April 15, 2011

An American Werewolf in London (1981)



"Two American tourists in Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists."

Do I really need to review "An American Werewolf in London"? Well, just on the off chance that there may be at least one person on the planet who has never even heard of it, I'll ramble about it anyway.

I haven't rewatched "An American Werewolf in London" for almost three months now, which is probably the longest that I haven't seen it since I moved. I really can't count the number of times that I've used this film to enter my "happy place", but it's been a lot. Some people might find it weird that a horror movie forms a huge part of my comfort zone which I have very little desire to ever leave, but it does.

I don't know what it is exactly about "An American Werewolf in London" which makes me feel all snuggly and cosy inside, since when I've tried to analyse it before, all I could pin it down to were the rainy, opening scenes set on the Yorkshire moors.

David Kessler and Jack Goodman arriving on the moors in the back of truck filled with sheep isn't a totally happy event. In fact, it's a huge piece of symbolism which gives away that they are just lambs for the slaughter, and the name of the pub that they then visit repeats it. But socially awkward as the fish out of water that they may be, the pair are so instantly likeable that you feel like you've known them forever, and that makes what follows even more tragic.

If you had some idea in your head that "An American Werewolf in London" was going to be a comedy based on its witty script then seeing Jack get brutally torn apart will change that pretty drastically. When David initially runs away from the first werewolf attack, it makes you wish that there was some way of saving him, but like the original "Wolf Man" starring Lon Chaney, Jr., you already know that he's been doomed from the very beginning.


Geographically speaking, "An American Werewolf in London" is somewhat flawed considering that the Yorkshire moors are over 200 miles away from London and the nearest hospital that David should wake up in after the attack would be much closer. Even taking into account the often maligned National Health Service system (which I miss more than you could possibly imagine) making some huge mistake, it's a huge plot hole which nobody has ever properly explained. But since the scenes on the moors were filmed in Wales, I suppose it's a moot point anyway.

A lot of people refer to "An American Werewolf in London" as a horror-comedy, and it's really annoying, especially for the director John Landis. It's a horror film with some moments of black humour, but it's primarily a horror film with a tragic ending. If it was a comedy then everything would be played for laughs, and there would be an upbeat happy ending.


"An American Werewolf in London" is probably best known for having one of the best human to werewolf transformation scenes in cinematic history. Make-up artist Rick Baker won an Oscar for it, and it's one time that you can actually trust a result from the Academy Awards. The transformation of David Kessler into a big, hairy, snarling beast was groundbreaking at the time and looks really painful. If there's any doubt in your mind that this film is a comedy rather than a real horror movie, that should be the moment that you realise your mistake.

"An American Werewolf in London" really only has a few moments of comic relief which, strangely, serve as a device to make the full-on horror scenes which follow them to be even more horrific. Giving the audience a false sense of security and then shocking the hell out of them is what makes "An American Werewolf in London" still a valid horror film today as it was when it was first released.

Of course, I'm a bit biased when it comes to the merits of "An American Werewolf in London". Not only do I view most of it through rose-tinted glasses, but it was one of the first films on VHS that I ever bought albeit on the "4 Front" label. I still don't have the "Full Moon" edition on DVD, just the regular "Collector's Edition", but I might upgrade soon to just to see "Tall Paul" Davis' "Beware the Moon" documentary which I know he spent years putting together.


Because no movie is ever perfect, there are obviously a number of flaws in "An American Werewolf in London" which I wish weren't there. For instance, David's bad dream sequences are messily placed and are more annoying than revelatory, and if they were cut entirely, it wouldn't make much difference as far as I'm concerned. Of course, some people like seeing David Naughton running around with his cash and prizes on show, and film buffs love discussing the ghoulish German soldiers who butcher his Jewish family, but I didn't think these surreal scenes were very well done.

Another thing which I've never liked is that the werewolf attack scenes are too short and you don't really get to see anything. I know a lot of that was to do with keeping the werewolf hidden as much as possible until the end, especially since as good as the design is, it's still animatronic and the animal's eyes are lifeless and dead. The same thing can be said of Griffin Dunne's puppet in the movie theatre scene. Maybe a CGI makeover would help these creatures to look alive, and I know from the documentaries on the "Special Features" that Rick Baker would definitely be willing to see it happen.


The best horror scene in "An American Werewolf in London" is, undoubtedly, the one where the guy gets stalked and killed in the Tottenham Court underground station. There is absolutely no humour involved at all, even the poster for the spoof porno film "See You Next Wednesday" seen on one of the corridor walls won't mean anything at this point. I wish that the rest of the film had more tension-filled scenes like this, but it is what it is.

My only big problem with "An American Werewolf in London", however, is the ending. Since everybody who watches this film really likes the love story between David and Alex, played by Jenny Agutter (just in case you thought that this story went into same sex relationships beyond the friendship of David and Jack), the tragic ending is not only saddening, but it's quite annoyingly rushed too. When the "bom diddy bom" from "Blue Moon" starts playing almost immediately over the end credits, the whole moment is lost. I blame John Landis for trying to fit every single song with "Moon" in the title into this without putting enough thought about where to strategically place them.


In closing, I may as well mention that I'm still amazed at how hot Jenny Agutter looks as Alex, and despite her very dated use of the English language, it's one of the few roles that I can stand watching her in. It may not be everybody's wish fulfilment to see one of "The Railway Children" get banged by the "Dr. Pepper" guy, but I'm sick like that, as you know. The shower and sex scenes are pretty racy even for 1981, plus there's a "film within a film" piece of soft porn which spices things up a bit too.

Incidentally, I've got Jenny Agutter's autograph, although not on a still from "An American Werewolf in London". I have no idea what movie it's from, so feel free to let me know. She looks a lot prettier than this in "An American Werewolf in London".


It's no surprise that I'm going to recommend "An American Werewolf in London" to you as probably the greatest werewolf film that's ever been made. The sequel "An American Werewolf in Paris" (1997) was a horrible disappointment, so you can forget about watching that. The Universal classic "The Wolf Man" (1941) isn't all it's cracked up to be either unless you like badly dated movies. One that gets mentioned by Jenny Agutter's character, Hammer's "The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), and the copycat Tyburn production "Legend of the Werewolf" (1975), would be my other recommendations.

For some people who absolutely hate werewolf movies, "An American Werewolf in London" may seem overrated, but as someone who has watched it a couple of hundred times over, I can assure you that it's not. Add it to your collection now!

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