An American Werewolf in London (1981)
“John Landis – the director of Animal House brings you a different kind of animal.”
Director: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Joe Belcher
Synopsis: Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.
The werewolf genre enjoyed something of a mini-revival in 1981, what with the release in quick succession of The Howling (May), Wolfen (July) and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, which came out in the UK in August of that year (we won’t mention Roy Ward Baker’s woeful The Monster Club). Landis’s is the best of these three, although The Howling runs it a close second. Of all the classic movie monsters, the werewolf is probably the one that has the least claim on the public’s imagination simply because — with a few exceptions — each werewolf movie is essentially a retelling of the same story which can be boiled down to the following description: guy becomes a werewolf after surviving an attack and kills a few unlucky victims as he feverishly searches for a cure before he kills again. So the success of a werewolf movie depends on how imaginatively that movie can retell this familiar tale, and An American Werewolf in London was so successful because it delivered a fresh spin on an old tale by skilfully combining its horror elements with a hefty dose of humour.
The movie opens with American backpackers David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) arriving on the moors shortly before dusk after hitching a lift. They seek shelter from the rain in a pub with the less-than-comforting name of The Slaughtered Lamb and find the locals within to be less than welcoming. In fact, all conversation stops the moment they enter and everyone stares at them as they stand uncertainly in the doorway (funnily enough, there are a couple of pubs like that round my way). While trying to ingratiate themselves with their fellow drinkers, Jack unwisely asks them about the pentangle he has noticed scrawled on the pub’s wall. It’s a question that instantly kills all conversation for a second time, and the travellers are brusquely invited to leave — over the concerned protests of the landlady — with a mysterious warning to stay to the roads. Of course, David and Jack forget what turns out to be wise advice within minutes of leaving the pub, and it’s not long before they find themselves being stalked by some kind of wolf.
It turns out that this wolf is actually a werewolf, which savagely mauls Jack to death before turning on David. Fortunately for him — or perhaps not so fortunately, considering what’s to come — the villagers, apparently suffering from some pangs of conscience, kill the werewolf with a shotgun before he can do much damage. After catching a dazed glimpse of a naked man lying beside him with blood over his face, David passes out, and the next thing he knows he’s waking up in a London hospital where he’s been placed under the care of Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) and the posh but sexy nurse Alex Price (played by posh but sexy Jenny Agutter) who provides him with some one-to-one recuperative care before taking him back to her flat and treating him to some altogether more enjoyable one-to-one attention.
So everything would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack keeps popping up out of nowhere — literally — even though he is now dead. Even more worrying is the fact that Jack looks dead, with half of his face and throat torn to shreds — a terrific piece of make-up by Rick Baker which is nevertheless overshadowed by the famous transformation scene. Jack informs David that he’s trapped in limbo, which is where he will remain until David breaks the curse of the werewolf by doing away with himself. Despite his obvious concern over the re-appearance of his dead friend, David is understandably sceptical about the possibility of having become a werewolf — until, that is, Creedence Clearwater Revival start singing Bad Moon Rising as he grows increasingly agitated alone in Alex’s flat on the first night of a new full moon…
Although An American Werewolf in London would be an enjoyable movie, anyway, it was understandably sold on the ground-breaking effects used to show David’s bone-crunching transformation into a fully-fledged werewolf. In previous movies, the limitations of the special effects meant that the victim would have to pretty much remain motionless as the transformation was captured with stop-motion photography. But with advances in the technology used, director Landis was for the first time able to show the audience what must surely be a more realistic depiction of the agony a victim must undergo as his bones change size and shape. And it really does look like agony — so much so, in fact, that, after waiting for it to happen for half-an-hour, it’s at this point of the movie that our sympathy for David peaks.
Once this signature scene is out of the way, the movie pretty much reverts to type, with the exception of David encountering Jack for one last time at a seedy cinema showing a cheesy Brit porn flick (filmed especially for this movie) called See You Next Wednesday — a phrase which appears in many of John Landis’s movies. The busty actress in that porn movie, by the way, is Linzi Drew, whose dubious fame has since been eclipsed by that of her son, Tyger Drew-Honey, who plays the oldest son in the BBC sit-com Outnumbered. Jack introduces David to his victims from his frenzied attacks of the previous night, most of whom aren’t too pleased about their situation. So now David has the prospect of being followed around by an ever-increasingly entourage of victims if he doesn’t do something to end his lycanthropic urges…
An American Werewolf in London is a fun film, no doubt about it, and its special effects still hold up pretty well today, particularly when you consider that they were made without the use of CGI. The movie is packed with homages to old movies — both horror and other genres — as diverse as Nosferatu and Gone With the Wind which, to me, is a sign that those who made it love movies as much — if not more than — its audience, which is always a good thing. Inevitably, the nature of the tale ultimately prevents it from being a feel-good movie but, notwithstanding that transformation, when you look back on this movie you’re just as likely to remember the funny parts as the gory ones.
(Reviewed 21st September 2013)