The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of Body Heat.
There’s a kind of freedom that comes in knowing you're about to die. A lack of fear. Once you’ve finally accepted that your number is up, a strange sort of detachment comes over you. I’ve always been a pretty apathetic fellow, but I’d never experienced anything like what I felt standing in that alleyway, staring down the barrel of a .38, two fresh corpses sprawled on the grimy ground beside me, knowing full well that my next breath would be my last. I found that I didn’t give a damn about anyone or anything anymore. Not only that, but I’d lost my ability to B.S. There's no deceit in death. A man who lies to save his own skin does so because he still thinks there’s a chance he’ll live. A man who resigns himself to his fate cannot lie. So, in those last few moments of my life, as I reflected back on the twisted course of events that led me there, I knew it was the absolute truth.
It all started two days ago. It was a hot August evening in the city. I sat in my chair watching the ceiling fan spin, which did nothing to cool things off. It just blew the hot air around. The Venetian blinds in my window cast long shadows across my desk where a nearly empty bottle of bourbon sat comfortably next to an empty shot-glass. I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was almost closing time. Suddenly the door to my office opened and a tall, thin brunette dressed to the nines strolled in and closed the door behind her. “Are you Joe Cannon?” she asked.
“If I’m not, then one of us in the wrong office,” I said indicating the name on the door window that clearly read "JOSEPH CANNON: PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR." She sat down in the chair in front of my desk and crossed her legs giving me a swell view of them. "So, what can I do for you, Miss…?"
“My name isn't important. What matters is that I need your help. I would like to hire you to find…" she hesitated, took a deep breath and said, “…a movie.”
“I need you to help me find a movie.” Now, in all the years I’d been a snoop, I never had a request like this. I’ve educated various women in the extracurricular activities of their husbands. I’ve helped locate missing persons. I’d even tracked down and fingered the occasional blackmailer, thief or murderer, but finding a movie? That was a new one.
“Not my line of work, doll,” I uttered. “Why don’t you try Blockbuster? There’s one down the street.”
“It closed down,” she said. I really need to get out more, I thought. “Besides, I know precisely what movie it is I’m looking for. All I need is a name. I caught it late one night on cable many years ago. I thought it was an excellent example of that genre known as film noir. It involved a man who had fallen in love with a dangerous blonde. Together they plotted to kill her husband but after the deed is done, he starts to suspect that she’s just using him for her own selfish purposes and —”
“I know that film,” I interjected. “It’s Double Indemnity.”
She shook her head. “No, that’s not it. I’m familiar with that film too and although it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was used as a source of inspiration given the many similarities, the film I’m looking for has some distinct differences. First of all, Double Indemnity was made in the '40s and is in black and white. My film was made in the '80s and is in color. The protagonist of Double Indemnity is an insurance salesman while the protagonist of my film is a lawyer. That one is set in Los Angeles while my film takes place in Florida in the middle of an intense heat wave. In fact, because of that I believe the title has something to do with ‘heat’ or ‘hot’… also because it’s a very sexy film. There are several love scenes that are quite erotic, though it never crosses the line into becoming pornographic. There is some nudity, but far more is implied than displayed. Whoever made it knows that the most powerful tool in making something appear sexy is the audience’s imagination.” She suddenly stopped talking, a little embarrassed that she’d just gone on for two minutes about this mysterious film. “Please, I have to find it. It means a great deal to me. I was told that if anyone could help me, you could.”
I was about to tell her that I had better things to do than help some needy broad (who wouldn't even give me her name) track down some random flick she’d had a late-night fling with years earlier, but there was something about her eyes that grabbed me: a look of desperation in them that I couldn’t shake. That’s when I made a mistake that you never make in my line of work. For the first time in a long time, I felt sorry for a client. I told her I’d help her out. Her face lit up. As I discussed my pay, she jotted down some more information on a scrap of paper (along with a number where I could reach her) which she handed to me. She rose and sauntered to the door. “Thank you, Mr. Cannon,” she said looking over her shoulder with a smile.
"Call me Joe," I said. "What do I call you?"
"I'm known to my friends as 'The Siren.'"
So, a Greek mythological creature hired me to find a movie. I guess I'd had weirder cases. I decided to start with my old Army buddy Matt Zoller Seitz. Matt was such a film freak that he had forgotten more about movies than I would ever know. The next day I called his workplace. He wasn’t there, but his office told me where I could find him. I caught up with Matt at a local park playing with his kids. He was pushing one of them in a swing when he saw me coming toward him and smiled. “Joe,” he said holding out his hand as I approached him. “It’s been a while. What’s new? You still in the gumshoe business?"
I shook his hand. “Still. In fact, I’m on a case right now. I’m looking for a movie.”
“Well, I’m your man. What do you got?”
“It’s film noir. Story involves some sap who gets mixed up with the wrong dame. Together they kill her husband and then things start to go bad for him.”
“Sounds like Double Indemnity. Released in 1944. Directed by Billy Wilder.”
“Nah, this one’s more recent,” I said pulling out my notepad and looking at the details The Siren gave me. I told Matt that this film was made in the '80s. I mentioned it featured William Hurt as the sap, Kathleen Turner (in her first movie role) as the voluptuous vixen he falls for, the late great Richard Crenna played her husband, J.A. Preston was the investigating cop, Ted Danson (in what apparently was one of his best performances) portrayed a sleazy rival lawyer who is always dancing wherever he goes and a very young Mickey Rourke was an explosives expert. I went on about what the lady had told me regarding the film’s visual style: how the camera could glide with confidence and grace but also know precisely when to let it rest in a static shot. As I read more and more details off, I noticed Matt’s smile slowly fade away. It was replaced by a look of concern. He was clearly getting uncomfortable. “I…uh, I don’t know that one. Sorry. It just doesn’t ring a bell.”
“You not knowin’ a flick? That doesn’t sound like you, Matt.”
“Well, I guess you can’t know ‘em all, huh?” he said wiping the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta take the kids home.”
“What’s wrong, Matt?”
“Nothing. Just…let this one go, Joe. Let it go.”
Matt’s warning echoed in my head as I drove all over town talking to other friends of mine who happened to know a lot about movies. Everywhere I went I got the same answer. They didn’t know. Of course, I knew they were lying. They did know and they weren’t talking. They were scared. Someone had put the fear of God into them, but who? And why? As the evening rolled in, I was no closer to finding this flick than I was to finding Nick Jonas’ talent. I decided to try the local library. Not only did they have a very extensive collection of movies to check out, but I happened to know a girl who worked there. Her name was Sheila O’Malley. She was a blonde, bookish type with whom I’d had a thing going a while ago, but she wanted more so I got out while the getting was good. Since then she’d had a string of casual boyfriends, but I still think she was waiting for me to come to my senses again and I was able to use that sometimes to my advantage. I caught up with her as she was getting ready to lock up. “Well, look at what the cat dragged in.” she said smiling wryly. “What brings you here, Joe?” I told her everything I knew about the movie and she agreed to help me out, for old time’s sake. She typed the information into her computer database. “Ah, yes. Here we go. The film you’re looking for is called Body Heat. It was released on August 28, 1981 and was written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan. He’s the guy who wrote the screenplays to Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. He later went on to direct The Big Chill, Silverado and Mumford, but Body Heat was his first film.”
“Yeah, fascinating," I said suppressing a yawn. "Do you have it?”
“As a matter of fact, we do.” She led me to the area where they kept their movies. As she looked through the numerous rows of plastic cases for it, I decided to ask her if she had ever seen the film herself and if so what she thought of it. “Oh, sure. I saw it a long time ago. I quite liked it. I remember thinking that the music in particular was very good. John Barry, the fella responsible for such great scores as Midnight Cowboy, Somewhere in Time and many of the James Bond films, wrote a very lush, sensual jazz score. It captured the steamy essence of the story quite effectively I thought. In fact, it’s one of his best scores.” She stopped and looked off nostalgically. "I can still hear that sultry sax solo playing over those opening credits." I cleared my throat, she snapped out of it, pulled out a case with an image of a mustached guy and a hot blonde dressed in white on the cover. “Here we go.” She opened it and her brow suddenly furled. “Well, that’s strange. It’s not in here.”
“What?” I asked.
“It should be here, but it’s not. There’s no movie in the case. Someone stole it.”
This just gets more and more bizarre, I thought. “Something’s going on here, Sheila. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t feel right. Can you tell me who the last person was to check it out?”
“Sure.” She led me back to her computer where she looked up the film’s rental history. “Someone named Ross Ruediger.” I thanked her and headed for the door. “What are you getting’ yourself into here, Joe?” she called out to me. I pretended not to hear.
So, I had a title and I had a name. I decided to pay a visit to this Ruediger fellow and see what he knew. I found his address in the phone book and the following morning showed up at his home. It was a nice suburban house with a perfectly mowed lawn and a white picket fence. As I approached the front door, I noticed that it was slightly open. I drew my piece and cautiously entered. The living room had been ransacked. Someone was looking for something. Chairs were overturned, couch pillows were cut to bits and dozens of opened movie cases were spread out all over the floor. It was quite the collection: L.A. Confidential, Brick, Devil in a Blue Dress, The Long Goodbye and many more. What was most striking about this residence, however, was the dead body lying face-up in the middle of the floor. He looked like he had been shot in the chest. I leaned over, pulled out his wallet and checked his I.D. It was Ross. There was very little else in the wallet aside from a couple bucks, a library card and a scrap of paper with some random letters and numbers that looked like they'd been scrawled hurriedly on it: "D.B. 5552314 82881." I pocketed the cash and the paper, rose to my feet and made my way to the kitchen. Unlike the living room it was immaculate. The floor had been swept, the counters were clean and there were healthy potted plants everywhere throughout it. Suddenly something hit me over the head. I fell forward and everything went black.
When I woke up, my ears were ringing like the national anthem and my head felt like it had gone 12 rounds with Tyson. How long had I been out? I opened my eyes and found myself staring up into the faces of two of my least favorite people in the world: Lt. Dennis Cozzalio and Sgt. Jim Emerson of the police department.
“Hey, sleeping beauty. Welcome back to the land of the living,” Cozzalio said. Together, the two of them picked me up and threw me into a chair next to a small table in the middle of the kitchen. They told me that when they received a call from some neighbor who heard a gunshot in this house, they never expected to find me here. They then proceeded to ask me a series of questions in rapid succession, each one taking a turn. It was like watching a tennis match — and I was the ball. I told them everything I knew but decided it was wise to leave out a few little things, such as the truth. Cozzalio wasn’t buying my yarn.
“That’s some story,” he said rolling his eyes. “If I ever enter a fiction-writing contest I’ll have to remember it.”
“Now, why would I lie?”
“To protect your client maybe. Tall, thin brunette. Goes by the nickname 'The Siren?'” I froze. How did he know about her? Cozzalio pulled out my notepad. "It was found on the floor next to you. What's this Siren want with you? And what does it have to do with all these details about some neo-noir movie?"
"You know I can't tell you about what goes on between me and a client, Lieutenant."
"Well, you're not going to be doing her any good by keeping quiet. We just got a call that her body was found in her apartment across town. Looks like she was plugged with a .38.”
“Same weapon it seems was used on Mr. Ruediger here,” Emerson added.
"So, you see, Cannon," Cozzalio continued. "This is a double homicide. Somehow you’re connected to both of them and you damn sure know more than you’re tellin’ me. So, give…or am I gonna have to haul you in on suspicion of murder.”
He was bluffing. “Oh, come on, Lieutenant. You think I came in here, popped this guy and then decided to take a nap until you boys showed up?”
“Then give us something, Cannon.” Emerson barked. “What can you tell us about this Ross Ruediger?”
“He liked neo-noir?” I joked. Cozzalio wasn't amused. Emerson looked confused.
“What’s neo-noir?” he asked.
Cozzalio turned to him. “Neo-noir is a term used to describe a recent sub-genre of movies that attempt to replicate many of the same elements seen in classic examples of film noir from the '30s, '40s and the '50s. Some have said that noir was a genre distinctive to a particular historical era of cinema. Others have said that the genre is more defined by its content (style, themes, etc). Neo-noir tries to imitate the form, if not perhaps the function, of traditional noir and sometimes it’s highly successful, as it was in Chinatown. Other times, such as The Black Dahlia…well, not so much.”
“Can I go now?” I asked. Cozzalio glared at me. He knew he had nothing he could hold me on.
“Don’t leave town,” he snarled.
So, The Siren was dead. Probably shot by the same gun that killed Ruediger. What was going on? What was so important about this movie? I walked the streets trying to figure it all out, but my head hurt. I stopped at a drugstore a block from my office and bought an ice pack. My head was still throbbing as I trudged up to the stairs to my office. Before I could get my key in the lock, the door flew open and a hand pulled me in and threw me to the floor. “Good evening, Mr. Cannon,” a polite but sinister voice said. I looked up and saw a small, extremely well-groomed man in a suit that cost more than a year’s worth of my rent sitting in my chair with his feet up on my desk. I wasn’t sure how, but there was something familiar about him. “I hope you don’t mind that we let ourselves in.”
“Not at all,” I muttered as I slowly stood up. “Make yourself at home.”
“Thank you. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is David Bordwell and this is my associate Odie.” I turned around and got a good look at the goon who pulled me in. He was easily twice my size with hands as big as cocoanuts. He grunted a greeting. The little guy in the fancy suit pulled a tiny clipper out of his pocket and started to trim his nails as he spoke to me. “Word is that you’re looking for a movie that goes by the name of Body Heat? Is that true?”
“What’s it to you?” The mountain slapped me upside the back of the head and my knees became acquainted with the floorboards once again.
“Let’s just say that I am also interested in obtaining that particular motion picture. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but it is very hard to find these days. All existing copies seem to have vanished. If one is indeed located, it could be very valuable. I was wondering if I could retain your services in finding it for me?”
“Thanks, but I’m not interested.” Again, his henchman smacked me to the floor. That’s it, I thought. I’m tired of being knocked around on this case. As I slowly rose to my feet I shot him a dirty look. “Touch me again and you’ll regret it,” I threatened.
“Easy, Odie.” the suit remarked. “I don’t think you realize how important a person I am. I could reward you very handsomely for it.”
“I don’t know who you are and I don’t care.” I said. Odie took another swing at me, but this time I ducked and brought my knee up into his groin. He went down like the walls of Jericho. “I warned you.” I gloated as he rolled around on the floor whimpering. The suit rose from my chair and walked around the desk toward me.
“It’s so hard to find good help these days.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a small pad and a pencil and started writing something on it. “If you are ever interested in becoming a rich man, ring this number here. It's my private line.” He ripped the slip of paper from the pad and held it out to me. Reluctantly I took it. With a bow, he was gone, taking his limping sidekick with him.
I sat down at the desk and removed my hat. Who was this guy and why did he seem so familiar to me? I glanced down at the paper and was about to crumple it up when I noticed something. The phone number he wrote was "555-2314." I pulled out the paper I got off Ruediger's body. "5552314." It was the same number. That's when I noticed the letters. "D.B." David Bordwell! Ruediger knew Bordwell! Not only that, he had his private number. The only thing that I had left to decipher on the sheet was the remaining number: "82881." That's when it hit me. I grabbed my phone and called the library hoping Sheila would still be there. She was. I asked her when she had said the release date was for Body Heat. "August 28, 1981," she immediately responded. 82881. It was a date! 8-28-81! Thirty years ago today! In a flash, it all suddenly made sense. I remembered where I'd seen Bordwell before and I knew where to find the flick.
"Sheila, I need you to do something for me," I said. "I need you to call the police department. Ask for a Lieutenant Cozzalio or Sergeant Emerson. Tell them to meet me in 30 minutes at this address."
"What's going on, Joe?" Sheila asked.
"Just do it, Sheila," I asserted. "I know who murdered Ruediger and The Siren. I also know where to find the missing movie." I gave her the address to tell the police and she agreed to call them right away. I hung up and immediately dialed Bordwell's private number to set up a meeting. First, however, I had to make a quick stop somewhere else.
A half-hour later I was standing in the middle of an alley between Cain Street and Chandler Boulevard. My hat's brim dipped low, my trench coat's collar rose high. It wasn't that I was cold. This was just the kind of neighborhood in which you didn't want to draw attention to yourself; the kind of place where the sound of gunshots were so common that neighbors weren't reporting them to the police. I looked around nervously as I waited. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me.
"Well, that didn't take long, Mister Cannon," I turned around and standing before me was the little guy and the big guy. "Is that it there?" he said pointing to the disc I held in my hand. I nodded. "Where did you find it?"
"At Ruediger's house. When you tossed the place you forgot to look in the potted plants in his kitchen…one in particular. When a man takes great care to mow his lawn and see that his plants are watered and healthy, it should stand out to you when one plant is dying. It means he's got something else hidden in there." Bordwell looked impressed as he held out his hand. "Before I hand it over, I was wondering if you could tell me what would someone with unlimited access to the Warner Bros. movie archives want with a copy of Body Heat?" He smiled and asked me when I realized who he was. "I knew your face when we spoke in my office earlier, but I just couldn't place it. Then I remembered reading an article in Variety a few months ago about how you had taken over the DVD/Blu-Ray division at Warner Bros. studios. I just couldn't figure out why someone in your position would so badly want to get their hand on a copy of this or any other Warner Bros. title."
"Have you ever seen it, Mister Cannon?" he asked. I shook my head. "Well, it's a fine film. A damn fine film. It was well-received by critics back when it was released and the years have been very kind to it. It's one of the treasures of our library and were it to be re-released on DVD and Blu-ray in a special 30th anniversary collector's edition it could make us a fortune…but only if people didn't already own it. The economy has hit everyone hard, Mister Cannon. Consumers don't double-dip anymore. They're tired of having to repeatedly purchase their favorite films in new formats. Just as Ridley Scott's FINAL CUT of Blade Runner promised closure to so many cinephiles, so would this definitive release of Body Heat be the last chapter in the life of a significant piece of cinematic history."
"That's why it's so hard to find nowadays," I continued. "You've been snatching up every available copy out there so that demand would be high for your release of Body Heat with all its 'bells and whistles.' You also bribed or intimidated reputable cinephiles, such as my buddy Matt Zoller Seitz, so they'd keep their mouths shut. Tell me, why did you kill Ross Ruediger? Was he refusing to give up his copy of it? Did he love neo-noir movies so much that he couldn't bear to part with it? Or was he just threatening to spill the beans on the whole operation? And what about The Siren? She was just a woman in love. What did she ever do to deserve what she got?"
"You know, I'm bored with this conversation," he said casually pulling out a .22 and pointing it right at me. "Now, if you don't mind, Mister Cannon, kindly hand over the disc." I tossed it to him. "Thank you."
"Are you going to kill me too? Just as you killed Ross Ruediger and The Siren?"
Bordwell chuckled. "This may be hard for you to believe, Mister Cannon, but I've never heard of this…'Siren.' I didn't kill Mister Ruediger either. In fact, he and I had an understanding. He was very keen on selling me his copy of Body Heat. That's why I gave him my private number. He was supposed to get in touch with me by today, but he never called. However, it's no matter now. Goodbye, Mister Cannon." Bordwell bowed and turned to leave. Odie grunted his usual response and turned with him. Was he telling the truth? Did I have it all wrong? If he didn't kill them, then who did? At that moment two gunshots rang out and both Bordwell and his henchman fell to the ground. The shots came from behind me. I whipped around and standing there holding a smoking .38 was the last person I ever expected to see.
"That's right, Joe," she said smiling at me.
"What the…? I don't get — How? Why?"
"It's a long story, Joe, but it goes back several years…to the day that you dumped me. I was heartbroken, devastated. I invited my best friend over to comfort me. I believe you two have met. She called herself 'The Siren.' Anyway, we ended up watching a movie on late night television together. It was Body Heat. I didn't quite know what to think of it that first time. I enjoyed it but was not blown away. Over the years, as I went through relationship after relationship with other men, I couldn't get certain images and lines of dialogue from that film out of my mind. Kathleen Turner in that gorgeous white outfit standing alone on the pier staring off at the ocean, William Hurt admiring his new fedora in the reflection of the car window, the haunting sound of those beautiful wind chimes…All these moments stuck with me. That's when I decided, a few months ago, I needed to watch it again. By this time I had the job at the library and checked out our copy of it. It was then that the film's greatness became apparent to me. I fell in love with it. Its style, its elegance, its romanticism. It is an impeccably-made motion picture. I realized that I didn't need a man as long as I had Body Heat. But Bordwell and his greedy friends at Warner Bros. were making sure that nobody could get their hands on it. I knew it was only a matter of time before they tried to take the library's copy away too. I had to make sure that didn't happen. So, I chose a sap whom I could seduce into checking it out permanently."
"Ross Ruediger," I said.
"It was a cinch picking him. I saw him in the library all the time. He loved neo-noir and when I came on strong to him one day, he folded like a pup tent. Men are so easy to manipulate. In a few weeks, he would do anything for me…even hold on to my movie for me, hiding it so that nobody could find it."
"And you were able to make sure that it was constantly checked out, so that nobody could ever take your precious Body Heat away from you. Clever." Sheila wore a somewhat triumphant expression. "So, why'd you kill him?"
"Because he was weak. The day after you came by the library, I went over to his house bright and early hoping to get him to give me the movie before you showed up and strong-armed him into handing it over to you. The man loved good movies, but he had no backbone. Bordwell had already gotten to him, as Ross tearfully confessed to me that morning, and talked him into selling it back to the studio. He could no longer be trusted. He had to go."
"So you shot him and then ransacked the place looking for the movie. Is that when I showed up and you ambushed me?"
"You guessed it. I have to admit that I was a little surprised to see you turn up at the library looking for it, Joe. I couldn't figure out why you were suddenly interested in the film, so while you were out cold I went through your pockets, found your notepad and saw the name and phone number of your new client: my old friend, The Siren. I guess the same thing had happened to her. She also had fallen in love with that film that we were both introduced to that night. She must also have became obsessed with having it. Well, I couldn't let her. This movie was mine and mine alone. Nobody was going to take it away from me. Ever." She raised the gun. "I guess I owe you some thanks, Joe. Not only did you locate the movie for me, but if you hadn't broken up with me all those years ago, I never would've even found out about it. Now, get the disc."
"You'll never get away with this, Sheila. The police will be here any —" I stopped when I realized that I had asked her to call the police. She smiled at me. I sighed, walked over to the Bordwell's small body which lay on the ground behind me, took the disc out of his hand and turned back to face Sheila. "Throw it to me."
"Don't do this, Sheila," I pleaded with her. "No movie is worth this."
"You don't know that. You haven't seen it."
"And I guess I never will." I crunched the disc in my hand before dropping it to the ground and stepping on it. Sheila let out a noise like nothing I'd ever heard. It was more than a scream. It was the sound of a person's soul being crushed. She looked at me with tears streaming down her face and a look of intense fury in her eyes.
"You bastard!" she said cocking the gun.
This is it, I thought. This is how you die. I closed my eyes and waited for the gunshot that I knew was going to end my life. There was a loud boom. I actually heard the sound of my own death. So, where did she hit me? I couldn't tell. I felt nothing. Did she miss? I opened my eyes just in time to see Sheila fall forward. At that moment, Sgt. Emerson emerged from around the corner holding his gun. He asked me if I was OK. I told him I was fine. Just in shock. "Cozzalio's been having me follow you around ever since you left Ruediger's place this morning. Good thing too."
"Where were you when she killed the other two?" I asked.
"I was…um, indisposed at the moment," he said looking a little embarrassed. "I ran over as soon as I heard the gunshots and that's when I saw her pointing that .38 at you. Don't worry. I heard her whole confession. You're off the hook, Cannon." Within 10 minutes, there were a dozen cops at the scene, the alley was quartered off and Lt. Cozzalio was taking my statement. This time, I decided to tell him everything, leaving nothing out.
"Well, it's only a shame you had to destroy the movie too, Joe. We could've used that."
"I didn't destroy it." I said pulling another disc out of my pocket. "While I was picking up Body Heat at Ruediger's place I grabbed another disc just in case. I don't even know which one it was. Sin City I think." I handed it to him.
"All this trouble over a movie," he said holding it up and looking at it. "I hope it was all worth it." I asked him what would happen to it. "Oh, it's evidence now," he answered. "It'll get put away with all the other junk for a long, long time. Why? Were you interested in watching it?"
"No, thanks," I replied lighting a cigarette. "Too many people have died for that thing." Cozzalio was still examining it as I turned to exit the alley. I stopped, however, and glanced back over my shoulder one last time before walking off into the night. "But I hear it's damn good."
A special word of thanks to all of my film-blogging friends who allowed me to use their names in this crazy, but amusing, little endeavor of mine:
Matt Zoller Seitz
The Self-Styled Siren
Black-and-white image courtesy of Jim Ferreira Photography.
Saturday, August 27, 2011
Sunday, August 21, 2011
The following is an article I wrote for the blog Edward Copeland on Film (for which I am a regular contributor) commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of An American Werewolf in London.
1981 was a seminal year for werewolf movies. First, Joe Dante's The Howling hit theaters in April followed by Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen in July and, finally, John Landis' An American Werewolf in London in August. It is the latter title with which this article will be concerned, primarily because today marks the 30th anniversary of its release but also because, in the opinion of this critic, Landis' picture not only is the best of the three werewolf films released that year but, arguably, the best werewolf film ever made. I still remember the first time I was exposed to it. I was no older than 10 and for some strange reason my parents thought it would be appropriate for me to watch. They changed their minds shortly into the film and promptly sent me to bed, but by then it was too late: the damage had been done. Though I wouldn't see the film in its entirety until years later, that opening sequence where two young Americans hikers get attacked by a vicious beast while walking through the English countryside at night had been permanently etched in my memory. To this day, it is one of the most terrifying sequences I've seen on screen and I've had many a nightmare because of it.
What makes An American Werewolf in London work so beautifully (besides how effectively scary it can be), is its tongue-in-cheek sensibility. It is commonplace to see humor blended with horror in movies nowadays but back in '81 it was far more outré. The comedy manifests itself in many different forms…such as in Landis' choice of music. He brilliantly peppers the soundtrack with classic songs that feature the word "moon" in the title ("Bad Moon Rising," "Moondance" and "Blue Moon"), thus underscoring the absurdity of many of the things being depicted onscreen. For example, during the now iconic transformation scene while the character David (David Naughton) thrashes about on the floor as his body slowly and painfully changes into a werewolf, we hear one of the three versions of "Blue Moon" used in the film playing in the background. The juxtaposition of the sweet and the sickening makes for a simultaneously scary and funny (not to mention incredibly memorable) sequence. Even the characters themselves comment on how ridiculous many of the things they're experiencing are. When David's friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) returns from the dead to inform David that since he will soon become a werewolf he must commit suicide, David says he will not be threatened by a "walking meatloaf"…an epithet which he later apologizes for during his metamorphosis (incidentally, throughout the course of the film every time Jack appears to David he does so in increasingly decaying forms; it is both gruesome and hysterical).
In fact, many of the lines in the film clearly are designed to poke fun at the bizarre goings-on in the story. "A naked man stole my balloons"; "Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It's boring."; and "Sean, I think there are some hooligans in the park again" are just some of the many gems to be found in the film's dialogue. My personal favorite comes when David realizes he truly is a werewolf and thus attempts to get himself arrested, spouting off the kind of horribly irreverent nonsense that every typical American thinks would offend his uptight British neighbors ("Queen Elizabeth is a man! Prince Charles is a faggot! Winston Churchill was full of shit! Shakespeare's French!"). It is impossible for me to watch the film and hear David's anti-English rant without laughing out loud. Landis also does something that was relatively new for its time. Much as Wes Craven did years later in the first Scream, Landis populates his horror film with characters who have actually seen other horror films. When David talks to his girlfriend (Jenny Agutter) about Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941's The Wolf Man, it may not be the first example of meta-cinema in a scary movie, but is a rare (for its time) case of movie characters acknowledging that their lives seem to resemble the trappings of a horror movie.
However, the laughs (of which there are plenty) that the film provokes do not in any way lessen the impact of the horror scenes. If anything, they just throw them into sharper contrast. The atmospheric opening section of the film, a suspenseful foot chase through the underground tunnels of Tottenham Court Road tube station (where the camera adopts the POV of the wolf, though it is never actually seen except briefly from a distance in the scene's penultimate shot) and especially some horrific nightmares experienced by David after he is bitten are all frighteningly visceral sequences. And, of course, there is the aforementioned extended transformation scene where another stellar element of the film is highlighted: namely, the superb special effects. Landis' idea was that David's change into the werewolf would be more traumatic than simply growing hair (through a cheesy optical dissolve) and then howling at the moon. It would be a more "realistic" transmogrification involving skin stretching, bones popping and cracking, cries of sheer agony and it goes on for quite a while. Landis does not let his character off the hook with a quick conversion. He also does not conceal his effects in shadows. He has it take place right out there in the open, harsh light. Nowadays the scene would be done with CGI. In the '80s, they had to use physical effects that took a great deal of time and labor to produce (often for only a second of a half of screen time). Still, the scene and the movie is the better for it. Naturally Landis owes a lot to the genius of the great Rick Baker (who also consulted on the makeup effects for The Howling). Baker's work for the film was so magnificent that it inspired the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create a new category for makeup (for which Baker received the first Oscar for this movie).
An American Werewolf in London opened to big box office success and generally positive reviews. It became known as a "game-changer" in the genre of horror and in particular in the makeup/special effects arena of said genre. It spawned a successful radio adaptation, a highly inferior 1997 sequel and is apparently set to be remade, proving yet again that Hollywood has completely run dry of ideas since they are remaking something that wasn't the most original concept when it was made.