werewolf classic, from writer/director John Landis, remains a
groundbreaking combination of comedy and balls-out horror. The crummy
ending aside, it’s one of Landis’ signature films, and among the
eighties’ standout horror movies.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, from 1981, was released
around the same time as THE HOWLING, another comedic werewolf movie. I
feel AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF is the superior film. The script was written
back in 1969, and, according to John Landis, got him quite a few jobs in
the ensuing years--yet the film still took over a decade to get made.
Starring David Naughton (at the time best known for
headlining Dr. Pepper commercials), Griffin Dunne and Jenny Agutter, the
film was genuinely unprecedented for its time, and remains a startling
achievement. It’s the primary reason Landis is now identified as a
“Master of Horror,” and also cemented the reputation of make-up artist
Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for his amazing work.
Landis followed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON with
INNOCENT BLOOD (1992), a vampire comedy that wasn’t nearly as
successful, and an in-name-only sequel, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS,
appeared in 1997. It’s best forgotten!
Two Americans, David and Jack, are hiking in the Welsh
Moors. One night they happen upon a rural pub called “The Slaughtered
Lamb” whose patrons act suspicious, and sternly caution David and Jack
to “keep to the road.” They disregard this advice…and pay for it when
Jack is gored by a large wolf. The monster bites David but is shot by
locals before it can do any more damage--upon expiring the creature
promptly turns into a naked man.
While convalescing in a London hospital David is
attended to by a way-cute nurse with whom he quickly starts up a
relationship. But he’s also visited by the undead carcass of Jack, who
informs David that he’s been bitten by a werewolf and will become such a
critter himself during the next full moon.
As predicted, David becomes a werewolf the following
night. As such he runs around London and kills a bunch of people,
eventually waking up the following morning in the wolf pen of a local
The undead Jack, now a rotting corpse, visits David
again in a Piccadilly Circus porno theater. This time, though, Jack has
several companions: the ripped-up corpses of the people David killed the
previous night. They’re all fated to walk the earth as the living dead
until David commits suicide and so breaks the curse. More killings are
imminent, of course, as David is about to become a werewolf once again…
Nearly all of John Landis’ cinematic trademarks are
present in this film: pointed and uncluttered visual compositions,
carefully timed comedy and assorted nerdy quirks (notably the words “See
You Next Wednesday,” a line from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY that turns up in
all Landis’ movies, here on a porno marquee). Also present is the love
of excess that informs his early films (and would get him into big
trouble during the production of 1983’s TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE). It’s
evident in an early werewolf transformation that drags on a bit too long
(severely undercutting the brilliance of Rick Baker’s make-up effects)
and a gratuitously violent nightmare sequence that has no bearing on the
narrative. The climactic pile-up in Piccadilly Circus is similarly
overdone, harkening back to the auto mayhem of Landis’ previous effort
THE BLUES BROTHERS.
Yet for all that the film really works, as a horror
movie above all. The werewolf killings are timed and edited with the
same precision as the gags of ANIMAL HOUSE--particularly effective are
the quick cuts of the wolf biting peoples’ necks, and a wide shot of the
thing slowly emerging from an underground tunnel. And while the violence
may be gratuitous, it’s undeniably effective, presented in short,
contained bursts without any fancy lighting or sound effects.
What ultimately makes the film is the unfailingly witty
and imaginative script. However, it bears one of Landis’ career-long
problems: an abrupt and unsatisfying ending!
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
Director: John Landis
Producer: George Folsey, Jr.
Screenplay: John Landis
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Editing: Malcolm Campbell
Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian
Glover, Lila Kaye, David Schofield, Paul Kember, Fran Oz, Don McKillop