing absolutely every scene that he’s in in the process. Wahlberg hadn’t been this good since his mindboggling turn in Boogie Nights, and its arguable that he hasn’t been since, despite appealing performances in I Heart Huckabees and more recently The Other Guys.
Dignam is a solid cop, handy with his fists, and classically volatile. He’s also the kind of guy we’d all love get away with being at work; nakedly, unashamedly scathing and unimpeachably rude to his colleagues as and when it suits him. But his ire is not limited to just his workmates, rather anyone he encounters. His stinging one-liners provide the memorable highlights of the film:
“I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s say you have no idea and leave it at that, okay? No idea. Zip. None. If you had an idea of what we do, we would not be good at what we do, now would we? We would be cunts. Are you calling us cunts?”
And just to confirm Mark Wahlberg’s absolute owning of the film, it is Dignam who appears at the end to plant the retributive bullet into the head of the treacherous Sullivan (Damon), and calmly exit stage left.
Sgt. Dignam, I salute you.