Written & Directed by: John Landis
A review written by our newest contributor, Jeremy Mullin
I’m a big fan of werewolf movies. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a man who changes, often against his will, into a monstrous, wolf-like creature, haunted by the deaths he’s caused and struggling to keep his monstrous self under control. Sadly, there have been very few good werewolf films, and the ones that are good always seem to come so far apart. An American Werewolf in London came at a time when we got three good werewolf films in one year (the others being The Howling and – even though it’s not technically a werewolf film – Wolfen). From the title and the fact that the movie is written and directed by John Landis, you’d expect the movie to be a comedy that spoofs werewolves. After all, Landis made his claim to fame directing the hit comedy Animal House. But, while the movie does have its funny moments and seems to poke fun at some early conventions of previous werewolf films, it does turn out to be a very serious, very scary and very bloody horror film.
We start out by meeting best friends and college students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), who are backpacking through the English countryside. After a stop at a pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb” (which turns awkward when Jack asks about the five-pointed star painted on the wall), the pair wander off the path they were told to stay on and end being attacked by a large animal that kills Jack and badly injures David before it is ultimately killed. Waking up in the hospital weeks later, David is plagued by bizarre, surreal nightmares and visions of Jack’s ghost, now a bloody, ravaged corpse. According to Jack, the creature that attacked them was a werewolf and David has now become one himself. He elaborates that David must kill himself so Jack’s spirit can rest. It isn’t until the next full moon that David learns, the hard way, that he is a werewolf, doomed to kill innocent people and be haunted by their ghosts until he himself dies.
- Great, Slow Build-Up – The movie takes its time in getting to the main plot. It’s not until more than half-way through that David transforms for the first time, and the wait is worth it. Not only does this give us time to build up David’s character, but also to develop both the plot and this movie’s version of the werewolf mythos. This formula has also been used in earlier werewolf films, most notably in The Wolf Man and Curse of the Werewolf, and works each time, as opposed to just jumping into the action as quickly as possible.
- Ground-Breaking Effects – Rick Baker won an Academy Award for the make-up effects of this movie, in particular David’s transformation scene. No longer did a character just stumble about until he stands or lies still for a moment as the hair and fangs slowly fade in. American Werewolf has a werewolf transformation that we’d expect: an extremely painful one, with David screaming as his body shifts into a monstrous wolf. You can even hear the bones in his body break as they stretch and contort. While the earlier-released Howling provided us with a similar transformation, it’s this movie that we remember the most.
- Fun References to Werewolf Lore and Films – Part of what makes this movie a comedy are all the nods and references to earlier werewolf conventions established in both lore and movies, sometimes even poking fun at them. In the pub scene at the beginning of the film, Jack points out that the star painted on the wall is a pentagram, here associated with the mark of the werewolf like it was in The Wolf Man, rather than being associated with magic in general. In another scene, David discusses The Wolf Man with Alex, a nurse who becomes his love interest, and she even indirectly mentions the British-made Curse of the Werewolf by bringing up its star, Oliver Reed. One werewolf convention that is poked fun at is the idea that a silver bullet is needed to kill a werewolf, David asking if that’s what he needs and an annoyed Jack responding with, “Oh, be serious, would you?”, perhaps pointing out that the silver bullet idea was more a movie invention than actual lore.
- Not Very Likable Victims – As mentioned in the summary, as a werewolf, David is visited by the ghosts of his victims, along with Jack, who is included because the werewolf who killed him and infected David is part of the same bloodline. This is a different twist on the werewolf legend that, thankfully, is unique to this movie (and its so-so sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris). As long as David lives and the werewolf curse continues they must walk the earth in limbo, so they spend their time encouraging David to take his own life so they can move on. This is not even to mention the innocent people that will be killed by David if the curse continues, or that David could potentially end his own suffering: all they care about is themselves. Jack is kind of in the same boat, even though he does still care about David and tries to be sympathetic. But with the rest of these characters, you don’t really care about them so much.
- Too Many Groaner Scenes – I know that this is supposed to be a mix of horror and comedy, and some of the scenes are probably what would happen in real life, but there are a few scenes in this movie that just made me groan when I saw them. I even fast-forwarded past them the few times I’ve seen this movie. The two stand-outs are the scenes when David, after his first transformation, has to make his way through London naked, leading to some humorous moments, and later when he tries to get himself arrested after he realizes what’s happened. I know that there are those who enjoy these parts and believe that they add to the film’s appeal, but no matter what, I just can’t watch them. Obviously it’s just me, so there’s not really a whole lot to be done about it.
Odd scenes aside, An American Werewolf in London is definitely one of the best werewolf films out there. It was definitely a surprise entry at the time from John Landis, who is primarily known for his comedy films. His only other horror-tinged works are 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie and 1992’s Innocent Blood, as well as the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. He does a good job for a first-time horror director here, delivering the scares as well as the laughs. It kind of makes you wonder why he hasn’t done more horror films, but that might be good thing, as it makes for a nice treat every now and then.
On a final note, avoid the movie’s so-called sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris. Other than following a similar plot and using many of the same concepts and creature designs, there isn’t much to connect the two movies. According to the information I’ve read on it, one character, Serafine, who is the love interest of main character Andy, is supposed to be the daughter of David and Alex from London. However, the one time I’ve seen the movie, I never even noticed it. Worse, the CGI-created werewolves, while more visible and active, just don’t hold up to Rick Baker’s practical effects. Yeah, so avoiding An American Werewolf in Paris will make watching An American Werewolf in London that much more enjoyable.