by Jason Koenigsberg
“From the director of Animal House comes a different kind of animal” is one of the best and most accurate taglines in cinema history for 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. In the late 70’s and early 80’s John Landis was one of the hottest filmmakers on the planet after The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) were all hit comedies. It was a rather bold move for Landis to follow up that successful trio by switching genres and making a horror movie. On top of that, werewolves are the toughest of the rogue gallery of monster lore to make into successful movies. We have had countless great vampire picturess dating all the way back to Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) and there have been many impressive zombie films from The Night of the Living Dead (1967) up to World War Z (2013).
Yet werewolves are tougher to effectively translate into movies. The 1941 Wolfman film starring Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. as the title character is my least favorite of the classic Universal monster movies. I have never seen any of the “Twilight” saga and disliked the few Underworld films I saw which probably only had the werewolf formula work because they were blended in a world with vampires.
An American Werewolf in London is not my favorite John Landis film (that would be Coming to America). In fact it is not even my second or third favorite of his films (that would be Animal House and Trading Places respectively) but An American Werewolf in London is the greatest werewolf movie ever made. Landis carefully crafts a straightforward story and combines the perfect fusion of horror and comedy while paying homage to its cinematic predecessors.
From the opening shots overlooking the beautiful green highlands of northern England with Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon” playing over the opening credits, the atmosphere is clearly established. Then we meet our main characters David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as two college students from the United States on break, the first glimpse we see of our protagonists is on the back of a truck surrounded by sheep. Naughton, who ends up being the title character, is sporting a red coat. The symbolism is not exactly subtle, but it feels just right.
Then it gets even better when they go into the nearest town and enter the local drinking hole named “The Slaughtered Lamb”. The dialogue between the two American tourists and the locals is simultaneously funny and foreboding while it references movies from the directors childhood.
From that point on the plot takes over and few moments feel contrived to advance the story. The scenes with Naughton waking up confused at the London hospital being interrogated by doctors and a great pair of mismatched detectives work well, as do his romantic scenes with Jenny Agutter as a nurse who takes him in once he is allowed to leave the hospital. The few scenes of a werewolf terrorizing people in London leading up to the climax are genuinely suspenseful and sprinkled with dark humor.
The soundtrack utilizes great and appropriate songs such as Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising”, once again, not subtle but they are used impeccably. An American Werewolf in London like all great films is truly a work of art as well as an entertaining movie.
Before we get to the famous transformation scene, which is the first time we see Naughton actually turn into a wolf body part by body part, we have the shocking dream sequence that makes me laugh uproariously every time I see it.
I love how Landis lures us in even when we think it is safe and Jenny Agutter’s nurse is walking to the window.
It is impossible not to talk about An American Werewolf in London without mentioning the one element that makes this movie standout the most, its special effects makeup. Rick Baker would win his first of seven Academy Awards for best makeup it redefined make up effects for the next decade until computer effects would takeover. I would take these kinds of movie illusions any day over the constant mind numbing CGI ewe are inundated with. These are practical and more amusing than most of the special effects in feature films today.
All of this leads up to the big climax in Piccadilly Circus, London’s equivalent of New York’s Times Square. Naughton’s character turns into a werewolf and wreaks havoc on the masses causing much destruction. The car crashes on display are great but not as impressive as the ones Landis staged for his previous film The Blues Brothers. Nevertheless it works well as a finale and ends abruptly and accordingly. Nothing in this picture is dragged out. It is well edited, masterfully directed with solid performances from its entire cast and the groundbreaking special effects would make this a landmark in cinema.
If the fantastic makeup effects look familiar to you, it’s probably because John Landis would direct Michael Jackson’s music video masterpiece “Thriller” and use Rick Baker for all of the Special Makeup effects.
Do not even bother to watch 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris that has nothing in common with this film other than its title. Just watch Siskel and Ebert’s review below, pay attention to their comments about the CGI effects and you will know all that you need to about that shameless attempt to cash in on this genre-melding classic.
An American Werewolf in London is ultimately a lot of fun and remains essential viewing for anyone who loves great thrills, unforgettable special effects and hilarious moments of dark humor.