An American Werewolf in London (1981)

It’s a lesson in how not to spend your gap year in American Werewolf in London

Director: John Landis

Cast: David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), John Woodvine (Dr Hirsch), Lila Kaye (Pub landlady), Frank Oz (Mr Collins), David Schofield (Dart Player), Brian Glover (Chess Player), Rik Mayall (2nd Chess Player), Don McKillip (Inspector Villiers), Paul Kember (Sergeant McManus)

Horror and comedy are both extreme genres, on the edges of normality and are designed to provoke extreme reactions, of either terror or hilarity. So it’s often a bit of a surprise that more films haven’t attempted to put the two of them together. But that’s what John Landis does in An American Werewolf in London. You’ll laugh, you’ll scream, you’ll even cry a bit. You’ll probably also look away a few times. And you probably won’t want to go hiking straight after it.

David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are two students backpacking through the English countryside. Taking shelter from the rain in a pub, The Slaughtered Lamb (pub sign a wolf’s head on a spike), they are swiftly intimidated by the locals and head back out – ignoring suggestions to keep on the road. Sure enough, they are attacked by a crazed wolf… Three weeks later David awakens in hospital, plagued with nightmares and visions of himself running through the forest. Could he be a werewolf? Falling in love with his nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter), he soon finds himself staying in her flat in London – just as the full moon rises…

AAWIL is a playful movie, with a grungy, college-humour to it. The jokes are often laugh-out loud funny, and the central characters are very engaging. As well as this the film is filled to the brim with blood, guts and slaughter. Guts fly, blood sprays. Landis gets the balance more or less spot-on between heightened humour and bloody slaughter – every bloody moment is followed by an excellent comic punchline, and just when the humour and romances start to get too much of a hold, you get a moment of shuddering violence. It’s also crammed with some great music – although in a terrible oversight there is no playing of Werewolves of London (if ever a song seemed written for a film…).

It’s best remembered for its influential werewolf transformation sequence. Rick Baker won the first Oscar for make-up for this tour-de-force at the film’s centre, which showpieces David’s painful looking transformation. This sequence has inspired every single werewolf transformation since, including David Thewlis’ in Harry Potter. Limbs stretch and distort. Hair springs up. His body arches and his spine practically snaps itself into new positions. His face distort, and the entire shape of the body changes. And of course it’s screamingly painful. The sequence hasn’t aged a day, and it’s still a marvel of make-up and practical effects.

Landis’ decision to largely shoot werewolves from POV or in flashes is a good one – when we get the animatronic wolf on the screen towards the end it is strikingly unconvincing and artificial looking, like a wobbily muppet. But for the bulk of it he makes these animals terrifying forces of nature. No wonder the creepy pub denizens are terrified of them.

The opening pub sequence is a masterpiece of small village aggression. Who hasn’t gone into a pub like this and felt like the room went silent as soon as you entered? The actors here revel in these hostile villagers, not least Brian Glover as a domineering loudmouth and David Schofield as a sinister darts player. It also brilliantly shows from the start that David and Jack are fish out of water – stuck adrift in a land they don’t quite understand, with a condition they don’t really seem to be completely aware of.

Not that it’s all bad for David, as he gets a steamy love-affair with Jenny Agutter’s alluring Alex, every geeky college boy’s dream of a gap-year love affair. Sure the bond between them is rushed – and Alex alternates between being caring-and-observant and is actually fairly dim when the film demands it (Yeah David has come home naked over than a woman’s coat, having spent the night sleeping in a zoo and has no memory of the night – but nothing odd strikes her about his behaviour…) – but she still gives a cracking performance.

David Naughton balances the film very well as David – a geeky student, horny and almost wilfully ignoring what’s happening to him. Griffin Dunne possibly steals the show as Jack, a strange mixture of best friend, geeky off-the-cuff wit and giver of bitter-but-straight-forward advice (the make-up for Jack by the way is almost more impressive than the transformation itself). 

American Werewolf in London is a bit of a (forgive me!) shaggy dog story. Structurally I’m not sure if it’s that great, as it tends to drift at times before a rush to the finishing line. The ending in particular is abrupt – not helped by a deliberately jarring final musical choice. It bowls along, but it’s so in love with its mix of horror and comedy that you never quite end up pulling for the romance at its centre as you should. I’m not sure John Woodvine was quite the right casting for the doctor investigating the werewolf phenomenon – he’s almost seems to feel as if he is above the picture. Landis gets some neat hits on British culture, but you can’t help but feel that there is more to be mined here – there isn’t quite enough American-British culture clash there to really sell David’s confusion.

It’s not a brilliant masterpiece – but it is very entertaining and crammed with striking scenes. Landis is playing around here – in fact he may be telling a massive joke, taking the piss out of monster movies while knocking slacker comedies by turning the slacker into a murderous monster. But it’s very good for all that – and for several key sequences alone you’ll find it hard to shake. It’s a film for late-night viewing and such a good mixture of comedy and extreme horror that it will always feel unique.

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