Halloween Week: An American Werewolf in London

It is now 7 days until Halloween. Although I am not a huge celebrator of the holiday, it’s reach is not that huge in Australia, it is a damn fine excuse to watch some horror movies, both classical or new. So this is the first in a whole week of Halloween posts. Today’s blog is a review of one of my all time favourite horror flicks – John Landis’ classic An American Werewolf in London (1981). This is another one of those reviews that I wrote ages ago and for some reason never got around to posting. I have applied a little spit and polish though, so hopefully it reads ok. First of all, check out the awesome original preview I found on Youtube. They would never make a teaser like this today.

Everything I read about the John Landis film An American Werewolf in London before watching it emphasised the fact that it is a comedy-horror, a genre that does not sound particularly appealing to me. But besides some humorous flourishes in the script, I don’t think I would consider it particularly comedic at all really. Nor is it very dark atmospherically despite there being some touches of gore. All things considered though it is a very enjoyable 80s film.

The film opens in the English countryside where two young American men are backpacking. They stumble into a not overly welcoming village pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. There a fantastic array of locals offer very little hospitality, but do urge the tourists to “stay off the moors”. Anyone who has seen a film in their life will be able to guess that as soon as the guys leave the pub, they wander straight off the road and into the moors. The early scenery is fantastic, lots of beautiful rolling green hills that turn sinister when rain and fog come along in order to emphasise the utter isolation of the locales. The inevitable attack comes from a hair-laden beast and the result is that one of the backpackers, Jack, is killed whilst his mate David is left mauled, saved only when the locals from The Slaughtered Lamb come to his rescue (the rescue is prefaced by some interesting agonising by the patrons over whether or not they should go help them). Thus ends the film’s cool beginning which serves as a prologue really. It’s really well done, and sets up the rest of the story quite nicely without taking too much time.

English: Fork in road For those who watched An...

Some of the rolling green hills that are the setting for the early part of the film.

Three weeks later David awakes in a London hospital, still recovering from the injuries he sustained in the attack. It has been explained away as the result of an escaped lunatic, but he knows that was not the case. Whilst in the hospital David begins to have dreams and visions. Some are of him running nude in a forest. The best of them are first person shots of something low to the ground (presumably a werewolf) racing through the forest at great pace. These sequences are fantastic with a great sense of tension and speed. Less engaging is a dream involving rubber masked hoodlums in a bizarre shootout. The other issue I had with this aspect of the film is that it is not always coherent, you’re not always sure what is a dream and what is not, what is real and what is a vision. This is a tactic that can definitely work in films, but here is just confusing. One of the recurring visions that David has is that of his dead mate Jack who now is one of the undead, roaming the earth in purgatory. He tells David that he will turn into a werewolf in two days and that he will not be released from his undead fate til David is killed. So he urges him to commit suicide. This is a strange dynamic, especially for a film that generally maintains a relatively n upbeat vibe. But it works, one mate begging another to commit suicide is an interesting plot point that is utilised well by Landis. Eventually, despite his still questionable health David is released and goes to stay with the cute nurse Alex who cared for him in hospital. Without giving the entire plot away, Jack’s warning comes to pass and David becomes one dangerous dude. The second half of the film involves Alex, and the curious Dr Hirsch attempting to save David, and the people of London. The ending of the film has been bagged. It is a little rushed, but there are plenty worse out there. And it manages to fit in the film’s emotional highpoint, which is really well done.

Much of the success of werewolf films (especially later ones) is dependent on the creature itself. An American Werewolf in London both passes with flying colours and fails this test. The creature itself is fierce and just the right size. It does not look too fake, and the decision for the creature to walk on all fours is a good one, enabling the audience to liken it to a dog… but the scariest dog you’ve ever seen by a long shot. Even better is David’s visceral transformation into the beast. Unlike in other werewolf films, the transformation from human to werewolf form is not an easy one. Landis shows David’s bone structure painfully stretching as he begs for help. The special effects are fantastic with the whole transformation shown onscreen. Nowadays no doubt CGI would be used for the transformation, but why bother when this looks so incredible. These sequences are one of the highlights of the film, and I doubt a werewolf transformation has been done better. Wisely Landis does not overplay the transformation, and the fact that it only occurs twice (I think) throughout the film makes it even more special. In a similar vein, the zombie makeup on Jack is incredible, clearly an inspiration for Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) which followed five years later. I think the work in this film is just as impressive, with a combination of traditional makeup and latex used to spectacular effect. Just as in Cronenberg’s film, Jack’s appearance detiorates the longer he’s been dead, from initially almost human to nowhere near it. The story goes that Rick Baker’s work was so impressive, the Academy introduced the Oscar for best makeup just so they could award it to him.

An American Werewolf in London

A poster for the film.

Less impressive though are the attacks by the creatures, where blood compensates for special effects that range in quality from average to bad. The attacks are a lacklustre, scattershot affair, not particularly making sense or delivering tension. The one exception is the film’s best scene. It involves an attack in an underground station. The werewolf is not spotted til right at the end of the scene, and leading up to that the scene plays out through the horror of the victim, all shot from the werewolf’s point of view.

Performance wise, An American Werewolf in London is good across the board. David Naughton as David and Jenny Agutter as Alex Price give engaging turns as the two leads, and their sexual chemistry, despite occurring at lightning speed, is believable. The other standout is John Woodvine as Dr Hirsch who conveys a really resolute and interesting presence in his supporting part. I absolutely love the music in this film too. Rather than standard horror film fare, pop songs are used, and it fits the vibe of the film perfectly. There is a fantastic love scene between David and Alex set to Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. Even better is the deployment of the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic “Bad Moon Rising” to preface David’s initial transformation under a full moon into the werewolf. I think that when filmmakers manage to seamlessly weave pre-existing songs into their films and have it work, it is something to be admired, and this is one of the better (and more surprising) examples I have come across.

This was a really enjoyable film, much more so than I was expecting. There are some flaws, but they are vastly outshone by the film’s pluses. This is a borderline perfect beer and popcorn film. Fun, a couple of frights and some awesome effects make for wonderful viewing. Highly highly recommended.

Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny

Progress:   61/1001

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3 responses

  1. Good review. The dark humor fit very well in with the material, but something really felt like it was missing to fully get me going. It was funny, weird, and a bit scary, but a bit too dark for me to be able to change my mood.

    1. Cheers for commenting. I definitely agree with you that is a bit of a weird film, especially in terms of tone. I think something about that originality really appealed to me, but I could also see how you could not be entirely won over by the film.

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