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Rick Baker won the first of his seven Academy Awards for the revolutionary special effects make up for American Werewolf in London. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (if you haven’t, you should add it to you Netflix queue immediately), it is one of the benchmarks of the horror genre. Written and directed by John Landis, the film is about Jack and David (Griffin Dunne and David Naughton), two American college students on a backpacking vacation in England. After being warned not to go through the moors on the night of the full moon, Jack and David are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed and David is bitten and taken to a hospital.
Even after being visited by Jack’s decaying corpse, David refuses to believe that he is doomed to turn into a werewolf—until it happens. In what is undoubtedly one of cinema’s most realistic werewolf transformations, Landis and Baker do not rely on camera tricks or shadows to show the true horror of the sequence. The two insist on showing every hair follicle, cracked vertebrate and painfully elongated digit in the harsh light of a British sitting room.Ever the cheeky one, Landis chose Bobby Vinton’s haunting version of ‘Blue Moon’ as the score to this jaw-dropping, cringe-inducing scene. Playing softly in the background, the audience hears every crunch and crack as David’s body changes shape. Naughton is particularly brilliant in this sequence and the long hours he spent in make-up surely must have been agonizing. But what is art without sacrifice? His tortured screams and cries of pain chillingly accent the transformation, making it all the more excruciating to watch.
There is a long-standing debate among horror buffs about which 1981 werewolf movie has the better transformation scene: American Werewolf in London or Joe Dante's The Howling. Rick Baker’s influence on The Howling is clear (his protégé Rob Bottin was in charge of the effects), he even received a consultant credit on The Howling. Whatever your preference might be, we all can agree that we've come a long way from the fades and dissolves that showed us Lon Chaney’s transformation in The Wolfman to the bone-cracking emergence of the snout from David Naughton’s boyish face in American Werewolf in London.