An American Werewolf in London, 1981.
Directed by John Landis.
Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine and Don McKillop.
After surviving an animal attack in which his friend is killed, an American backpacker travelling through England finds himself undergoing a terrifying transformation when the moon is full.
We started this month with a look at the original werewolf classic The Wolf Man, brought to us by the monster masters at Universal. However, if we’re talking about classic werewolf films, then, in my view, there is only one that rivals, if not surpasses, the 1941 classic for supremacy; the gory moonlit hilarious horror of John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London.
With a title like An American Werewolf in London, there is little mystery regarding what the film is about. David is an American who ends up in London. He turns into a werewolf and then proceeds to have a merry old time. The clever trick that writer/director John Landis uses to work around this spoiler of a title is to derive suspense, not from what will happen to David, but when it will happen. The first hour focuses on David and Alex, a nurse who cares for him, as they enjoy a whirlwind romance, the film playing almost like a romantic drama. This slow train to the full moon also allows for character development for David, showing him as a likeable, charming guy, serving to make his eventual transformation into a monster all the more tragic.
The tone is perhaps among the best blending of horror and comedy out there, with Landis (a director mainly known for comedies) melding full moon tinged terror with a dark sense of humour, the film moving gracefully between moments of out and out horror and hilarious cartoonish carnage. The stand out horror set-piece is the now infamous chase through the London underground. A short but brilliantly staged moment in which David pursues a victim through the eerily empty halls of a train station, the man’s panicked steps echoing through the silence, with the tension heightening as we cut to the point of view shots of the wolf barrelling after him. However, arguably the most violent sequence is also among the funniest, the blood-soaked finale of David terrorising Piccadilly Circus. The carnage unfolding in the most over the top spectacular fashion as cars smash into each other, their drivers catapulted through their windshields as limbs and heads fly through the air like a cartoon. It’s very gruesome but also so ridiculous that you can’t help but burst out laughing.
However, my personal favourite horror moments are the various nightmare sequences that torment David before he changes, his mind haunted by images of himself running naked through the woods and feasting upon deer like a wild animal. Or, in one of the rare jump scares that actually scared me, seeing himself as a yellow-eyed snarling demon. The weirdest and most frightening dream comes when David and his families quiet evening at home is interrupted by a squad of Nazi werewolves who massacre them in a hail of gunfire. It’s a scene that seems to come out of nowhere, but one that rather cleverly ties together both David’s fears about his lycanthropy, but also, his Jewish identity in a rather original and memorable fashion. That and the thought of Nazi werewolves kicking in your door to ruin your day is pretty terrifying.
Of course, the undisputed highlight of the film is David’s transformation. Quite possibly the most iconic and most horrifying werewolf transformation ever committed to film. While some werewolf films might just show the claws and hair growth and be done with it, American Werewolf goes several steps further and shows the sheer agony that such a dramatic change would inflict upon someone. David screaming throughout his ordeal as his hands and feet stretch into paws, his body twists into that of a dog, hair erupts from every pore, and fangs force their way into his mouth. Perhaps the most memorable and nightmarish image of all is when his face deforms and elongates into a snarling snout, his screams reforming into a howl. It’s a terrifying and iconic scene that the film, while coming close, never quite tops. The real star of this scene is legendary make-up artist Rick Baker, whose phenomenal work deservedly won the inaugural Oscar for Best Make-Up and set a benchmark of make-up effects for many horror films to come.
The performances from the cast are uniformly excellent. David Naughton cuts a sympathetic figure as the title character, a likeable fish out of water whose increasingly fragile mental state is compounded by his monstrous change. Jenny Agutter makes for a charming love interest as Alex, her chemistry with Naughton making their scenes have a loving warmth that makes their final face to face confrontation all the more heartbreaking. My favourite performance is Griffin Dunne as Jack, David’s sex-obsessed, wise-cracking friend who is none too pleased about being turned into one of the undead. Dunne is terrific in the role, veering between obligatory ominous warnings about the full moon to hilarious mournfulness as he laments that he never got to sleep with the ever-elusive Debbie Klein. It’s a fun performance that steals the film, with Dunne managing to retain his smarmy wit even as he slowly vanishes under the increasingly ghoulish make-up.
Masterfully melding horror and humour so that you’ll be laughing even as heads are being bitten off, a likeable cast, particularity a show-stealing (and decomposing) Dunne and special make-up effects that still look amazing even after 40 years. An American Werewolf in London is, quite possibly, one of the funniest and most ferocious werewolf films ever made, and certainly one of the best. Check it out and stick to the roads.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★