Bayside resident Mark Metcalf is an actor who has worked in movies, TV and on the stage. He is best known for his work in "Animal House," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Seinfeld."
In addition to his work on screen, Metcalf is involved with Milwaukee Film, First Stage Children's Theater and a number of other projects, including comicwonder.com. He recently filmed an episode of the popular AMC series "Mad Men."
He also finds time to write about movies for OnMilwaukee.com. This week, Metcalf weighs in on the 1981 comedy/horror film, "An American Werewolf in London."
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)
For a while, "An American Werewolf In London" was the most popular video to rent or buy in the world. That was before DVD's, in the long ago days of videotape, back in the mid-1980s.
It is still worth a look for several reasons. First, because it was the film that forced the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or whatever they call themselves, to start giving an Academy Award for makeup design.
Rick Baker, who had done makeup for years before and continues to create every movie monster and devil that you can actually touch, even in the age of CGI effects and motion capture, created the werewolf. He is also creating the special effects makeup on the Benecio Del Toro film "The Wolfman," due out in February. But, his best work in this film is on the decaying bodies that keep showing up to encourage David Naughton's character to kill himself so that they can be released from the limbo of continually decaying flesh in which they live.
John Landis wrote the script and directed just three years after "Animal House" and a year after "The Blues Brothers." The film is a wonderful mix of dry, droll humor and surprising violence and gore. It's a good scary movie for Halloween but it is also much, much more.
Landis was at the peak of his confidence and near the beginning of a string of major hits that started with "Animal House" and continued on through "Coming To America" and included "Thriller," with Michael Jackson. He was confident enough to sprinkle "An American Werewolf In London" with in-jokes like the use of his own kids names' in the scene when Naughton's character calls home, and an ad for Universal Studios that features the line "Ask for Babs", which is a reference to the end of Animal House.
He also has his good friend Frank Oz, who created the voice of Yoda and Miss Piggy, appear both as an American diplomat in a scene near the end of the film and as Miss Piggy in an episode of "Sesame Street" that is in the background on television.
But what is even better, from a filmmaking point of view, is that he managed to shoot a very elaborate, and maybe excessively violent scene of mayhem in the middle of Piccadilly Circus in downtown London and reportedly only stopped traffic for half an hour. Even if that story isn't entirely true, it shows a mastery of his craft and a control and influence over his crew at a very young age that is unusual. It also shows a consideration for the people who live in the place where you are shooting that is nearly nonexistent in most filmmakers.
But, there is an edge of violence that surprises me. I know John pretty well, having worked with him on at least five separate occasions over the years, and the nightmare scene when terrorists in rubber masks break into the nice suburban home where Naughton and his family are enjoying dinner and machine gun them all to death and destroy the house for no apparent reason still makes me want to call John to see if he's feeling all right. Especially when you realize that he has given the names of his own children to the brother and sister of the Naughton character and then slaughtered them in such a demonstrative way... well, it gives one pause.
Another point that speaks of John's awareness of his media is that the studio wanted him to re-team John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the leads, but John insisted on using unknown actors. David Naughton was known only for a series of fun, up-tempo, dancing Dr. Pepper commercials and Griffin Dunne, who is delightfully droll as the best friend and later as the decaying corpse that keeps showing up to nag Naughton about his moral responsibility to kill himself, was known only to Landis from his audition to play Pinto in "Animal House."
Having two stars, especially two that create their own synergy the way Belushi and Aykroyd did, even though the movie would have made tons of money at the box office, would never have allowed Landis to make the film he wanted to make. To insist on going with unknowns is a considerable risk, but one you have to take if you are going to respect your own vision.
The film holds up. It is funny in the unique way that the good John Landis films so often are, and Jenny Agutter brings a sexual quotient to it that hadn't really been present in Landis's films up until then. It is scary and has more than enough gore to satisfy me. And it has a quick, hard suddenness to some of the violence that pushes the experience beyond mere enjoyment to appreciation and respect.
Mark Metcalf is an actor and owner of Libby Montana restaurant in Mequon. Still active in Milwaukee theater, he's best known for his roles as Neidermeyer in "Animal House" and as The Maestro on "Seinfeld."
Originally from New Jersey, Metcalf now lives in Bayside.