John Landis’ iconic and groundbreaking film turns 40 and is no less impressive in the modern era…
When you think of iconic horror there may be a number of images which spring to mind. It might be Leatherface doing his tribal chainsaw dance at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, or the chest bursting scene in Alien, Johnny Depp being pulled into a bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street, before it explodes out in blood. You might also cast your mind back to an image burned into horror junkies retinas…the transformation sequence in An American Werewolf in London.
John Landis had made his name in comedy. He’d honed and let loose the anarchic talents of John Belushi in Animal House and The Blues Brothers (alongside Dan Aykroyd). As it would transpire through the 1980’s, Landis was nothing if not diverse and a macabre side saw him segue into horror (laced with comedy). Werewolf aside his most iconic horror work wouldn’t be in feature film, but in short film, the accompanying film to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (and music video). In almost everything he’s done there has certainly been an underpinning of comedy, even when the main genre was otherwise. There’s also often been an indie sensibility. A kind of unrepentant sense of whimsy in putting together films creatively on restrictive budgets. Whether it was true or not, the films felt decidedly like Landis got the result he wanted (certainly in his best works) and probably had a ball doing it.
In 1981, horror was on something of a resurgence. The previous decade had stepped away from the almost quaint misadventures in 50’s and 60’s B pictures. Italian horror was increasing exponentially in popularity, renowned for a penchant for blood and elaborate deaths. Between Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter, the unstoppable stalker had revolutionised the slasher genre. There would be another shift through the 80’s too, and Landis’ first major foray into horror would mark itself out as a trendsetter. The horror/comedy. There had sometimes been a retrospective sense of comedy in revising old school B pictures. The campiness and theatrical acting, occasionally combined with outlandish storylines (The Blob) to make them unintentionally funny. Landis would begin a trend that saw some excellent film-makers able to blend some humour, with genuine horror thrills, in a time when special effects gurus like Rob Bottin, Rick Baker and Tom Savini were further revolutionising their field and pushing the extremes of on-screen gore. Those comedy underpinnings often allowing them to get away with more, or indeed adding a sci-fi edge that brought it away from a sense of grounded reality. At the same time the censors were relaxing in comparison to a few decades prior.
Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Fright Night, They Live and more, combining their genre thrills with a certain comedic touch. In An American Werewolf in London, arguably the one of all, which has the kind of balance that inspired a more modern spate of films such as Shaun of the Dead or Attack the Block, our two American protagonists trekking the moors of rural backwater England, are quickly attacked by something. Said something is a werewolf which bites David Naughton but kills Griffin Dunne. One is cursed to become a werewolf (Naughton), whilst the other is cursed to remain in purgatory until this new lycanthrope is killed and the curse is broken. The set up is simple but the film quickly begins to fragment our protagonist. Plagued with nightmares and blackouts, as London is gripped by mysterious killings, David is also visited by the restless and increasingly decomposing spirit of his former friend.
There’s a little more complexity than some may remember with David’s psychological breakdown as he suffers unexpected physical symptoms. There’s a denial, even as lucid as his meetings with his old buddy are. All the while he’s further drawn to a Nurse who has been looking after him played by Jenny Agutter. Who doesn’t love Jenny Agutter? Put your hands up and hang your head in shame. So the romance aspect is doomed, right out of a fairy tale. Girl meets boy, boy just so happens to be a werewolf. Culminating in the tragic finale.
Of course, whilst this excellent blend of horror and wry comedy would form a basis for many films that came in its wake, we have to go back to Rick Baker’s work for the show stopping aspect. The werewolf transformation is still incredible. It’s a combination of the animatronics, make up, the performance, the sound. This is indeed something that has never been successfully recreated in similar CGI sequences. Something about practical effects that have a physical existence on set, just gives the effect a solidity, a weight and a movement that CGI still hasn’t cracked. This is particularly true when a master craftsman like Baker has produced the make up effects. The transformation itself actual feels painful. It’s kind of horrific, but brilliantly so.
Aside from that standout sequence though, the film sensibly rations its gruesome moments but the makeup throughout is excellent, not least the increasing decay of Jack (Dunne) whose face begins rotting. The effects still look great and indeed do hold up perfectly, in no small part down to an over reliance on CGI in modern horror. The energetic direction and brisk pace mean the film holds up brilliantly. Apart from anything else, it still remains an effortlessly enjoyable blast. The principle cast are great. Naughton and Dunne’s quirky chemistry and fish out of water routine works well here. Viewers of eagle eye and a predilection for Bottom (that’s the UK sitcom I might add) will recognise an early role for Rik Mayall (alongside Brian Glover of Kes and indeed Bottom fame). The film’s rare gift to have emotional resonance, gruesome horror and comedy, all with aplomb make it (still) one of the best in the genre. It’s the blueprint to which many follow.
What are your thoughts on An American Werewolf in London? How does it hold up? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/