Scarecrow and Valentine have their devoted fanbases and the powers that be finally released Dark Night of the Scarecrow on Blu-ray in 2011. But I don't see anyone arguing for either of those movies int he best of the year category. Ghost Story and The Evil Dead, on the other hand, are legit contenders and could have been the top movie in any number of other years. Unfortunately for them, one big bad wolf also hit theaters in 1981.
John Landis defined the horror-comedy genre with An American Werewolf in London. Those seemingly polar opposites played with and against each other to create a masterpiece: when Werewolf is funny, it's hilarious; when Werewolf is scary, it's terrifying.
Landis has more going on here than just a monster movie. Stick with me for a second, it's worth it. I offer to you the theory that An American Werewolf in London is a modern Greek tragedy. Aristotle said, "Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions. . . . Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality—namely, Plot, Characters, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Melody," in his Poetics.
Take a break and watch An American Werewolf in London right now with that thought in mind. It's cool; I'll wait. ...
Welcome back. What do you think? One of the important things to me is the idea of "incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its katharsis of such emotions..." Pity and fear? Werewolf is chock full of each. We pity David, knowing that his best friend has been murdered and that he will soon become a killer himself. We fear and fear for David. Jack elicits pity in that he is a soul unable to attain peace and fear him the doomsayer preaching destruction.
Was that a long enough lesson? I could go on and tell you how An American Werewolf in London fulfills Aristotle's six parts, but I don't want to bore you. (That and I might write a paper about this one day. If you get around to it before I do, let me know. I'd love to read your paper and move on to something else.) Read the key points and come to your own conclusions.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Rick Baker. Yes, the initial transformation David endures is the single greatest practical effect OF ALL TIME. Name something else and I'll tell you that you are wrong. I don't care. The scene is painful to watch (pity and fear, right?) and delivers on all counts.
The other thing I can't leave out is Nazi Werewolf Demons. Those things are f***ing horrific. Dream sequences usually detract from a movie but this one nails it and adds to the inner turmoil we start to feel along with David.
We're going to take a day off from this series, but we'll return with 1982!