For better or worse, horror films are a staple diet for many kids. Whether you’ve been scarred for life by Jaws or so enamoured with The Exorcist that you’ve clamoured for more, they trigger a response in a viewer unlike any other genre.
But some directors follow a different path. When John Landis unleashed An American Werewolf in London in 1981, its carefully blended mixture of horror and comedy was unprecedented. Critics and audiences alike had become accustomed to genres more or less keeping themselves to themselves, save for such films as Young Frankenstein and Carry On Screaming! – more parodies than genre-benders. And so the response to Werewolf was lukewarm at best. As Roger Ebert put it, “the laughs and the blood coexist very uneasily in this film”. Well, time is a great healer.
Werewolf is now rightfully revered as a cult classic, not least because of the performances of its two leads – David Naughton (as his namesake’s lycanthrope attack survivor) and Griffin Dunne as Jack, David’s best friend who is clawed to shreds at the hands of East Proctor’s fevered beast, returning at key moments in various stages of physical decay urging David to take his own life. Morbid? Yes. Funny? Most definitely. Dunne, long since an established filmmaker in his own right, believes that Landis created something unique.
“I think John was really the first to bring humour and horror together,” he told Northern Soul. “It’s something that was done on a much bigger scale by Ghostbusters, but it’s part of the diet of just about every horror movie that it’ll have a grim macabre joke in it somewhere, and I give John credit for that. When it came out that technique wasn’t hailed as ground-breaking, the majority of comments were actually pretty negative. You know, ‘pick a genre, you can’t be funny when somebody’s being mauled to death’. Well, it turns out you can. Many filmmakers have gone on to prove just that.”
Dunne was a sprightly 25 when he got the part of Jack, flying into a then recession-battered Britain via Concorde.
The way he landed the part was far from straightforward.
“I met with John in an audition room with many other actors, and we talked for about ten minutes,” Dunne recalls. “Nothing particularly leapt out at me about the conversation. I thought because I didn’t read or audition he didn’t want me, and I was kind of relieved. I’ve always been terrible at auditioning, I’ve got dyslexia and it’s difficult to read off the page cold. So I was completely surprised when he called me.
“He said he was sending by a guy with the script to my apartment, and if I was interested in doing it I had to read the script while the guy stood in my hallway, then hand back the script. I like all that cloak and dagger stuff, and I found the script hilarious. The only thing he asked me when we met, and he asked me several times, was if I was claustrophobic.”
The role proved to be a baptism of fire for what was Dunne’s first major feature film.
“It [the make-up] took over five hours every morning. I’d have to get up and sit in the chair at four o’clock in the morning to be on the set. My head was [first] encased in a plaster cast, just breathing through two little straws in my nose. Your life depends on these two little pieces of straw as it’s being put on, inch by inch, millimetre by millimetre. It’s very painstaking, but having it taken off was just as torturous as having it put on. It was like being nibbled to death by ducks.”
Those 4am make-up calls – not to mention the resultant ‘undead’ appearances for which special effects artist Rick Baker won an Academy Award – had a profound effect on Dunne’s emotional state.
Combined with the realisation that his final scenes were to be ‘acted’ by an animatronic puppet to realistically depict his disintegrating corpse, Dunne felt the need to step in and take control of his performance.
“I was threatened by man and machine, it’s an age-old conflict,” he says. “I wasn’t prepared for it. I saw somebody manipulating the hands and I said ‘that’s not even like how I move’, so they said ‘well, you do it’, so I did. It made me feel part of it.”
However, when it came to Oscar night, Dunne couldn’t have been happier for Baker, whose award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling was the first of its kind to be recognised by the Academy (to date, Baker has received the most awards and the most nominations for this category).
“I was thrilled he won, but even more thrilled to hear my name mentioned. It was a heady moment by association. When something happens on a global event like that, just by sheer association with your name being mentioned, your phone rings off the hook as if you won the award.”
Regardless of any acclaim it may have sidestepped back in 1981, Werewolf has gone on to be regarded as a flat-out boundary-pusher within the horror canon. Rather than tread water and trot out what was expected of him, Landis gave the audience a different kind of animal to chew on. Dunne acknowledges that such critical thinking wasn’t really part of the horror genre at the time of Werewolf’s release.
“I don’t think there was the thinking of horror as a genre as worthy as all the others and having an intense fan-base who are not only horror fans but cinephiles, who recognise every reference to every movie and can draw these critical anthropological charts of how people look at movies. If that world existed when I was making Werewolf or when it came out, I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I think it’s grown and grown and grown.”
As positive critical opinion of the genre has blossomed along with the film’s acclaim, so has Dunne’s appreciation for it. With many actors often dismissive of their work once it’s committed to film (Johnny Depp revealed to David Letterman in 2009 that “once my job is done on a film, it’s really none of my business. I stay as far away as I possibly can”), it’s refreshing to know that’s not the case for Dunne.
“I see why it deserves the attention and holds up in people’s memories 35 years later. I think for its innovation, not technologically but story-wise, it’s something you appreciate even more with the passage of time. Any time you get to be part of something that is culturally iconic that’s going to go on for years and years, that’s a big deal in anyone’s life. I’m very lucky and proud of that movie.”
Having worked his way through the ranks of Hollywood as an actor via the likes of Martin Scorsese (After Hours), James Foley (Who’s That Girl) and Robert Redford (Quiz Show), all the while producing features of his own, Dunne made the move into directing.
“Both Landis and Marty are very energetic people, and that energy is very contagious,” he says. “There’s no lagging, you’re not aware of time, you’re not aware of worry and neuroses; it’s an atmosphere of trust between director and actor. It’s an environment [as a director] I always try to find. I remember as an actor always doing my best work for directors who took that on.”
After toying with big budgets (Practical Magic), independents (Fierce People) and anthologies (Movie 43), Dunne is now on course to make a personal documentary about his aunt, acclaimed writer Joan Didion. Suitably encouraged by a Kickstarter fundraising campaign, it’s a long-gestating passion project that he’s hoping will speak for itself.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have gotten so much positive response as well as money from the Kickstarter that right now I’m just focusing on making the best movie that I can, both for my aunt and all of her fans. I think that rather than talk about it I’m gonna do it.”
As for crowdfunding, Dunne is clearly grateful but cautious about how it could change the way films are produced.
“You’ll never get an offer like you will from a big studio, but it’s something that’ll apply to certain projects. Even for a documentary about a prominent literary figure, as much money as we did get, it’s still not enough to make an entire movie. But you have proof for the people you’re going to for the next chunk of money that there’s without a doubt an audience for your film.”
By David Petty
For more information about Griffin Dunne’s Joan Didion documentary, follow this link: www.didiondoc.com