by Steve Habrat
Before 1981, John Landis was far from a horror director. He hit it big with 1978’s Animal House, a college sex comedy that was all about chugging Jack Daniels and having a good time. He followed up Animal House with 1980’s The Blues Brothers, another comedy smash that seemed to suggest that Landis was sticking to the comedic track. However, in 1981, Landis revealed that he had a bit of range as a director with An American Werewolf in London, a horror film heavy with dark chuckles. As far as the horror side of An American Werewolf in London is concerned, the film isn’t nearly as scary as you’ve been led to believe. Over the years, there have been many lists ranking the scariest films of all time, most of which feature An American Werewolf in London, but the film seems to be a victim of its own hype. Despite not being overly spooky, the film still features several unsettling nightmares that surprise with the sledgehammer-to-the-head extremity and a transformation sequence that still manages to astonish first time viewers. The most charming aspect of An American Werewolf in London is undoubtedly the dark humor that Landis weaves together with his loving nods to Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1941 classic The Wolf Man.
An American Werewolf in London introduces us to David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne), two Americans backpacking through the English countryside. David and Jack decide to rest at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, were they are met with an icy greeting from the locals. As they settle in for a drink, David and Jack notice a five-pointed star carved into the wall, which they immediately inquire about. The locals instantly ask them to leave, warning them to stay on the main road and to beware of the full moon. Confused, David and Jack leave, but they soon find themselves off the path they were warned to stay on. Things get worse for the two backpackers when they begin hearing faint growls and menacing howls circling around them. Suddenly, a wolf leaps at them from the darkness, killing Jack and severally wounding David. Three weeks later, David wakes up from the attack in a London hospital, where he learns about the death of his buddy. Over the course of a few days, David seems to be recovering nicely from the wounds that he received, but when he drifts off to sleep he suffers from horrible nightmares. Things get even more bizarre for David when the deceased Jack comes to visit him in the hospital and explains that a werewolf attacked them. Jack warns David that he must kill himself before the next full moon, or he will be responsible for more deaths. Soon, David is released from the hospital and begins shacking up with Alex (played by Jenny Agutter), a beautiful nurse that he struck up a romance with while bedridden. Things seems to be getting better for David, but the rotting Jack returns to warn him of the beast lurking inside.
An American Werewolf in London begins spooky enough, with a sudden attack that certainly gets the viewer’s heart pounding. As David and Jack wander around a darkened field, growling noises and anguished howls ring out all around them. The misty suspense erupts when a hairy blur comes shooting across the screen to leave our backpacking heroes a shredded mess. Landis manages to keep up the supernatural eeriness with David’s terrifying nightmares, which are all hilariously extreme in their own way. One dream finds a naked David sprinting through the forest when he suddenly leaps at a deer and rips its head from its body. Another dream finds David morphing into a demonic beast in his hospital bed as Alex cares for him. His final dream finds David at home with his family when several monstrous Nazi soldiers come bursting in to gun down everyone in the home. After these impressive little explosions of terror, Landis falls back on his skills as a comedic director, allowing us to find the humor in things like David waking up nude in a zoo after a night of werewolf mayhem. We get to chuckle at David’s attempts to get clothing, all of which are cleverly awkward. There is also some humor to be found in the gruesome visits from Jack, who picks up a Mickey Mouse action figure and makes it wave at David. I doubt Walt Disney would have found that one funny!
With its sense of humor finely tuned, Landis gives An American Werewolf in London even more personality through its make-up effects, which went on to nab an Academy Award. There is certainly no shortage of gore to be found, especially in the final moments when werewolf David causes chaos in Piccadilly Circus. There is a massive car pile-up, which results in bodies being thrown about like confetti over the finale. Buses run over people, heads go smashing through windshields, and a police officer’s head is ripped clean off by David’s fangs. Then there is Jack, who over the course of the film decomposes right in front of our eyes. Early on, his wounds are undeniably vicious as shards of skin dangle from his neck and blood covers about eighty percent of his body, but as the film continues, he begins to turns a greenish color and his eyeballs pop out of his skeletal head. All of this make up work doesn’t even compare to what Landis has planned for us about halfway through the film. As the full moon takes to the sky, we get to see David’s transformation up close and personal. Through Rick Baker’s amazing effects, we see thick sheets of hair poking through the skin, David’s hands and feet stretching into paws, fangs poking through the gums, and his face sprouting a snout. It’s all done through practical effects and only a handful of cuts. This sequence alone makes An American Werewolf in London essential viewing for cinema buffs or those who can appreciate the art of special effects.
As far as the performances go, everyone does a fine job with their respective roles. Naughton is spot on as the freaked-out David, who grapples with how to properly deal with his new curse. Does he end it all or does he find an alternative solution? He’s certainly gifted in the comedic sequences, especially the scene that finds him sprinting through a zoo in nothing but his birthday suit. Dunne hams it up as the talking corpse Jack, a “meatloaf” that drops by every now and then to remind David that something awful is waiting to emerge. Agutter is pleasant as the beautiful nurse Alex, a gal who finds herself quickly falling for the cursed David. John Woodvine is also on hand as David’s doctor, Hirsch, who gets to play detective after hearing David say that it was a wolf that attacked him. When it comes to An American Werewolf in London’s biggest flaw, it is difficult to ignore the abrupt ending, which cuts off on raw nerve emotion. You’d like to see what happens next, but Landis just slams the book shut on us and tells us to scram. Overall, while it favors laughs over screams, An American Werewolf in London is still a shrewd little werewolf horror film. It makes wicked use of music, the special effects will boggle the mind, and it features some marvelously set piece around London. It’s just a shame that the abrupt climax will leave you howling with disappointment.
An American Werewolf in London is available on Blu-ray and DVD.