Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

My oh my! Where have you been all my life! I have vivid memories of watching my old VHS copy of “The Making of Thriller” when I was a kid and seeing clips in there of John Landis’ film “An American Werewolf In London”. Somehow, even with a solid appreciation for Landis and an enthusiasm for top notch horror films, I never had seen ANY of this 1981 masterpiece.

So, we have a classic setup here with two college kids (played by David Naughton and the woefully underused Griffin Dunne) who we meet as they’re hitchhiking across the rural English countryside. I call this a classic setup because it’s become one over the years. Horror movies typically follow a tried and true formula wherein we spend just enough time with a group of eager youngsters to learn who has an unrequited crush on who, who has unresolved daddy issues, etc. Just in time to spend the rest of the film watching them be brutally murdered one by one. The thing is, from this basic setup to the deft blending of genuine horror and hearty, well earned belly laughs, this film is an obvious template that countless amateur (and probably a few professional) filmmakers have tried to emulate. But John Landis knows how to write funny dialogue and shoot a funny scene. He has also been blessed with a real gift for suspense and was smart enough to surround himself with the incredible make-up artist Rick Baker who’s monster effect work (particularly the still stunning transformation scene) really helps this movie hold up beautifully nearly 30 years after its release. *

So, yeah, basically we have a pair of cynical, charming young Americans who wander into a local bar full of ominous werewolf décor and other various subtle hints that they are a long way from home. The locals give them the boot with some warnings about staying on the main road and in doing so essentially throw them to the wolves (or the singular wolf in this case…a fate I probably deserve for that pun). It broke my heart to see Griffin Dunne mangled and killed within the first 10-15 minutes, but this is where the real fun begins. David (the actor David Naughton also plays a character named David, usually a bad sign in terms of the actors prowess and may explain why I’ve never seen this guy in ANYTHING else) wakes up in the hospital and finds himself experiencing a series of bizarre, hallucinatory dreams and visions. There are monstrous Nazi’s massacring his family, a silly naked frolic through the woods that ends with him eating a deer (which I believe may have influenced a similar scene in the 90’s Nicholson film “Wolf” or at least reminded me very much of it) and finally, the first of several visits from beyond the grave by Griffin Dunne’s character Jack (quite a relief as I love this guy from Scorsese’s After Hours and, as I mentioned, was quite dismayed when he was killed off so quickly).

Jack explains that it was a werewolf that attacked them and that his soul, and the souls of all the werewolf victims, are trapped in limbo unless David kills himself (or dies in general) in order to sever the bloodline. Jack has fallen in love with his nurse though (and she with him) and he is quite reluctant to off himself based on this “hallucination” he’s had. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it but let’s just say that chaos ensues!

Landis cleverly uses multiple “moon” themed classics throughout the film such as “Moondance” for a love scene, “Bad Moon Rising” works in contrast to its upbeat feel to create a sense of dread and there are several versions of “Blue Moon” sprinkled in as garnish throughout. The chemistry between David and the nurse is natural, relaxed and charming (much like the early banter between Jack and David that quickly endears you to those characters). The scenes of the werewolf on the prowl always maintain the films impressive tone of 50% brilliant comedy and 50% suspenseful horror. There’s a generous amount of crude humor, nudity and gore and the pacing is marvelous! I truly can’t say enough good things about the film. I’m so sad that it took me so long to discover this film as it surely would have been the kind of movie I took around to friends houses in high school to introduce them to at sleepovers and party’s. Alas, I will look forward to owning it on BluRay soon and count on this here movie blog to be the modern equivalent of bringing it over for a sleepover! GO WATCH THIS MOVIE!!! Grade: A+

* Just wanted to make a quick note that Rick Baker's back to back work on this film and David Cronenberg's Videodrome are probably the most innovative and stunning make-up effects I've ever seen. While modern special effects can be very cool in the right hands, it's very inspiring to see what simple creativity and ingenuity could do back when everything you saw had to be accomplished "in the frame". Please tip your cap to Mr. Baker if you ever see him!


  1. Ahhh, the marvelous American Werewolf in London! I have only seen this film once... maybe 10 years ago... but I loved it! So many modern horror films far very, very short of this masterpiece. I especially concur with your point about the makeup and special effects. There is something more artistically pleasing about the effort put into this kind of endeavor vs. the ultra-real "torture porn" (as some of my friends call it) of films like the Saw series.

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  3. I agree Haley! AS we've discussed before, I've found myself turning away from most modern horror because of that element of vicarious cruelty that seems to be the primary focus. Landis clearly recognized that it's about the thrill of being jolted in your seat and looked at it as more of a fun date movie/piece of entertainment instead of shock value.

    By the way, in case you were wondering, I deleted my other comment because I didn't realize you were you and referred to you as Sinker Squid. Once I put two and two together I decided it would be strange to refer to my sister by her secret blog name! :)

  4. Haha. Don't worry. I love weird! ;) BTW, per this discussion, this is exactly the reason I am quite hesitant to see The Box, even though it's by the same dude who directed Donnie Darko... your thoughts?

  5. I'm not sure what you mean Sinker Squid (wink). I don't get the impression that The Box is going to be at all the kind of graphic cruel picture I'm trying to avoid. The biggest indicator being it's PG-13 rating. The second one indeed being Richard Kelly the writer/director. He's much too thoughtful in his work to create something purely exploitational (have you seen his flawed but memorable sophomore effort "Southland Tales"?? I feel like I gave it to you as part of the Xmas stack last year, right??).

  6. Yes! You did give it to me, though I have not checked it out yet... and truthfully, I had totally forgotten that it was a Richard Kelly piece!

    So, The Box is PG-13, eh?? Hmmm. Maybe I will see it. I don't know. Something about the dude's decaying face combined with the various people in the preview screaming a lot... I guess I lumped it all too quickly into the Torture Porn genre... which, unfortunately, is probably exactly what the ad wanted me to think! That crap sells, I guess. Tell you what. I'll wait for you to be the guinea pig and tell me if you think I'd like it;).

    P.S. I received this follow up comment via email! Figured it out! :)

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