Retro Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981).
The director behind Animal House took a swipe at a very different genre with this iconic werewolf flick.
The werewolf genre had a bit of a hangover following the successes of the Universal Monster movies in the 40’s and 50’s. While some monsters, like Vampires, adapted to the changes in cinematic taste, many did not. It wasn’t until 1981 that the full moon came out and the werewolf as a concept began to transform. In that year, two iconic werewolf films came out that charted the path forward for the ailing lycanthropes: The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Both films helped to correct the silliness that had steadily crept into the genre. The Howling returned the wolf man to the territory of a true horror film, while John Landis’ offering experimented with juxtaposing humor and terrifying gore. It may have had some flaws, but Landis’ approach was a truly memorable moment for werewolf films.
An American Werewolf in London (1981).
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American tourists exploring the UK. One night out on the moors past curfew they are attacked by a vicious creature. Jack is killed and David is mauled and left for dead. Recovering in the hospital, David has a horrific visit from his now undead friend Jack. Jack informs him that he will become a werewolf unless he kills himself before the full moon. David rationalizes the episode away as trauma, turning his attention to a budding relationship with his nurse (Jenny Agutter). Unfortunately, he can’t stop seeing Jack…and the full moon is rapidly approaching.
Murder Your Darlings.
An American Werewolf in London is a wry love letter to the werewolf genre as a whole. Instead of turning a blind eye to the campy antics of the later Lon Chaney Jr. films and b-movie schlock like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, it pokes a bit of fun at them before showering them in blood. Landis’ humor is hip and jaundiced, allowing his characters to reflect the audiences’ awareness of the genre’s shortcomings. David and Jack are pretty blasé about being a werewolf and ghost, respectively. It’s not until the blood starts to flow that they take things seriously.
The choice of setting cues fans in to Landis’ intentions. Werewolf of London was the first Universal werewolf movie, older even than The Wolf Man. Many lesser films were set there and used London in their titles. By returning to familiar haunts with two world weary outsiders, Landis can both embrace and satirize the genre. The fact that the protagonists both wind up in deep trouble because they are too cool for old folk tales shows that the film, for all its joking, takes the material seriously too.
Laugh, Then Scream.
The effects in An American Werewolf in London are iconic. Rick Baker handled the effects and make-up, and every ghoul and beast is memorable. Jack’s deterioration as the film progresses goes from a ghastly joke to full on revolting horror. The wolf itself is a masterpiece, and the sequence in which David transforms is a prolonged, mortifying delight. 37 years later, that scene still sets the bar for one of the best and most visceral werewolf transformations ever set to film.
John Landis deftly ratchets up the scope of the gore. When Jack first appears, it is unsettling. The same goes for the waking fantasies David has as his bestial urges begin to manifest. Each instance becomes darker, more elaborate, and more horrifying. The actual transformation comes very late in the film, and it caps off the terror by being completely unrestrained.
Leave ‘Em Wanting More?
There are two major knocks routinely made against this film. First, the jokes and gore don’t jibe. I disagree, as I think Landis uses the dark humor to disarm the audience, gain their trust, and set them up for the scares. It has a meta-narrative function, assuring viewers that it is OK to think stuff like ghosts and werewolves are ridiculous…and to still be scared witless upon “actually” seeing one. Horror films had a certain stigma, and you had to help viewers in the 80’s silence the voice that said it was uncool to watch them. Why do you think Freddy Krueger cracked so many jokes?
The second objection is that the film’s final act is a rush job. I have to say I agree, but only to a point. After David changes, the film throws everything at the screen, literally crashing things together. It’s not a nuanced resolution, but then again the driving tension of the film has already been resolved: will David believe Jack and take drastic action to prevent himself from transforming? We get a pretty conclusive answer, and the resulting mayhem seems only natural. The time for tension and moral wrangling are well past.
Number 1 with a Silver Bullet.
An American Werewolf in London is probably my favorite werewolf movie. Werewolves were my favorite monster as a kid, so I’d seen a ton of films in the genre. By the time I was old enough to see this film, the camp and cheese of most of the films were taking the shine off the topic. Seeing a film that loved the genre as much as I did, was clearly aware of where it was going bald, and willing to be both snarky and deadly serious was the perfect balm. After this, I could see films like Teen Wolf and enjoy them for celebrating the silliness inherent in the premise. I could also see blood-curdling stuff like The Howling and In the Company of Wolves and feel the old thrills of fear and power promised by the werewolf myth. It wasn’t until our next offering that I finally saw a werewolf movie that offered sophistication on top of that promise, but that’s a review for another time.