An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)

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Spoiler warning: This article reveals plot details.

Moviedrome was a wonderful way of screening films on television. Broadcast between 1988 and 2000, it was a BBC2 showcase for horror, action, art-house and science-fiction flicks, which were introduced on-screen by the film director Alex Cox and later by the critic Mark Cousins. In truth, the movies would have been screened anyway but the smart and insightful intros made them feel as if they were part of a carefully curated season. It was marvellous television and now much-missed.

If you were watching at 10.30pm on Sunday 22 July 1990, you will have seen Alex Cox – filmed on a bleak hillside and pretending to be spooked by an out-of-shot werewolf – presage that night’s offerings by saying, ‘The film is a weird mixture of naïve comedy and apocalyptic violence with an abrupt ending…’ This was my first viewing of the 1981 comedy-horror An American Werewolf in London, which had been written and directed by John Landis. I was 11 years old and fell in love. To this day it remains my favourite horror film.

Moviedrome

The movie was shot in early 1981, Landis reportedly wanting Britain’s drab weather to provide a gloomy backdrop for his story. The crew did some filming in the Black Mountains in Wales (standing in for Yorkshire), but the majority of the production was based in and around London. So I thought it would be fun to spend a few weeks exploring the movie’s use of the city. Perhaps I could visit some of the filming locations as I try to discuss why I love this movie so much?

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I begin my odyssey, however, by immediately breaking my own rule and leaving London. I’m on a train that will take me a mile or so outside the M25 motorway, a notional defining barrier of Greater London. But I know the journey will be worth it because I’m going to fulfil a long-standing ambition. I’m going to have a pint of beer in the Slaughtered Lamb…

As the movie begins, David Kessler and Jack Goodman climb down from the back of a sheep lorry. They’re young American men on a backpacking holiday in Yorkshire and a local farmer has given them a lift. It’s a terrifically witty introduction and Landis has confirmed that the visual gag – the characters being treated like livestock ready for the abattoir – was deliberate. Tramping across the countryside, the boys then end up in a village pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they get a decidedly frosty reception from the suspicious locals. Brian Glover’s chess player unsettles the newcomers with ghoulish jokes; David Schofield’s darts player threatens them for putting him off his game; Rik Mayall just smirks impishly. The scene is a horror standard: outsiders treated with distrust in a pub. The same kind of thing can be seen in movies such as Dracula (1931) and The Wicker Man (1973). But by combining a genuine air of menace with just the right amount of self-aware humour, American Werewolf’s is the best example.

In reality, the Slaughtered Lamb was a Hollywood-style composite. Despite being set in Yorkshire, the exterior was a redressed cottage in Wales. For the interior scene, meanwhile, the crew found a real pub in the brilliantly named Surrey hamlet of Martyr’s Green. That’s where I’m going now. Getting off the train at the rural station of Effingham Junction, I walk north for about two miles down a meandering and often pavement-less road. On either side of me is woodland, from where I can hear the pop-pop-pop of paint-ball guns. Occasional cars zoom past. A few cyclists are out on morning rides. Then, after 25 minutes in increasingly warm sun, I reach my target: a country pub called The Black Swan. It’s an old building with a modern extension added in 2006. A small beer garden is out front, a car park round the back. The locals affectionately call this place the Mucky Duck.

BlackSwanExterior

It’s 11am as I arrive, the specified opening time on the pub’s website, but a guy tidying up outside tells me they won’t be ready for ‘about half an hour’. He’s friendly about it, rather than the cool reception David and Jack received at the Slaughtered Lamb, so I hide my disappointment and have a wander around the local area to kill time. The Black Swan is opposite a turn-off for the historic village of Ockham, where the 13th-century philosopher William of Ockham was born (he devised the keep-it-simple principle of Occam’s Razor). I walk over there and enjoy the tranquillity of the Surrey countryside.

When I return to the pub at 11.30, a couple are already at an outside table with drinks, so I go inside. What a moment for an American Werewolf fan. Here I am, in the Slaughtered Lamb. The interior of the pub has changed an awful lot since 1981. It’s now less working-class and dingy, more upmarket and airy. All of the film’s set dressing is long gone, of course – that pentangle on the wall wasn’t genuine – but the space has also been opened up and the layout I recognise from the movie is now just part of a larger bar. But I can still see the framework of the Slaughtered Lamb. The way I came in is through the same door David and Jack used; the bar is in the same place; over there is the corner where the chess game was going on. And after I’ve bought a very nice pint of IPA and taken a few photographs I sit at a table just to the right of the door – in other words, on the very spot where David and Jack plonk themselves down during their visit.

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SlaughteredLamb

For a very long time, I assumed that the interior of the Slaughtered Lamb had been a film set constructed at somewhere like Twickenham Studios. It’s wonderful to be in the ‘real’ place, even with all the cosmetic changes. Sadly I can see no acknowledgment of the pub’s popular-culture heritage on display; no signs or framed photographs from the filming. But then something rather wonderful happens. The bar staff have put on a playlist of inoffensive music, as bar staffs tend to do when they want to generate some atmosphere, and before long I’m listening to a track that was used in An American Werewolf in London. It appears to just be a coincidence, but it provides me with a neat way of talking about the film’s music…

An American Werewolf in London does have a score, and it was composed by an all-time great: Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ghostbusters). But what’s more memorable to most viewers are the pre-existing songs that Landis used to complement his scenes. There’s also a cute running joke going on. To reflect the werewolf motif, the director chose tracks with the word moon in the title: three different recordings of the ballad Blue Moon, the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Bad Moon Rising, and Van Morrison’s light-as-air jazz-pop classic Moondance.

Moondance

It’s the latter I can now hear as I drink my beer in the Black Swan. A poetic yearning for a bit of alfresco sex, it was recorded in New York City in August 1969. At the very same time, in Yugoslavia, John Landis was working as an assistant director on the satirical war film Kelly’s Heroes. During his nine months on the movie, he encountered some local gypsies who believed in the undead and the incident inspired him to write a script about a werewolf. But it was then put in a drawer (metaphorically at least) while Landis made inroads in the film industry. At the age of 21 he directed a cheap horror spoof called Schlock (1973), then followed it with three hit comedies: The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

Now a rising star of the Hollywood directing fraternity – someone who delivered popular and profitable films, someone who was friends with Steven Spielberg – Landis dusted off his old werewolf script and began pre-production. He hired his friend the special-effects genius Rick Baker to design the make-up then began scouting locations in England. For the story’s lead character of David, Landis cast 29-year-old David Naughton, who was then best known in the US for a series of Dr Pepper commercials. In the role of David’s pal Jack, the director plumped for Griffin Dunne, who was 25 and later married Bond girl Carey Lowell. David and Jack are superbly cast. They absolutely feel like believable pals with an easy-going yet deep friendship.

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As I leave the Black Swan pub, I have a much more pleasant time than Naughton and Dunne’s characters do in the movie. I simply walk back to the train station. After leaving the Slaughtered Lamb, David and Jack have a terrifying encounter on the Yorkshire moorlands. Lost at night, under the light of a full moon, the pair are menaced by some kind of wild beast – David is badly injured, while Jack is mauled to death. It’s a brilliantly shot sequence, director of photography Robert Paynter creating a lot of menace from smoke and artificial moonlight.

Three weeks later David wakes up in a London hospital and is soon spooked by a ghostly visitation. His now-undead friend Jack appears by his hospital bed to urge David to kill himself, otherwise he will inevitably transform into a werewolf… The scene is a marvel. Jack’s matter-of-fact appearance in the room is all the more effective because Landis simply cuts to him via a conventional edit, rather than using any supernatural effect or melodramatic music. Griffin Dunne also looks so brilliantly ghoulish, thanks to some world-class monster make-up featuring deep scars and bloody rips in his neck. He’s one of cinema’s greatest zombie-like characters.

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The hospital featured in these scenes is fictional, but for the filming the crew used the interior of the abandoned Princess Beatrice Hospital in west London. It had been founded in 1887 and initially called Jubilee Hospital to mark Queen Victoria’s half-century on the throne. Various name changes and redevelopments followed – it was only known as the Princess Beatrice from 1931 – until it was considered obsolete and closed down in March 1978.

When I visit the surviving building on the corner of Finborough Road and Old Brompton Road, having walked there from Earl’s Court tube station, I do so knowing that I won’t be able to go inside and see where David recuperated. It’s long since been converted in hostel accommodation.

PrincessBeatriceHospital

But I’m in the area anyway, as it’s on the way to another key filming location from An American Werewolf in London. When David is discharged from hospital, he accepts an invitation to stay with the nurse who’s been looking after him, Alex Price, and she takes him to her modest flat in a converted townhouse. Much to David’s understandable delight, the pair soon become lovers in a shower-and-sex montage scored by Van Morrison’s Moondance. Alex is played by Jenny Agutter, then 28 years old and the most famous member of the cast after big films such as The Railway Children, Logan’s Run and The Eagle Has Landed. The actress brings an awful lot to the movie, combining star power with believability, an English-rose quality with a fierce sex appeal.

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In the film, Alex’s workplace is a tube ride away from where she lives. In reality, the filming locations are only about 150 metres apart. I turn off Finborough Road and zigzag onto a parallel residential street. Very soon I’m walking into a familiar view and I find myself standing on the spot where John Landis’s camera filmed Alex and David arriving at her home.

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RedcliffeSquare

I’m on Redcliffe Square, which was laid down in the 1860s by the surveyors George and Henry Godwin. Across the road I can see St Luke’s, a squat and rather beautiful Anglican church built in 1872-73 and also designed by the Godwin brothers, while to my right is number 64, the address used as the location of Alex’s flat. What’s most striking is how little it’s all changed. Visiting the Black Swan pub had required a bit of mental squinting to see how it had been transformed into the Slaughtered Lamb. No such process is necessary here: other than the trees being fuller of leaves and the cars being modern – and the obvious absence of Jenny Agutter and David Naughton – I could be in the movie. The architecture of the building is exactly the same. Even the railings and the familiar black front door are still here.

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In the film, it’s in this ground-floor flat where the full horror of David’s predicament becomes clear. Alone as the full moon begins to rise, David suddenly shouts out in pain… His werewolf’s curse has struck, and as he screams in agony (‘Jesus Christ!’ he cries. ‘I’m burning up!’) his body contorts and twists, changing him from a man into a hairy, snarling beast… The scene is rightly famed as a wonder of special effects. This is where Rick Baker and his team show off their astonishing skills with prosthetics and make-up. His transformation complete, David leaves the flat. He’s on the hunt…

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David may have metamorphosed into a rabid lycanthrope, but the only notable change to the Redcliffe Square location I can see today is a sign on the front door saying ‘ADDRESSED MAIL ONLY. NO FREE PAPERS, NO JUNK MAIL’ (Perhaps they should add ‘No werewolves’. Or ‘No American Werewolf fans researching blogs’.) I hang around for a few minutes and take my photos, hoping no one asks what I’m up to. No one does. I then chance my arm and walk up number 64’s steps, recreating David and Alex’s approach. It’s always a thrill to be in a location that was used in a cherished film or TV show. The best movies are ‘transportative’; they invite you into a heightened, escapist world that might be superficially similar to reality but somehow seems magical or unreachable.

This happens in An American Werewolf in London. It’s set in an everyday 1980s London – one of packed tube carriages and newspaper vendors and trashy adverts on TV – but even before the supernatural plot comes into focus the film feels ‘other’ and ‘special’. All good films do, if they have smart direction, classy camerawork and a skilful cast (things that distinguish American Werewolf hugely). So there’s a kind of spiritual connection that happens when you visit a filming location. The place is both eerily strange and reassuringly familiar at the same time.

I feel this vivid sensation again a few days later when I head up to leafy Hampstead in north London to see the site of werewolf David’s first kill. Known as Middle Heath Road until the 1860s, East Heath Road snakes around the north of the locale, dividing the streets and houses from the vast open parkland of Hampstead Heath. To get there I take a pleasant, undulating walk from the tube station. I pass through a quiet, well-off residential area and see a house where, according to a blue plaque on its wall, the painter John Constable once lived. Then after a few minutes I hit the T-junction with East Heath Road and see a view familiar from the movie.

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It’s actually quite a short sequence that was shot here in 1981. A young, posh couple (played by Geoffrey Burridge and Brenda Cavendish) get out of a taxi. They’ve come to attend a dinner party with friends, and jovially walk down the side of a building towards Hampstead Heath. They’re sneaking round the back so they can playfully scare their hosts, but they’re about to encounter David in the form of a ravening werewolf… The block of flats featured in the film and which I can now see is called The Pryors. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century to the design of the architect Paul Waterhouse and was only allowed on the Heath side of the road because it was replacing an existing property. Former residents include the novelist Ernest Raymond and the acting couple Jean Forbes-Robertson and André van Gyseghem.

As with Redcliffe Square, what’s immediately apparent is how little has changed – but then again, why would it be different? This is a fine piece of architecture in a well-to-do area of London. I’m oddly amused to see that the post box visible in the movie is still here (or at least there’s now a modern one in the same position), while a pedestrian crossing has been added since 1981. As well as the building’s frontage, I take a look down its left-hand side, where a hedge separates the block from the wilds of Hampstead Heath. This is where the posh couple walked arm in arm to their doom…

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With dusk falling fast, the trees and hedges feel full of menace. The light from the streetlamps doesn’t reach very far into the Heath and total darkness is only a few steps away. Not wanting to risk an encounter with a werewolf or any other potential danger, I keep close to the road. Occasional cars come past, a couple of joggers too. But mostly it’s quiet. After taking my photographs, I then retrace my steps back towards the tube station. Hungry, I look for somewhere to eat. In a delightful alleyway called Flask Walk, I find an equally pleasing pub called The Flask and dive inside for a beer and a burger.

Talking of pubs, the Slaughtered Lamb makes a reappearance in the film long after David and Jack’s visit. David’s doctor, Dr Hirsch, has had his interest piqued by David’s stories of a werewolf attacking him so he travels to the Yorkshire village of East Proctor to investigate. Hirsch is brilliantly played by the fuss-free actor John Woodvine, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who brings both gravitas and a light touch to the part. He’s just one of many wonderful supporting actors in this film. Elsewhere, there’s the deadpan Lila Kaye as the Slaughtered Lamb’s landlady; Landis’s old pal Frank Oz cameoing as a man from the US embassy; and Paul Kember as a charmingly buffoonish British policeman.

However, back in London, the werewolf David is tearing through the city… After his attack on the posh couple, he stalks some tramps near Tower Bridge then terrorises a lone commuter in an atypically quiet Tottenham Court Road tube station. (The commuter is played by Michael Carter, later Jabba the Hutt’s aide Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi.) The following morning, a now-human-again David awakens – naked and understandably discombobulated – in the wolf pen at London Zoo, then later freaks out while in Trafalgar Square with Alex.

As you can see, this section of American Werewolf ticks off many hugely famous picture-postcard landmarks. Interestingly, though, in earlier drafts of the script some of them aren’t specified. Tottenham Court Road is just ‘a subway station’, while others were changed during the filming process. A scene of David using a public phone box, for example, was written as Leicester Square but then moved to Piccadilly Circus. As that location features so heavily in the movie’s final third, I feel I must take a pilgrimage…

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Piccadilly Circus, one of central London’s most recognisable areas, is busy as I arrive on a rainy October evening. Because I’ve lived in London since 2002, I’ve been here many times before, so it’s not a surprise that it’s full of tourists and traffic. It always is. (It’s not for nothing that ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus’ is a British cliché used to denote a busy place.) But tonight my plan is to attempt to see the area through fresh eyes. Can I place it within the context of An American Werewolf in London? Can I ignore the smartphone-obsessed crowds and the horn-honking cars, and see if I can visualise where the film crew worked and how John Landis staged his remarkable and chaotic sequence here?

In truth, the Circus – the word has its roots in the Greek for circle or ring – is simply a crossroads. But it’s taken on a cultural significance over the years, not least because of two major features: the massive advertising hoardings first installed in the 1890s, which tonight glitter and flash and pulse with digital persistence, and the central fountain often called Eros but which actually includes a statue of the Greek god Anteros. When the nearby Regent Street was laid down by the architect John Nash in 1819, its meeting point with the venerable thoroughfare Piccadilly was shaped into what we now recognise as Piccadilly Circus. Shaftesbury Avenue, built in 1886, also connects to the junction and it’s on that road – famed throughout the world as the spine of London’s theatre district – where I first turn my attention.

In the movie, David is on Piccadilly Circus when he spots his undead friend, Jack, standing outside the ticket office of a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. He races across the street and follows Jack inside, only pausing to buy a £2.80 ticket to the porno See You Next Wednesday. (Landis buffs will know that the title See You Next Wednesday is an in-joke; a motif the director adds to most of his movies.) I don’t race across the street now, however, because that would mean risking my life with the traffic. I also don’t go inside the cinema, because sadly it’s no longer there.

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The Art Deco-styled cinema the Eros News Theatre first opened its doors at 7 Shaftesbury Avenue, along the northern edge of Piccadilly Circus, on 20 August 1934. It was a real success for several years, but by the time John Landis and his crew came here it had developed a reputation for being a rent boys’ hangout and for showing soft-core pornography. It had also been renamed the Eros Cinema. The cinema later closed down in February 1985; the final screening was of the Bo Derek flop Bolero. After a period as a jewellers’, the space was then converted into a branch of clothing store Gap in June 1997. The shop is still there now and is open as I walk over. I wonder how many people inside tonight realise that the entrance they used was, in a 1981 horror film, the ticket office of a porno cinema.

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It’s inside the Eros Cinema where David Kessler is forced to face his zombiefied victims – the posh couple, the tramps, the commuter from Tottenham Court Road. He then metamorphoses again into his werewolf form. Bursting out of the cinema, past the assembled crowds and the police called by the cinema’s ticket attendant, he rampages across Piccadilly Circus. It’s the movie’s huge action set-piece. Cars crash, buses skid, pedestrians are run over, policemen’s throats are ripped out. In the kind of director’s cameo that Alfred Hitchcock would have balked at, John Landis – who’d worked as a Spaghetti Western stuntman earlier in his career – is flung through a shop window.

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When planning all this stuff, Landis had sweet-talked the Metropolitan Police into letting him take over Piccadilly Circus for two nights. No movie had been allowed to shoot there in 15 years because of the disruption caused to central London traffic, but Landis got the permission after screening his recent comedy film The Blues Brothers to 300 police officers. It went down a storm, apparently. Thankfully, there’s none of that chaos here tonight. I look around, mentally replaying the American Werewolf scene over what I can see. I’m far from the only person taking photos as Piccadilly Circus is something of a tourist mecca. The nearby Criterion Theatre is preparing for a performance of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. A street artist is painted silver and impressing the crowds by standing very still. A busker starts to plink away on his electronic keyboard and is soon belting out Bohemian Rhapsody. Before leaving I also look for the red phone box where, earlier in the film, David makes a call home to America. It’s not here any more.

That’s mercifully not true of everything in this city. In certain areas it’s all but impossible to avoid London’s rich and cherished heritage, and I’m reminded of this as I make my way to the site of Amercan Werewolf’s final sequence: the rabbit-warren of streets to the south of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster. Leaving London Bridge underground station, for example, I walk past the vibrant Borough Market, which dates back around a thousand years. I admire the gorgeously Gothic architecture of Southwark Cathedral, a building begun in 1220. I see tourists flocking around a sprightly modern replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th-century galleon ship the Golden Hind. And I stumble across the sole surviving fragment of the 12th-century Winchester Palace. All of this in just a five-minute stroll.

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I then arrive at my final destination – and David Kessler’s too. Clink Street, which these days is a very smart, pedestrianised alleyway, has changed greatly from when John Landis and his crew came to this area to film their final scene. An upmarket eatery sits opposite a shop selling Union Jack-branded tourist tat, while many of the buildings have changed beyond recognition in the last 38 years. The street’s name comes from the nearby Clink Prison, a notorious institution that opened (and then presumably swiftly locked) its doors in the 12th century and served as a penal institution until it burned down in 1780. (It’s now a museum.)

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As I wander around, it’s early evening – earlier in the day and significantly lighter than when the werewolf David was chased here by the police after his Piccadilly Circus rampage. The street is busy with tourists, commuters, people on nights out, and at least one fool taking photographs for a blog. I assume I’m the only person here who realises that he’s walking on hallowed ground. No one else seems to be aware that this is where David was cornered by the cops. Where Dr Hirsch and Alex looked on in horror. Where Alex broke through the barriers to comfort the werewolf. And where a police gunshot rang out fatally…

Finale

The legacy of An American Werewolf in London and its director have, sadly, been quite haphazard. John Landis made at least one more classic – the riotously enjoyable comedy Trading Places in 1983 – but his output has had its share of duds too. At least neither he nor anyone else from my favourite horror film had anything to do with a truly ghastly sequel called An American Werewolf in Paris. In the same year as that turkey (1997) there was also a better-received BBC radio adaptation of the 1981 film that reunited some of the cast, while a remake of the original movie is currently in development and is set to be directed by John Landis’s son Max.

But whatever has happened since 1981, and whatever may happen in the future, we’ll always have An American Werewolf in London.

Ten bathroom mirrors out of 10

Notes and acknowledgments

As well as providing lots of encouragement, my friend Lizzie Hopley helped enormously by giving this blog a read before I published it and pointing out some errors. (Any that remain are entirely my fault.) Andy at the Gap UK press office gave me the information about their Piccadilly Circus branch.

My trips to the filming locations were carried out in a slightly different order from how I’ve presented them above. I visited Clink Street on Tuesday 20 August 2019; the Black Swan pub on Saturday 24 August; the old Princess Beatrice Hospital and Redcliffe Square on Monday 2 September; East Heath Road on Monday 16 September; and Piccadilly Circus on Monday 14 October. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019

There is some dubiety about exactly where the final scene of An American Werewolf in London was filmed. Some online sources claim it was a short distance from Clink Street, in the nearby Winchester Walk, but the Bankside area has been so massively redeveloped over the last four decades that it’s difficult to be sure. The scenes of police converging in the area were certainly shot on Clink Street, so I chose to focus on that location.

Incidentally, Clink Street can also be seen in the 1940s film Oliver Twist, a 1977 Doctor Who serial set in Victorian times, and the 2001 movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Black Swan pub also features in Deadly Slumber, an episode of ITV crime drama Inspector Morse originally broadcast on 6 January 1993.

I used a wide variety of sources, both print and online, for the factual information in this article. There’s little point listing them all, but these websites and books were especially helpful:

You can watch Alex Cox’s Moviedrome introduction to American Werewolf in London here, while this website helped with Moviedrome generally.

These sites were good starting points when it came to identifying American Werewolf filming locations:

https://www.timeout.com/london/blog/15-places-that-appear-in-an-american-werewolf-in-london-061617

https://www.reelstreets.com/films/american-werewolf-in-london-an/

Information about Princess Beatrice Hospital was gleaned from this National Archives site.

Background details about East Heath Road were found in Streets of Hampstead by Christopher Wade (Camden History Society, third edition, 2000), a locally published guide to the area. This private residents’ website was also useful.

Some details about the Eros Cinema were found on this site about cinemas around the world.

Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony and Joe Russo)

AvengersEndgame

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Reeling from the devastation caused by Thanos, the remaining Avengers and their allies attempt a risky strategy to put things right…

In early October 2019, a few months after the release of the Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, the revered film director Martin Scorsese caused a minor kerfuffle. Asked if he’d seen any Marvel movies, he said, ‘I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’

An array of fans cried foul on Twitter, ridiculing Marty as an out-of-touch old man or a snob or a fool or all three. (Samuel L Jackson, who’d had a small role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas before appearing in many Marvel films, gave a more measured response: ‘That’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either.’) Scorsese is entitled his opinion. He’s earned that much after a career that has included genuine all-time-great works of the art form such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, even if there’s a certain irony in him evoking the purity of cinema while preparing to release a film, 2019’s The Irishman, that has been funded by Netflix and will be available for people to watch on their phones astonishingly soon after its theatrical run.

Also, as clumsily articulated as his point was, modern, flashy, big-budget, effects-heavy superhero films are undeniably different beasts from, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca or American Beauty. Films such as Avengers: Endgame and its stablemates have a different focus, a different intent. Scorsese’s theme-park analogy actually holds up when you consider that every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is awash with boldly designed visuals intended to excite and thrill, as well as camera movements and rapid editing designed to pull you along and sweep you around.

The problem comes when you assume that that’s *all* they are. To use Martin Scorsese’s logic against him, should we conclude that Mean Streets is not cinema but closer to a videogame because it contains lots of violence? Of course not. The film uses violence to tell its story, and its story is about human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

It’s true that the Marvel series is open to any number of criticisms on a filmmaking level. The movies can be cinematographically bland, flatly staged, horrendously over-edited and lit like a game show; the scripts can feel hammered out by a committee and have a sense of explain-everything-for-the-people-in-the-cheap-seats; occasionally the stories can be undermined by boring action sequences and badly thought-out villains. However, saying they’re ‘not cinema’ is patently ridiculous. And while no one is going to claim that modern superhero films are as sophisticated as Shakespeare, so is implying that there’s no drama involved amongst the razzmatazz. Soon after that Scorsese quote went viral, the writer C Robert Cargill tweeted to say that when he was working on Doctor Strange, the 14th MCU film, ‘the vast majority of Marvel’s notes were about deepening character, strengthening the story, and asking us if we could “make it weirder”. Anyone who thinks Marvel is only trying to make theme park rides is being unjust and cynical.’

That approach is easy to believe when you watch Avengers: Endgame, which is nevertheless the most bombastically epic movie in a serious not short of bombast or epic qualities. The film, all three hours of it, is packed pull of *stuff* and characters and spectacle and action and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of talent and effort, but its story is still founded on character choices and character reactions. It starts, in fact, feeling less like an event movie and more like an indie drama: an understated cold open shot with a handheld camera shows us Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton in idyllic domesticity with his family. But then the mood darkens, as his wife and children fade out of existence thanks to the villainous actions of Josh Brolin’s Thanos as seen in previous MCU mega-hit Avengers: Infinity War.

Endgame is very much a follow-on from that earlier film. In fact, when originally announced in 2014 its title was Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2. However, the script moves events on by five years into a grim, sombre, post-Thanos world where the remaining members of society are trying to deal with their grief and their survivor guilt. Even the mighty Avengers and their associates have been hit hard by Thanos’s finger-clicking carnage. Well, ish… Fifty per cent of all life in the universe may be now gone, but for storytelling reasons the big headline characters who started this series of films – Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye – have all survived the cull.

Character stories dominate. Thor has descended into a overweight drunkard. The traumatised Clint has become a cyberpunk vigilante. Tony Stark has retreated into rural obscurity. Natasha is trying to coordinate the remaining Avengers but is emotionally raw. Bruce Banner has actually flourished, finally finding peace with the two halves of his personality. It’s a bravely downbeat way to start such a film, but a smart one. Martin Scorsese may disagree, but the MCU has always put emotion at the heart of their stories. For all the razzle-dazzle, each film has been about characters wanting things and overcoming hurdles. It’s fundamentally why the series has been so enjoyable. (And why it stands up so well when compared to the rival DC franchise.)

However, the dark mood doesn’t last. Slowly, bit by bit, the film raises its levels of humour and momentum as the characters realise they have a way of righting the wrongs caused by the now-dead Thanos. The surprise reappearance of Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who avoided the cull because he was infinitesimally small in the quantum realm at the time, gives the gang the impetus to attempt a plan based on time-travel. The plan dominates the middle third of the movie, and is generally a hoot.

The goal is to obtain a full set of the Infinity Stones – singularly bland plot devices that have recurred throughout this series since 2011’s Thor movie – by removing them from the timeline before Thanos did his damage. We get the usual meta gags about how time-travel doesn’t really make sense (Back to the Future is cited), then we’re thrown into a gleefully self-indulgent tour around the MCU’s own heritage. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Scott Lang travel to the New York City of Avengers Assemble; Bruce Banner drops in on Tilda Swinton’s character from Doctor Strange; Thor and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) head to the planet Asgard at the time of Thor: The Dark World; Nebula (Karen Gillen) and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) visit the planet Morag at the time of Guardians of the Galaxy; and later Tony and Steve must also travel to a secret research base in the 1970s where they encounter a succession of younger versions of important MCU characters (Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark). The sequences are riotously enjoyable, blending action-driven plotting and emotion with humour and postmodern winking-to-the-audience. Several times, new footage is stitched into old scenes, a la Back to the Future Part II, allowing both fresh perspectives and a hell of a lot of fun.

The final third of the movie is then more conventional, essentially boiling down into yet another MCU battle scene where thousands of characters are filmed (or created digitally) in isolation and then matted together in post-production. But you forgive it with Avengers: Endgame because the stakes have been laid out so cleverly. And for all its CGI noise and bluster, this climactic action sequence still contains plenty of character moments, comedy and stirring emotions. (Having said that, how you respond to an archly designed moment that features all the major female characters – Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Hope van Dyne aka Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula – teaming up for *one shot* will depend on your levels of cynicism. Is it a daring, pointed, woke breakthrough? Or a rather silly bit of tokenism? You decide!)

Endgame is well named. The MCU series has continued, with movies and TV spin-offs announced for several years to come. But this film has the real feel of a season finale, an end point, a conclusion. The two biggest, most well-known and most popular characters are written out, while it features the final cameo from Marvel godfather the late Stan Lee. It’s the end of an era. Given how effective the emotional series of wrap-up scenes are, it’s also undeniably the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

Nine men shouting, ‘Make love, not war!’ out of 10

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Doctor Who (1963-2017)

Over the last four years I’ve been on a marathon quest. In 2015 I decided to watch every episode of Doctor Who, a show I’m very fond of, and tweet some short reviews. I began with the serials broadcast in the 20th century and – rather than start with the William Hartnell-starring first episode from 1963 – watched those in a randomly chosen order. Just to keep it fun. I saw 158 stories and it took nearly two years.

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I then moved on to the seasons that have followed the show’s relaunch in 2005, and I saw and commented on these 144 episodes in broadcast order – one episode per tweet this time, even when they part of larger stories. This phase took 25 months. I brought it to an end after Peter Capaldi’s final appearance in Twice Upon a Time (2017) because I don’t want to rewatch and review stories starring the current Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, until there’s been a greater distance of time and perspective.

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In the end, therefore, this process has meant 302 tweets – some serious, some silly, all just what I thought at the time. You can view the full archive here, as well as a statistical leader board of appearances I kept as I went along: it lists every character who’s in more than one Doctor Who story, ranked by the number of individual episodes in which they appear. (Well, it entertained me to update it after each tweet.)

Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A female soldier from a far-off world crash-lands on Earth in the 1990s and soon begins to piece together her mysterious past…

‘So Captain Marvel zaps him right between the eyes,’ John Lennon once sang. That was in 1968, more than half a century ago. But the Beatle could have been psychically predicting the impact of this 2019 superhero film, because the character of Captain Marvel is slick, fun and focused. She aims, shoots and hits her target. (Yeah, yeah, when Lennon made that throwaway reference in the lyrics to his song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, he actually meant a different comic-book character altogether. *That* Captain Marvel now goes by the name Shazam and, coincidentally, also had a solo superhero movie in 2019.)

But the fact that, for some of us, the film’s title brings to mind a track from the Beatles’ White Album is more than just vague thought association. Captain Marvel is dominated by a theme of nostalgia, of longing for a bygone time, of revelling in reminiscing. It even begins with a unique production-company logo that pays tribute to the Marvel universe’s founding father, the late Stan Lee. Whether you were alive to experience the Beatles first hand or have come to them after the fact, they cast an enormous shadow over pop culture. For most of us, they are one of the pillars of what we think of as ‘the 1960s’; for many, they’ve played a huge role in our lives. But they spilt up 50 years ago. We all have to *remember* them in order to enjoy their music.

Captain Marvel’s lead character, however, can’t indulge this kind of nostalgia because she can’t remember her past. In Hala, the capital of the Kree civilisation – which is another of those skyscraper-heavy alien cities realised via CGI that we always get in these types of films – a young woman called Vers (Brie Larson) is being trained by a mentor-type called Yon-Rogg (Jude ‘Does anyone not guess that he’ll turn out to be a bad guy?’ Law). She’s spunky, sassy and headstrong, has superpowers, and works as part of a gang of military commandos. She’s also sexy, but not in the usual superhero-film way. This character’s allure comes from self-assuredness and arch lines of dialogue delivered in heroic close-ups. She may wear a figure-hugging uniform, but she feels quite different – more confident, more independent, less fanboy-baiting – from Wonder Woman’s cosplay costume or Harley Quinn’s Lolita act. This film doesn’t succumb to ‘male gaze’ objectifying.

Early on, Vers has a one-on-one chat with a mystical deity, the Supreme Intelligence, which seems to run the Kree civilisation. Everyone sees this spirit as someone unique, and Vers’s vision is of a middle-aged American woman played by Annette Bening. Sadly, it’s a fairly clunky opening act, inelegantly full of setup rather than storytelling. In fact, it’s not so much storytelling as ‘storytold’: we have to take in a lot of information, which isn’t always elucidated very clearly.

The upshot is that Vers is struggling to remember her past. When some bad guys later rifle through the deep folds of her consciousness (it’s that type of film), she sees glimpsed flashbacks to what we recognise as a Top Gun-style life on Earth (‘Higher, faster, further, baby!’ being the Marvel equivalent of ‘I feel the need: the need for speed!’). The villains are looking inside her mind because they’re hunting for a faster-than-light engine, which Vers was somehow involved with. But inconveniently for both her and them, she has amnesia.

Thankfully, after 22 minutes, Vers is flung across space and crash lands onto Earth – specifically into a LA branch of Blockbusters in 1995. Our theme of nostalgia really kicks into gear now, whether you’re old enough to remember the 1990s or not. If you are, there’s a whole level of pleasure-through-recognition to be had: we see a poster for True Lies, a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, a GameBoy, cyber-cafes. We hear tracks by Smashing Pumpkins and Elastica. We smirk at the now-dated technology and cars and fashions. It’s all joyful nostalgia, well deployed to get both laughs and to set the scene. (The later use of the No Doubt track I’m Just a Girl in a fight scene, however, may be a contender for the most literal-minded use of a song in any movie ever.)

The film is also wallowing in its own history. The character of Nick Fury – who arrives on the scene after Vers’s crash-landing into the video store – has been an MCU stalwart since the first entry in the series in 2008. Now we have the joy of seeing him at an earlier stage of his life – before the Avengers, before his ‘death’, before he was the leader of SHIELD. The role is still played by Samuel L Jackson, but he’s been de-aged digitally. The special-effects work is utterly magnificent. Seriously, it is a seamless piece of artifice. Fury looks to be about 40 and you very quickly forget that he’s being played by a 69-year-old. All this wizardry also means that we get an additional level of Proustian recollection: Sam Jackson was already a huge Hollywood star in the mid-90s, and another chance to see the actor who played Jules from Pulp Fiction or Zeus from Die Hard with a Vengeance running around on the cinema screen is a real thrill.

Soon, Fury and Vers are thrown together by the plot and they make such an entertaining buddy-cop team-up that you’re left wondering whether we needed all that boring setup on Halo. The actors’ chemistry and comic timing are wonderful and the film comes alive any time they’re in the same scene. How much more elegant and more instantly fun would it have been to *start* with Vers’s arrival on Earth, and for us to learn about her as she and Fury discover things together?

But, a bit regrettably, there’s a plot to service. At least we have Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, a leader of the antagonistic Skrull race who’s seemingly the bad guy of the story but who actually turns out to have a more noble intent. The actor is developing a nice career of playing entertaining foes in genre films (cf Rogue One, Ready Player One), and is great value here. But as the film develops, there are two strands going on at the same time: a story in the present with Talos and his plans, and a story in the past. It’s the story in the past that’s the more resonant.

Via an impressive variety of means – snatched memories, secret military files, exposition from other characters, photos, audio recordings – Vers pieces together her backstory. She was, as we suspected, originally from Earth and was a hotshot test pilot called Carol Danvers. (When taken away from Earth by the selfish Ron-Yogg, his only clue to her identity was a damaged military identity badge showing just the final four letters of her name.) This mixture of tools to tell the story keeps things fresh and interesting, and we feel like we’re discovering information along with our central character. The quest to find out what’s going on – who exactly Vers is, who Annette Bening’s Supreme Intelligence was based on – leads Vers and Fury to a old fighter-pilot colleague of Carol’s called Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). The latter can remember Carol from six years previously, despite only being about eight years old – another instance of this film playing with how memories work.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now reached 21. Captain Marvel is the 21st film in the megalithic series that shows no signs of slowing down now it can buy alcohol in America and adopt children in the UK. Whether this entry becomes as memorable as some of the big-hitters that have come before is debatable. But it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well made. It’s also very funny. A scene where characters need to wait several, silent seconds for an audio file to load on Maria’s 1990s PC is a mini-masterpiece of humour and deserves to be remembered for a long time.

Eight Stan Lees on a bus reading the script for Mallrats in preparation for his real-life cameo in that 1996 comedy movie out of 10

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Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: LA and Hawaii in the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all – this isn’t an adaptation or even a horror film. Instead, it’s a romcom whose inclusion in this blogging project is solely down to a throwaway gag that sees the lead character writing a Dracula musical. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released during a noughties vogue for movies produced by Judd Apatow which centred on immature characters struggling with the trials of everyday life. Toying with gross-out humour and using the improvisational skills of their casts, the phase had kicked into gear with the out-and-out comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), then included the watchable The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the decent Knocked Up (2007), the sublime Superbad (2007), the funny Bridesmaids (2010) and several others before its popularity petered out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall tells the story of Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the script). He writes the incidental music for an ersatz-CSI TV drama, but is thrown into despair when he’s dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). We follow him as he plummets into depression then decides to go on holiday to Hawaii, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he ends up in the same luxury hotel as Sarah and her new beau, the English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Best performance: It’s a cast with a lot of US TV comedy connections: Segal from How I Met Your Mother, Bell from The Good Place, Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as Peter’s brother, Jack McBrayer from 50 Rock as a newly-wed at the hotel… Even Paul Rudd – once best known as Mike from Friends – has a small role as a surfing instructor. When Peter arrives at the Turtle Bay resort, he meets receptionist Rachel Jansen. She’s a stunningly gorgeous young woman who takes a shine to him, despite his self-pitying neuroses. Rachel is played by Mila Kunis (the voice of Meg in Family Guy, to keep the TV comedy theme going), who’s able to fulfil the function of the male lead’s object of desire and yet also feel like a self-assured character in her own right.

Best bit: When Peter attempts to hit on Rachel, he boasts that he’s writing a rock opera but is then immediately sheepish when she asks what it’s about. ‘Dracula,’ he says without conviction. ‘And eternal love. That’s the theme, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand.’ He also says that his dream is to stage it with puppets. (Jason Segel is an admitted Muppets fan. Roping in puppet experts from The Jim Henson Company to help with this film led to him co-writing and starring in a reboot of the Muppets movie series in 2011.) Later in the evening, Rachel forces Peter to sing a number from his musical on stage in a crowded bar. He’s nervous, saying that out of context the song might not work, then launches into a plaintive piano ballad which he sings in an affected Broadway manner. Sample lyric: ‘And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him/Take it from me, but I swear I won’t let it be so/Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated/His head on my mantle is how I will let this world know.’ As their relationship develops, eventually becoming sexual, Rachel urges him to finish writing the opera. Back home in LA, he does just that – and the film’s climax is built around a well-received performance of Taste for Love: A Dracula Puppet Musical at a small theatre. Peter and the other puppeteers are visible on stage, a la Avenue Q; the characters are clearly modelled on the Jim Henson idiom. It’s silly but sweet.

Review: There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments here, and the story never takes you by surprise, but this is an amiable-enough romantic comedy with a good cast. The Dracula musical – based on a real incident in Segel’s past – adds an oddball tone to all the conventional storytelling. It works well, especially when we see the triumphant performance. (Incidentally, Jonah Hill as a hotel worker who idolises Aldous was such a success in his scenes with Russell Brand that the actors later teamed up for spin-off: the more overtly funny film Get Him to the Greek, in which Brand reprised Aldous Snow and Hill played a new character.)

Seven little holidays with Hitler out of 10