From the video case:
Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter and Griffin Dunne, this classic horror/comedy tells the beastly tale of two American youths whose European adventure turns to terror after they are attacked by a werewolf. One of the travelers is killed, but the other’s fate is worse than death as every full moon now seems to “bring out the beast in him.” (1981, color)
1981 was a great year for me. Not only did I graduate from high school, but two of my favorite werewolf flicks were released. One was The Howling and the other was An American Werewolf in London, which I have the pleasure of reviewing now.
An American Werewolf in London has a lot going for it: a simple but intriguing story, a strong script and good direction, characters we care about, and perhaps most of all, groundbreaking special effects engineered by Rick Baker. The film is both written and directed by John Landis (Twilight Zone: The Movie, Animal House).
As the video description states, An American Werewolf in London is a horror/comedy. Usually I’m not a big fan of this genre, however, in American Werewolf, the humor is such a natural extension of the story that it is completely non-intrusive. It does not distract the viewer, but rather pulls him/her deeper into the tale. The banter between the two American friends, David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, respectively), is a good example. Their witty back and forth gives their characters a likable quality. When something does happen to them, even though we know it must, we are still shocked. It also scares the holy frijoles out of us. The humor actually adds contrast to the terror, making both elements more stark.
The nightmare sequences are not only disturbing, but they keep us off balance. At first, it is difficult to decipher what is real and what is delusion. When Jack returns from the dead to warn David that he will become a werewolf at the next full moon, and that he must kill himself before he kills others, we are just as uncertain of Jack’s reality as David is. We aren’t allowed to get our footing, which keeps us in a constant state of unease.
Jenny Agutter as Nurse Alex Price does an admirable job as David’s love interest. Their relationship is, for the most part, believable. There is a scene when David is trying to get himself arrested where their chemistry seems a bit strained, though. David, in an attempt to get put behind bars before he kills again, yells out derogatory slogans like, “Queen Elizabeth is a man!” and “Shakespeare’s French!” During this fiasco, Nurse Alex tries to calm him, and suddenly David is declaring his love for her. I think this is supposed to be a touching, maybe even romantic, moment. However, it feels forced and awkward, and I always find myself cringing just a little bit.
Transformation scenes are always the money shots in werewolf flicks, and An American Werewolf in London features one of the best transformations of all time. Not only does the transformation look real, it looks painful. Make-up Artist, Rick Baker, won the first Academy Award for special effects for his work in this movie. Let me quote an enthusiastic Alan Jones from his book, The Rough Guide to Horror Movies, regarding Baker’s efforts:
But it’s mainly for Rick Baker’s incredibly realistic creation of a metamorphosis from man to beast that Landis’s lycanthropic landmark will always be remembered. David’s bones and muscles bend and reform, his flesh moves, his backbone ripples, his face distorts as his jaw extends and his hair sprouts everywhere. It’s absolutely astonishing.
And I absolutely agree.
The film’s finale in Piccadilly’s Circus is a stunning spectacle that you’ll need to experience for yourself. Though the film’s conclusion seems abrupt, it fits the shock motif of the rest of the movie. We are left bewildered and dismayed as The Marcels upbeat version of “Blue Moon” is cued and the credits roll. It’s like a cold glass of water suddenly thrown into our collective faces.
An American Werewolf in London is an amazing horror picture sure to please any lycanthrope fan. What’s more: it’s scary.
Scene to watch for: David explains to Alex the plot of The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. (Alex, being British, thinks he is referring to “the one with Oliver Reed,” but David corrects her saying “no, the old one.”)
Line to listen for: “Have you tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring.”
Trivia: Each song in American Werewolf features the word “moon” in its title. John Landis also wanted to include Bob Dylan’s version of “Blue Moon,” and Cat Steven’s “Moonshadow,” but both artists declined the offer.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ! ½ out of 5.