August 21st, is a big anniversary in the world of werewolf horror. Aside from being another great example of transformation, this film perfectly blended the line between horrific gore and dark humor. Considering this is the 35th anniversary, I felt it would be a great project to look back on. This is my…Sunday with “An American Werewolf in London.”
An American Werewolf in London
Release Date: August 21, 1981
Run Time: 97 minutes
Starring: David Naughton
Director: John Landis
Robs Score: 7.5/10
“Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring.”- Jack
On a college break, American students David and Jack are hitchhiking and eventually backpacking through the moors and countryside. Freezing and getting late, the boys stop in a local pub to warm up and grab a bite to eat. The Slaughtered Lamb (still one of the best tavern names) is nice and warm; however the locals do not seem all that pleased that two tourists wandered in. After an awkward exchange the two settle down for some warm tea. The locals for the most part return to their prior beer-induced happiness. Jack notices a five pointed star painted onto the pub wall, and immediately recognizes it as the mark from The Wolf Man film. Perplexed by this, Jack makes the mistake of asking its importance. The patrons once again become silent and stare at the two tourists. Not wanting to make a bigger scene Jack and David decide to leave, much to the displeasure of the landlady who urges the patrons to warn the boys about what lurks in the moors. Jack and David wander through the moors in the darkness when not only does it begin to rain, but they hear guttural growls surrounding them. They decide to bite the bullet and head back to the pub but are attacked by a wolf. Jack is torn apart and the wolf pounces David before the townspeople shoot the wolf dead. As David passes out he notices his friend’s corpse lying there and then looks in the direction of the wolf, which has transformed into a dead man. David wakes several weeks later in a London hospital where he is informed that his friend has died and the “lunatic” that attacked them was also killed. This sends David into frenzy as he claims to have been attacked by a large wolf. Alex Price is the nurse in charge of helping David and the two quickly hit it off. During David’s time in the hospital he is plagued by nightmares, everything from Nazi werewolves attacking his family, to David himself running through the woods eating animals. David is soon visited by the corpse of Jack who informs him that they were attacked by a werewolf and that his spirit is cursed to wander until the werewolf bloodline is ended, and that David has become the last in line. Jack warns him that not only will his spirit wander but David will also become a werewolf and kill more people. Jack urges David to kill himself but David just thinks he is going crazy. A few days later David is released from the hospital and is invited to stay with Alex. They share a wonderful night together, and David is again visited by Jack. Is David crazy, or is he destined to become a werewolf? The people of London won’t have to wait long for the answer as tonight is a full moon. An American Werewolf in London was written and directed by the legendary John Landis, after an experience he had in Yugoslavia.
John Landis is one of the amazing minds behind classics such as Animal House and the Blues Brothers, and we can see those influences here. Landis combines the horrifying experience of lycanthropy with dark and sometimes outrageous humor. The combination of horror and comedy was made famous and, in my opinion, perfected by the Abbott and Costello Meets series, and An American Werewolf succeeds with nice throwback moments to these classics. The film is aware of itself, meaning that this film’s universe is the same as ours. The characters are aware and have seen the classic Wolf Man, thus there is no need to explain the monster’s background, similar to the Abbott and Costello films. Another success of Landis’ script is how he plays with the werewolf rules: the full moon is still vital however the silver bullet myth is thrown away, the traditional man as a wolf look was revamped to give us a more wolf like creature that stalks on all fours, and Landis added the wandering soul problem. All of a sudden we have a new take on a beloved myth.
An American Werewolf in London was praised at the time of its release and to this day still has a very big cult following. However I feel that a lot of the love has more to do with Rick Baker’s amazing effect work than with the story itself. For me personally, the film did not feel all that fluid. While there are many classic and exciting scenes one of the big criticisms that has been pointed out is the lack of character development and how the characters get from point A to point B, which I can agree with to an extent. One trope from most films of the 80’s is the simple idea that physical attraction leads to sex which immediately leads to love, it seemed like such an “easier” time! (See what I did there?) I am of course talking about the relationship between Alex and David and how it seemed to resonate out of thin air. Aside from some playful flirting we get no real reason as to why this beautiful nurse would invite this man, who fully admits to seeing dead people and thinking he is a cursed werewolf, to stay with her! They play with the idea that her “love” for him will play a part in the finale but it really doesn’t, the movie would have ended whether she loved him or not. This isn’t a terrible plot point that ruins the enjoyment of the movie, but I do feel it is a viable example of the strength of the visuals of the film as compared to some of the shortcomings of the actual story.
With that being said, this script actually does have some deep innovative scenes. One of which, and my favorite scene in the whole film, is when David is confronted by Jack and all of the spirits of those he killed. Never before have we seen anything like this where the monster is forced to see his victims and hear them out as they try to convince him to kill himself to free their spirits. That is some deep stuff! The victims are all sitting there mangled and covered in blood as they offer ways for David to kill himself using stereotypical “British” humor. Add in the fact that this is all taking place in a porno theater and we have an amazing scene of horror meeting humor. In my opinion it is an amazing scene not only because of its content but because it perfectly encapsulates what the film is.
Many of the visual decisions made in An American Werewolf are also stunning, the biggest example being the attack scene in the subway. The claustrophobic and tight angle that followed the poor victim gives viewers the impending feeling of dread that the scene required. However, as I had mentioned earlier, what really stands out is the work done by the legendary Rick Baker. He revolutionized the use of prosthetics for this film. The mangled corpse prosthetics for Jack and his deterioration over time was an amazing feat. Yet the coup de grace of Baker’s work is the transformation scene. Baker utilized a mixture of robotic parts with his renowned prosthetics to deliver a chilling, horrifying scene that viewers haven’t seen since the original Wolf Man. Baker not only expanded the extent to which prosthetics and effects can achieve, but also how they can affect future films. For the first time we learn that amazing effects and prosthetics can and will put butts in the seats! Baker was awarded for his amazing work with the first ever Oscar win in the best makeup category.
David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, and Jenny Agutter make up the main cast of An American Werewolf, and all deliver solid performances. The soundtrack is composed of classics by Bobby Vinton, Sam Cooke, as well as Creedence Clearwater Revival. The music added to the film’s feeling of an American lost in London and at times even acts as a character. The song Blue Moon played during the transformation scene adds levity to the horrifying events on screen which once again adds to the overall feel of the film. However the obvious absence of the Warren Zevon classic “Werewolves of London” actually hurt me. It could have been the perfect song for the film!
An American Werewolf in London opened up as both a critical and commercial success, being praised for its humor and amazing visuals. It is still a beloved cult classic that has expanded the idea that makeup and effects are more than just enhancers for a film and was even ranked the 107th greatest film of all time by Empire magazine. It was included in Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights, as well as given the radio treatment in 1997 by the BBC. The film spawned a sequel in 1997 and currently has talks of a remake. Fortunately the remake has hit a standstill because it’s hard to recapture the original draw of a film like this. When An American Werewolf was released audiences had not seen effects like that, it was unique and a huge draw. In today’s time we see CGI and effects everywhere, even in commercials! It just wouldn’t have the same appeal or effect, but that’s just one man’s opinion! Nevertheless An American Werewolf in London is a very solid film that everyone should see at least once in their lives, and the 35th anniversary of its release seems like the perfect time!
(W. Rob Texter);
(E. Chris Arroyo)