An American Werewolf In London (1981)

An American Werewolf In London, 1981; directed by John Landis; starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter

What is it about Werewolf movies that make decent ones so hard to come by?  Is it because it’s difficult to get the makeup to look scary and not ridiculous? Is it because for some reason the idea of a man becoming a wolf or a hybrid of man and wolf when the moon is full seems too ridiculous?  Of course, if that is the case then why is a race of immortal blood suckers who cannot handle the sun and must sleep in coffins more acceptable?  Or why is a man stitched together of random body parts, sort of  like a full scale mr. potato head,  and then brought to life acceptable?   But a man becoming a hairy, snarling, snorting, hot mess of a mauling dog man is too far fetched for us to take?  That is the straw of incredulousness and unbelievability that puts us over the edge?  Dracula and Frankenstein are cool, but the Werewolf is ridiculous?  Heck, General Mills was fine with Count Chocula and Frankenberry, but until the recent halloween cereal revivals, Fruit Brute the werewolf was quickly discontinued.

Maybe all of these factors help indicate why An American Werewolf In London works so well.  It came out in the early 80s and in the midst of a mini werewolf movie revival (both Wolfen and The Howling were released in the months just before American Werewolf’s release).  And of the three (all rumored to be good – still haven’t seen Wolfen, but love The Howling) only Werewolf In London is infused with steady, if dark, dosages of humor.

As it opens, a couple of young American college dudes are backpacking through the Scottish moors. They find themselves lost and so head to a pub in what turns out to be a rather inhospitable village.  Soon in response to the lack of welcome, they leave the pub. But now it’s after dark.  When they are attacked by a wolf, Jack doesn’t survive and David ends up in the hospital with some serious mauling wounds.

Soon a recovering David’s budding romance with one of his nurse’s begins to be interrupted by appearances of David’s dead friend imploring David to kill himself.  He wants David to kill himself because they’d both been attacked by a werewolf.  And as we all know, if one survives an attack by a werewolf, one will become a werewolf.  And when David does, he will begin killing people.

David however does not kill himself.   So Jack continues to appear to him. Each time Jack appears to David, the more decomposed Jack’s body becomes –  gooey-er and gory-er each time. Eventually he begins to bring other dead people – his victims – to implore David to kill himself.

All of this is played as a dark dark comedy. And that’s pretty much how the whole movie plays.  Until it’s sudden, sad end.  Audiences and critics loved it then; audiences and especially critics love it even more today.  And David Naughton (once a song and dance pitchman for Dr. Pepper) as David and Griffin Dunne as Jack do excellent work in becoming recognizable college students in a completely unrecognizable situation.

Its big transformation into the werewolf scene, which was hailed back in the day as one of the most amazing special effects job ever, is pretty terrifying and looks pretty good.  It still looks a bit fake. But in this day of wall to wall CGI in movies – and much of it also having a sheen of fake, it’s nice to see real objects that exist on the screen.  For my money however, I still think The Howling transformation scene is slightly better.

It is interesting to note that after the 1940s there are really just about no notable werewolf movies again until 1981.  Britain’s Hammer Studios, which famously revived the Dracula and Frankenstein franchises to great effect – and even revived the Mummy franchise for a couple of films – only ever made one Werewolf movie; The Curse of the Werewolf.  And while it is an interesting take on the tale, it is most notable for being the first leading role for British Brawler Oliver Reed.

And just as quickly as that new early 80s “golden era” of werewolves came, it was gone.  Recent attempts to make Werewolf movies seem to end in disappointment. (Though we’ve heard positive things about Ginger Snaps).  So really, you can’t go wrong with Wolfen or The Howling.  But for this night we like the bleak humor with the blood n gore of An American Werewolf In London.


Dr. Vorhees