An American Werewolf in London is a stylish, eclectic blend of horror and comedy in which the audience is treated to excellent one-liners and gruesome special effects.
Prior to American Werewolf a perfect synthesis of comedy/horror hadn’t been achieved in film, earlier forays stretched into the farcical but lacked any real substance or depth. Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead 2’ was still six years away, and the prospect of a workable comedy/horror was no doubt a challenge for most Hollywood Directors.
Enter John Landis whose offering of lycanthropic lunacy overhauled the genre and sent it spinning in a whole new direction. Landis had directed Animal House, the Blues Brothers and would later come up with Trading Places before falling from Hollywood’s grace, but in 1981 Landis knew comedy, and as American Werewolf in London went on to prove, he also knew a thing or two about horror.
The movie starts on the moors of northern England where David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are on a backpacking holiday from America. The sun is going down when they decide to stop at a quaint pub entitled, ‘The Slaughtered Lamb.’ This is a local pub for local people. The good friends ask a number of innocent yet awkward questions and are soon told to go, although the dart player (David Schofield) gives the obligatory warning, “Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors.” And the chess player (Brain Glover) chimes in with the immortal line, “Beware the moon, lads.”
David and Jack run back to the road, but the creature has their scent, and when the attack comes it’s as savage as it is fast. Jack is killed, but David is injured before the timely intervention of the men from the Slaughtered Lamb.
The next thing David remembers is waking up in a London hospital with a rather sweet young nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) tending to his needs. David suffers from a series of intense nightmares that make the hallucinations of a sleep paralysis victim look like a pleasant walk in the park, but nevertheless is soon discharged into Nurse – did I mention she’s pretty – Price’s tender care. However, David starts receiving visits from his dead friend, Jack, who warns that David is now a lycanthrope and on the next full moon will transform into a werewolf.
Much hilarity and maiming ensues.
The complex and ultimately tragic tale of An American Werewolf in London is made or broken on the audience’s ability to sympathise with David Kessler’s plight. And in this regard John Landis pulls the proverbial rabbit from the magician’s hat. David is a nice, young guy with family and friends. He develops a relationship with the – ridiculously attractive – Nurse Price, and this adds a touch of humanity to his character. Throw in some good dialogue, strong acting and a brilliant supporting cast, and you can’t help but root for David right from the start.
But good acting, pacing and direction aside, what most people remember about American Werewolf is the transformation scene.
For its time the scene is groundbreaking, even including early use of CGI. It plays black comedy with superb visuals and a great soundtrack. This scene has yet to be equalled in any – fact – werewolf movie and was the brainchild of Rick Baker: a special effects guru of the time.
An American werewolf in London is inspired genre film making and sets an example that all other werewolf movies must aspire towards. On a final note: try to avoid the disappointing sequel, American Werewolf in Paris, don’t let it ruin an all-time great.