An American Werewolf in London

Release date: August 21, 1981

Director: John Landis

Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Lila Kaye, Joe Belcher, David Schofield and Brian Glover

In terms of storyline and plot structure, there's nothing new or surprising about An American Werewolf in London. What makes this movie so different even unique is its successful combination of comedy and horror. The humorous sequences are funny enough to laugh at, while the gruesome scenes keep their power to shock you. Often, Landis strays close to the line of camp, but never really 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 situation he is placed in. Had this individual been imbued with less humanity, he would have turned into a caricature and the entire movie would have devolved into the kind of grotesque farce that characterized the An American Werewolf in London 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris.

The film 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, and it is getting dark so they decide to stop in at the local pub, a place with the creep name of "The Slaughtered Lamb". Their reception there is of course frosty, with angry glares from the patrons and the barmaid. After they end up asking the wrong question, they are rudely told to leave, although, before departing, they are given the warning to stick to the road and not wander onto the moors - a warning they end up ignoring, much to their regret. When it eventually happens, the attack is swift and brutal. A huge, wolf-like creatures jumps from out of nowhere, killing Jack and injuring David before several of the people from the slaughtered lamb, armed with guns, kill it. The next thing David knows, he is recovering in a London hospital under the tender ministrations of a very pretty nurse named Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and the pragmatic Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine). Despite a series of terrifying nightmares, David seems to be doing better until he receives a disturbing visit from his zombified friend, Jack, who tells him that he has become one of the walking dead and that David, on the night of the next full moon, will transform into a werewolf.

Out of all the '80s werewolf movies, the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London is 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 unforgettable images. Baker won an Oscar for his work in An American Werewolf in London, in which he improved upon some minor deficiencies that are seen in The Howling.

The director incorporates a lot of very good elements into the movie. Early on, we have the low-key buddy sequences with Jack and David, which feature some decent dialogue. The romance between David and Alex is sweet without being cloying, and is even part of the reason we root hard for David to be able 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 if you have ever noticed all of the popular tunes feature the word "moon" in the title, including "Blue Moon", "Bad Moon Rising", and "Moondance."

Of course there's has to be gore - and plenty of it, making An American Werewolf in London a great source of entertainment for horror fans. In fact, the transformation sequences on their own are disturbing enough to upset sensitive viewers (even though the first one we don't see until an hour into the 97 minute movie, 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 on the blood. He was working in the era of the slasher flick, 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 of Halloween and its first sequel, Halloween II.)

Most of the cast is populated by British character actors of course, including John Woodvine who plays Dr. Hirsch and Brian Glover as the loudest and most belligerent patrons at The Slaughtered Lamb. Jenny Agutter, who was at the top 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 was cast in Martin Scorsese's dark comedy, After Hours, has most of the best one-liners, and, despite his grotesque appearance later in the movie, is on hand primarily for comic relief. Naughton, whose prominent roles came in TV shows like "Makin' It" and "My Sister Sam", is surprisingly good in the film 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 movie's equal in many other areas. Over the past two decades, An American Werewolf in London has become a cult classic and developed a well deserved reputation as a superior horror comedy. In that respect, it may be a little overrated - it's a good movie, but not a the best it could be. One of the things I didn't like about this film is the fact that after David is attacked and we get that short werewolf scene, you don't really see too much more action until David transforms which is almost at the end of the movie (one hour in with only about 27 minutes left in the film). Then their is of course the abrupt, anticlimactic ending probably being the worst letdown, and there are occasional scenes (such as Dr. Hirsch's visit to The Slaughtered Lamb) that don't work. But, considering its often terrible competition, it's hard to argue that, if your in the mood for werewolf film, London is the place to go. (Avoid Paris, however. The sequel is a horrible bust.)

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