Four-Legged Hound from Hell
You really scared me, you shithead.
Are you going to help me up?
Jack takes David’s extended hand to help him up when
THE WOLF MONSTER SPRINGS!
EXT. MOORS – NIGHT
The lunging beast brings Jack down in one fell swoop.
David falls back on his ass. Jack is screaming and
struggling as he is torn to shreds. David scrambles to
his feet and runs in complete panic. Jack’s screams
and the wolf’s roars combine.
-John Landis, An American Werewolf in London script draft
The unfortunate story of David Kessler and his gruesome transformation into a feral beast began with John Landis’s first draft of An American Werewolf in London, written in 1969; the then young director discussed the story with Rick Baker during filming of Schlock — Landis’s first feature film, as well as one of Baker’s early make-up effects works. Landis’s core idea for the film’s transformation sequence was that such a radical bodily change would be painful for whoever was subject to it — as opposed to previous Werewolf films, where the lap dissolve technique implied that the performer had to remain still in one place. Baker recalled in Beware the Moon: “we both loved the old Lon Chaney stuff and especially the transformations in those kinds of movies; and he just said it didn’t seem right to him that if you were gonna change into a Werewolf or some other creature that you would just sit in the corner of a chair like Lon Chaney Jr. and be perfectly still except each time you’re in a slightly different position when you do the lap dissolves. [Landis] said, […] ‘I want to show the pain. I want him to be able to move around, he’s gonna pull his clothes off, we’re gonna see the whole body change — so figure out how to do that.”
Baker immediately began envisioning how the transformation should be achieved effects-wise. However, Landis’s story had to wait over a decade to be brought to life on the screen. It was only after the success of the director’s earlier films — particularly The Blues Brothers — that the film was finally greenlit by the producers of PolyGram Pictures. During that time, Baker had worked on other projects, and at one point accepted to work on another Werewolf film — thinking that Landis’s would never actually get made. “I had kind of given up on it,” Baker recalled, “I figured it was never going to happen; and as the way things work out, I get a call one day from Joe Dante and Mike Finnell saying, ‘we have this Werewolf movie we’re gonna do, would you be interested in doing it?’ I said, ‘yeah’; and this was The Howling. I started out doing some designs, working on it, and thought this’ll be my chance to use my transformation stuff I’ve thought up, and I didn’t really wanna tell John about it.”
In a twist of fate, Landis finally got his project approved properly when Baker was doing preliminary work on The Howling. “When I called him and said, ‘hey, I got the money, let’s go!’ And he went, ‘I’m doing a Werewolf movie,’ I was like, ‘what?!'” The subsequent conversation was less than pleasant on both sides. Rick Baker recalled, “‘you bastard!’ He was, like, yelling at me on the phone. ‘Well, you’re not going to do a transformation?’ ‘Well, yeah. I kind of told them somewhat about how…’ ‘You son of a bitch!’ He was like screaming at me and stuff.” Baker’s ultimate decision was to leave the project, both because of said call and because his The Howling designs were becoming too similar to what he had reserved for American Werewolf. Effects work for The Howling was left with Rob Bottin — Baker’s protegé at the time — at the helm. This also served to ‘test’ some of those effects in order to refine them for American Werewolf. Shortly after the release of The Howling, Bottin told Fangoria that “I learned from my mistakes, and Rick will be able to see them and learn from them, too.”
I’m sorry I called you a meat loaf, Jack.
New bolts of agonizing pain wrack through David’s body. He grabs at his pants, pulling them off as if they are burning him. Standing naked in the center of the room, David gasps for air.
He falls to his knees and then forward on his hands. He remains on his hands and knees, trying to master his torment; but it’s no use. On all fours he gives himself over to the excruciating hurt and slowly begins to change.
The metamorphosis from man into beast is not an easy one. As bone and muscle bend and reform themselves, the body suffers lacerating pain. We can actually seeDavid’s flesh move, the rearranging tissue. His mouth bleeds as fangs emerge. His whole face distorts as his jaw extends, his skull literally changing shape before our eyes. His hands gnarl and his fingers curl back as claws burst forward.
The camera pans up to show the full moon outside through the window. David’s moans change slowly into low guttural growls. We hear the four footfalls as the WOLF begins to walk. As the camera pans back over the room, we see the front door pushed open and hear the Wolf padding off into the darkness.
-John Landis, An American Werewolf in London script draft
The director’s idea of the transformation was a visceral one — he wanted to portray the pain that is a direct consequence of such a significant bodily mutation over a short period of time. “I always thought if your body is gonna go through such a huge change, it’s gonna hurt,” Landis said. “I wanted it to be painful.” When it came to the audience, he wanted to evoke in the spectators different emotions; the transformation had to be “horrifying, but also morbidly funny — funny peculiar and funny ha-ha; tragic, raw, terrible, tortuous, grotesque — all of these things, yet fascinating rather than repulsive.” The process had also to be achieved in a realistic, believable way, and was to be shot in bright light until the end of the scene — where an immature Werewolf form (dubbed the ‘man-beast’) is shown in the darkness. Another demand from Landis was that the scene had to be shot in bright light. The resulting sheer complexity of the sequence dictated that it had to be shot last — in the final week of production.
Baker obviously wanted to distance himself from the groundbreaking effects of The Howling, for which Dick Smith had suggested the use of bladders. Baker opted for sharp structural changes — hard structures, instead of inflating ones, pushing from beneath the skin. Initially, Baker’s intention was to build a full transforming animatronic able to perform a self-contained mutation. However, Landis wanted the sequence to focus on specific body parts one after the other for dramatic effect; as such, a series of ‘Change-o-Parts’ was instead devised.
Given the transformation had to be realistic, Baker approached it from a scientific point of view. Humans and wolves are both vertebrates, and both mammals — as such, most components of their skeletons are homologous to each other. “The way I decided to approach the transformation was through comparative anatomy,” Baker explained to Cinefex. “I didn’t have a wolf skeleton in my collection, but I had a dog’s and that was close enough. Comparing it to ahuman, you find that many of the bones are similar; it’s just that the proportions are different. I made lists of the differences — what the major changes were, whether this got shorter or that got longer — then figured out how we could get a suit out of this, in the later stages, that made sense.”
The ‘Change-o-Parts’, based on a cast of David Naughton’s body, included the head, hands, legs, and back. Their skin was moulded in ‘Smooth-on #724’, a urethane compound with considerable stretching abilities (and also “delightfully unpredictable,” according to sculptor Tom Hester). All of them functioned through similar principles. The pneumatic rams that caused the exterior structural changes were home-made air rams, with a large syringe at the operating end and one or more normal-sized syringes in the end that was internal to the puppet. The syringes faced each other, with needles replaced by plastic tubing. When the operator pushed the plunger on the operating end down, air pressure would push the smaller plunger out at the other end. An acrylic form representing the mutated shape was attached to the end of the smaller plunger. Thus, when the plunger was pushed out, the shape was pushed out against the skin, creating the change. Certain parts were also constructed as make-up appliances, and subtle changes were included in each stage of transformation.
When the transformation begins, Kessler snaps in sudden pain, and after undressing for the burning sensation, he looks at his right hand, which now sports a slightly discoloured appearance. The next shot of his face presents a subtle appliance on the underside of his nose, as well as loss of eyebrow hair (a choice derived from the fact wolves do not have them).
During the transformation, Kessler gets progressively hairier. Close-up shots of the hair growing were actually achieved with long hair pulled through urethane skin sections from behind — an action that was filmed in reverse to achieve the desired effect. To ease filming — given that Naughton was not a hairy person at all — the transformation stages with most hair were filmed first, with hair being progressively trimmed to portray the earlier phases. Progressive stages of dentures were also used.
Kessler falls to his knees; at this point, there is a hair increase, as well as a subtle appliance on the corners of the mouth. His hand elongates; this effect is the first ‘Change-o-Part’ to be seen, and involves cable-controlled fingers and a pneumatic ram to achieve the actual stretching motion. The cables had to be able to slide within the arm, so that as the hand stretched they would maintain the ability to control the fingers. The hand was filmed as an insert, aligned with Naughton’s own arm.
In the next shot, the stretched hand is represented by a make-up appliances, and there is a further hair increase and minor facial changes. Changes in the other hand, the legs, and the feet were also represented by respective ‘Change-o-Parts’ that followed similar principles to the first ‘Change-o-Hand’.
Kessler falls on all fours, and his back mutates — showing bones cracking and rearranging themselves. The ‘Change-o-Back’ was built from the lower neck to the glutes, and involved various pneumatically-maneuvered spine and bone shapes and independent vertebrae mechanisms, as well as moving shoulder forms. The air-lines of the rams all converged at a large plywood board. Subtle transforming effects were also provided by small bladders included within overlapping layers beneath the skin. The ‘Change-o-Back’ was the most complex puppet of the sequence, and needed at least ten or more crewmembers to operate it in proper coordination.
After the back changes, Kessler’s transforming body was represented by a fake foam rubber torso — used in combination with a new facial appliance including more lupine teeth, a brow piece, hair pieces and facial hair, as well as hand and arm appliances. The torso included an internal bone structure cast into the foam skin, as well as shoulder blades that were inclined at an angle. “That was the goofiest-looking stage,” Baker admitted, “which fortunately went by pretty quickly. The face was still relatively human, but it had this thick, dark mane from the neck on back. It sort of reminded me of the ‘goons’ — characters in the old Popeye cartoons. This make-up would be pretty together by lunchtime. David had the big rib cage and back on, hand appliances that only left him some use of his thumbs, the fur mane, the face and teeth — and that’s how he went to lunch. I have this hysterical memory of him trying to eat fish and chips all through all that and having a hard time of it.”
Kessler rolls over and falls on his back; there is a new facial make-up and a denser wig. To portray the grotesque and painful elongation of his body, Naughton lay inside a hole underneath the elevated set’s floor, with only his head and arms (all in make-up) visible. A fake lupine body including torso and legs was applied and blended with his head and arms. The body had an inner armature able to bend at specific joints; rods attached to the hips and concealed by the floor were used to manipulate the legs. Baker only got the desired puppeteered animation after filming, when the crewmembers were trying to detach the rods from the puppet. The scenes, however, could not be reshot because they were tightly scheduled in the final week of production.
After another stage of transformation with a body suit, and a further one with a hairier torso appliance, Kessler turns his head upwards — and it mutates horrifyingly. This, for Landis, was the culminating moment of the transformation. “Purposedly, John wanted the head to change last,” Baker explained. “He didn’t want the head to change very much because he wanted the transformation to basically almost climax with the head change.” Interestingly enough, Baker’s original intent was for David’s features to directly mutate into those of the Werewolf — a task that was actually more technically challenging than what was actually done — but Landis opposed that idea. This created the difficulty of creating an aesthetically appropriate stage. “To have David’s face, with everything else already closer to a wolf, would have looked dumb,” Baker said. The problem was solved with further make-up applications on Naughton’s face leaning towards lupine characteristics.
The ‘Change-o-Heads’ constructed for this phase featured a fiberglass inner structure and mechanisms cast in water-extended resin (because the urethane skin had a plasticizer component that corroded plastic). Both heads featured expanding forms for the brow area, snout, and cheekbones. Unlike the other ‘Change-o-Parts’, the extending snout was operated through cable and sheath mechanisms. Through holes in the underskull, acrylic forms could be pushed outward to take the structural changes into effect. The first ‘Change-o-Head’ began from the apperance of the last make-up stage, and stretched up to its range.
A full make-up appliance matching the final configuration of the first ‘Change-o-Head’ acted as a bridge between the two animatronic heads. Its main purpose was to show David’s transformed eyes during the transformation, as Baker was worried that he could not build realistic enough eyes for the ‘Change-o-Heads’; for that reason, he sculpted the heads based on a cast of Naughton’s face with a pained expression, and had them appear with their eyes closed in pain. “I was worried about making eyes that look real enough,” Baker recalled, “and getting the eye mechanism to work in this head that was gonna be stretching and moving. We purposedly closed the eyes in the Change-O-Head — the eyes were squinting up in pain because I just knew it was gonna be a problem to make the eyes look right.”
The second head began from the first’s final, changed configuration matched by the bridge-appliance. It was also designed to be asymmetrical — an intended effect that was not shown in the final film. Baker explained: “one side is more human, one side is more wolf-like, and my thinking was you could start shooting on the human side, it would turn and then you’d get more out of the Change-o-Head. But we found out as we were shooting it, when we turned the head faster — the more movement there was, [the more] you actually didn’t see the stretching-out of the face, which was the kind of big payoff in this whole piece; so we ended up not using it that way with the turning. We ended up with just a straight profile [shot] with it kind of stretching and shaking as it grows out.” Also included in the final cut was a straightforward frontal shot, which partially showed the asymmetrical details (including the subtle change in colouration on the nose). A partial head was built for the growing ear insert shot. Also built, but not actually used for the film, was also a third ‘Change-o-Head’ specifically designed to portray Kessler’s oversized canines erupting from his gums.
The transformation scene ends with an immature Werewolf form, dubbed the ‘man-beast’ by the crew. Sculptor Tom Hester elaborated on its creation: “we had an additional casting of the body for the transformation scene, so we used that, folded it up into a crouched position and then just fabricated some foam arms and shoulders, and I think there was a head, [which] was another casting from the original wolf mould. I took that and carved it down, shrunk it down a little bit. It wasn’t meant to be as big as the final Werewolf. So it was all just sort of cut and paste Polyfoam and then I put latex over the surface of it and laid hair on the body.” The ‘man-beast’ was a rod puppet devoid of internal mechanisms, entirely maneuvered from beneath the elevated set.
The cop enters a side door to find several bloodied corpses. He hears something, looks over to see the Wolf hunched over a victim. The Wolf turns, eyes blazing, mouth dripping with blood. We see it clearly for the first time. It is truly a hound from hell, its wolfen features a hideous sight. Its eyes fierce, burning green. The Wolf roars and starts for the cop. The cop rushes out and slams the door behind him.
-John Landis, An American Werewolf in London script draft
When it came to showing the actual Werewolf, the director had a precise set of ideas on its appearance. With the intention to visually distinguish his character from previous iterations of the concept, Landis wanted the beast to adhere to a concise, yet striking guideline; he described the Werewolf as “a four-legged hound from hell.” His script describes the beast vaguely, frequently referring to its “blazing eyes”; it also briefly says that “its wolfen features are twisted and demonic.”
Whereas Baker was leaning more towards a bipedal, more humanoid creature, Landis was adamant about the design following his idea — a powerfully-built quadrupedal Monster. “I wanted it to be a biped, and I was actually hoping for something a little more on the man side as well,” Baker said, “I always thought it was kind of interesting, that kind of combination of animal and person. But John said, ‘no, four-legged hound from hell.'” Landis added: “I always envisioned it to be four-legged. I wanted it to be this great big beast.”
Several different concepts were considered but discarded, including one by Craig Reardon. Baker found the inspiration for final Werewolf in a dog he owned at the time — a Keish Hound named Bosco. “I had two dogs at that time,” Baker recalled. “I had a German Shepherd — a white German Shepherd — and a Keish Hound, or Keeshond as they’re called sometimes, which was this hairier dog and kind of almost wolf-like. A lot of times I’d look in the mirror and I’d make faces and kind of like be working on sculptures and it looks like me and my dog was there so I was like — okay. He’s kind of like a wolf, you know, he’s got four legs, he had this big mane of hair which the wolf kind of had. So yeah, [the Werewolf] was very much based on my dog Bosco.”
The head of the Werewolf was also designed to implement several features at specific angles. “It’s also sculpted in a very angular way,” Rick Baker said in an interview for Landis’s own book, Monsters in the Movies. “The brows are very angular and there are 45° angles all through it. There is something scary about 45° angles.”
Actually bringing the Werewolf’s four-legged form to life was another challenge. A full animatronic character was immediately discarded, and a suit version was supposedly attempted – but deemed unfeasible. Baker eventually got the inspiration from his own childhood games. He explained: “late one night, I was sitting in my living room and it came to me. I thought of a wheelbarrow race. So I stretched out my legs over the edge of a chair and my arms out in front, testing the balance, seeing if I could shift around while still holding my weight. Then I thought, ‘what if we had a flat surface to support the weight — like a diving board with wheels — where we could move it around and vary the height?”
This concept became the base of the Werewolf rig, which combined a suit for the upper half of the Werewolf and a dolly for the lower half, with a slant board supporting the weight of the performer and the lower legs puppeteered with wires or rods. Devised by Doug Beswick, the system had a jointed waist that could bend naturally from side to side, and a counterweight in the rear section to decrease the weight the performer had to support. The suit included arm extensions and a cable-controlled head. Given the technique, it had to be shot with the appropriate camera angles. The two suit performers were Kevin Brennan (whose proportions served as reference for construction of the suit) and Brendan Hughes. Brennan “was a trained dancer who had this really strong torso so he could hold himself in there at this awkward angle,” first assistant director David Tringham said, “and just be with his legs sticking out the end with nothing to support him really.”
Three insert heads were also built: a hero animatronic head with complete cable-controlled functions, and two stunt heads used for shots of the attacks. The stunt head could be fitted with soft or hard teeth depending on the action it had to perform. For the heads, the jaw was a simple hand-grip caliper mechanism, with handles moved in opposite directions to open and close the jaw. For certain shots of the moving Werewolf up close, Baker puppeteered the stunt head while sitting on the moving camera dolly.
Before filming Jack’s death, Baker warned actor Griffin Dunne about not to damage the stunt head — which at the time was brand new — with his acted fighting. Dunne did not exactly follow the guidelines, as Baker recalled: “first take, he grabs hold of the wolf and rips the foam face right off the skull. It was like, ‘okay… this is a good start.’ I was none too pleased about it; and I considered putting the hard teeth in. You know, I was thinking, ‘okay, if that’s how he’s going to play, let’s put the hard teeth in.’ [Of course] I didn’t put the hard teeth in, but when John said ‘action’ [for the new take] I was just like beating the crap out of Griffin with this head. It was just like I took my anger out on Griffin and I was just hitting him with this damn thing and just going [on with it]. I think it made the scene that much better. I was like, ‘if you’re going to play rough, I’m going to play rough too.”
The Werewolf was originally supposed to be shown only in sparse and quick cuts; for that reason, Baker intentionally sculpted it with a fixed expression. “That’s one reason he’s sculpted with an extreme kind of expression to begin with. I was worried that if we rely totally on the mechanism to make the expression that they would use a part when it isn’t really making an expression — you know, we’d shoot something but they’d cut in before or after when it was [emoting] so I thought if it’s only going to be this long, let’s make it look scary. No matter, even if we’re not pulling any cables or doing anything.”
What Baker had not foreseen was that Landis would be so satisfied with the Werewolf that he decided to show the creature far more than originally intended. “I became enamored of Rick’s work, so I showed it too much. I still think when I see the movie you see it too much. My favourite shot of it in the picture is the guy in the tube, when he collapses on the escalator and looks down, and the wolf enters like that at the bottom of the escalatorThat’s my favourite shot because it looks so fucking big! Like ‘what is that?’ You know? And you don’t really see it, but you see it. I like that.”
An artist’s worst critic is himself, and Baker is no different — when interviewed about the film decades after its production, he said that “I cringe looking at some of the stuff in the transformation. It was thirty years ago and I was thirty years old and the average age of my crew was like nineteen. There were kids who had never worked on a film before. I do think it’s pretty amazing that people still hold it in pretty high regard, this thing that was done by a thirty year old and nineteen year olds who’d never done this stuff.”
For more images of the Werewolf, visit the Monster Gallery.