American Werewolf in London, An (United States/United Kingdom, 1981)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Although the 1980s were not kind to most traditional monsters - vampires, mummies, gargoyles, and the like - the first two years of the decade offered three prominent werewolf movies. The first to reach the screen was Joe Dante's The Howling, which entered theaters in late 1980. That was followed by Wolfen, an unremarkable tale starring Albert Finney. Finally, late in the summer of 1981 came John Landis' An American Werewolf in London, which has, in many ways, set the standard for the modern werewolf movie. In the 20 years since its first release, it has not been surpassed (not even by the Mike Nichols/Jack Nicholson collaboration, Wolf).

Often, there's a fine line between horror and humor. That's because a natural defense mechanism of the human psyche is to laugh at something that causes discomfort. Hence, while some people are shocked and horrified by a film like The Exorcist, others chortle and giggle like they're watching an Adam Sandler comedy. On rare occasions, directors attempt to exploit this link. Most of the time, they fail miserably, and the results can be painfully unfunny and non-frightening. However, a few filmmakers defy the odds and mine the right vein of ore. The list is disappointingly short, and includes names like Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead and its two sequels) and John Landis.

Landis came to An American Werewolf in London riding the crest of a wave of popularity. His two previous movies, Animal House and The Blues Brothers, had proven to be huge box office successes. An American Werewolf in London would make it a trifecta. Afterwards, the director's career began a slow downward slide, beginning with the on-set disaster associated with his segment of The Twilight Zone (in which actor Vic Morrow was killed). Landis rebounded briefly with Trading Places, but, by the advent of the '90s, he was mostly regarded as a has-been and proof of how easily even a proven filmmaker can fall out of favor in a fickle industry.

In terms of storyline and plot structure, there's nothing new or surprising about An American Werewolf in London. What makes this film different (if not unique) is its successful marriage of comedy and horror. The humorous sequences are funny enough to laugh at, while the gruesome scenes retain the power to shock. From time-to-time, Landis strays close to the line of camp, but never quite crosses over. This is in large part due to our identification with the main character, whom we hope against hope will find some way out of an impossible predicament. Had this individual been imbued with less humanity, he would have turned into a caricature and the entire film would have devolved into the kind of grotesque farce that characterized An American Werewolf in London's 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris.

The movie opens in the wild countryside of North England, where two Americans, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are on a backpacking trip. By the time they reach a small village near the onset of nightfall, they are cold and hungry, so they decide to stop in at the local pub, a place with the odd and ominous name of "The Slaughtered Lamb". Their reception there is decidedly frosty, with angry glares from the patrons and the barmaid. After they ask one too many questions, they are rudely told to leave, although, before departing, they are given a warning to stick to the road and not wander onto the moors - a warning they ignore, much to their regret.

When it comes, the attack is swift and merciless. A huge, wolf-like creatures leaps from the shadows, killing Jack and injuring David before several of the townspeople, armed with guns, subdue it. The next thing David knows, he is recovering in a London hospital under the tender ministrations of an attractive nurse named Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and the pragmatic Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine). Despite a series of harrowing nightmares, David seems to be progressing - until he receives an unsettling visit from his zombified friend, Jack, who informs him that he has become one of the walking dead and that David, on the night of the next full moon, will exhibit the curse of lycanthropy and be transformed into a werewolf.

Of the three aforementioned early-'80s werewolf movies, the transformation sequences in An American Werewolf in London are the most effective, beating out those in The Howling by a snout (Wolfen isn't even in the running). There are a lot of similarities, which should come as no surprise, since both were supervised by makeup man extraordinary Rick Baker (who was also responsible for changing Jack Nicholson from man to beast in Wolf). Baker, working with "old-fashioned" tools like prosthetics and makeup, creates a series of memorable and lasting images. Baker won an Oscar for his work in An American Werewolf in London, in which he improved upon some minor deficiencies evident in The Howling.

Landis incorporates a lot of nice elements into the film. Early on, we have the low-key buddy sequences with Jack and David, which feature some witty dialogue. The romance between David and Alex is sweet without being cloying, and part of the reason we root hard for David to overcome the curse. Plus, as is always true of Landis' work, there are plenty of in-jokes and sly references. Frank Oz has a triple cameo - both as himself and as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy. Landis makes his usual "See You Next Wednesday" reference as the title of a faux porn film. And there's a multiple car crash that recalls the vehicular mayhem in The Blues Brothers. Landis also has a little fun with the soundtrack - all of the popular tunes feature the word "moon" in the title, including "Blue Moon", "Bad Moon Rising", and "Moondance."

Of course there's gore - and plenty of it, making An American Werewolf in London a dubious source of entertainment for the squeamish. In fact, the transformation sequences on their own are disturbing enough to upset sensitive viewers (even though the first one doesn't occur until an hour into the 97 minute film, making the first two-thirds of the movie relatively tame, with the exception of a few appearances by Jack, who looks like a "walking meatloaf"). With An American Werewolf in London, Landis couldn't afford to skimp on blood and viscera. He was working in the era of the slasher movie, when anything falling within the horror genre had to be gruesome or face box office rejection. (For an illustration, witness how things had changed between the release ofHalloween and its first sequel, Halloween II.)

Most of the cast is populated by British character actors, including the venerable John Woodvine as Dr. Hirsch and Brian Glover as the loudest and most belligerent patrons at The Slaughtered Lamb. Jenny Agutter, who was at the pinnacle of her career during this time period, is delightful as Alex - sexy, affectionate, strong-willed, and willing to risk everything for love. The two Americans are played by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Dunne, whose career reached its pinnacle when he starred in Martin Scorsese's dark comedy, After Hours, has many of the best one-liners, and, despite his grotesque appearance later in the film, is on hand primarily for comic relief. Naughton, whose prominent roles came in TV shows like "Makin' It" and "My Sister Sam", is surprisingly effective in gaining our sympathy as the "everyman" David.

Over the years, there have been so many bad werewolf movies that one is almost tempted to disbelief one's eyes when the rare good one comes along. For atmosphere and effect, An American Werewolf in London doesn't match the classic The Wolf Man, but it's the earlier film's equal in many other areas. Over the past two decades, An American Werewolf in London has become a cult classic and developed a reputation as a superior horror comedy. In that respect, it may be a little overrated - it's a good movie, but not a great one. In particular, the abrupt, anticlimactic ending is a letdown, and there are occasional scenes (such as Dr. Hirsch's visit to The Slaughtered Lamb) that don't work. But, considering its often campy competition, it's hard to argue that, if your in the mood for lycanthropy, London is the place to go. (Avoid Paris, however. The sequel is a horrible bust.)

American Werewolf in London, An (United States/United Kingdom, 1981)

Director: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye
Screenplay: John Landis
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Music: Elmer Bernstein
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:37
U.S. Release Date: 1981-08-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1