An American Werewolf In London Review (1981)

by "Penguin" Pete Trbovich on June 11th, 2018 | |

An American Werewolf in London was directed by John Landis (who also directed Schlock) and stars David Naughton, Jenny Agutter (from The Survivor) and Griffin Dunne. It’s about two backpackers in England encountering the title mythical beast and suffering the consequences.

Beware the Moon.

An American Werewolf In London Review

We just went through another one of those cycles in the horror community: a high-concept horror film comes out. It screens well at film festivals and all the critics cheer for it, but then it gets into movie theaters and doesn’t do as well as expected. When audiences are polled they mutter inanities like “It didn’t have enough jump scares in it.” This sets up a false dichotomy: The “elite” who want “serious” horror, and the “populists” who want popcorn.

This is the perfect time to revisit An American Werewolf in London, because it feels like a fresh blast of air conditioning on a hot, muggy day. An American Werewolf in London, wagging its tail like a friendly puppy, is here to remind you of this very important message: Horror movies should be FUN. Both sides of the elite-popular debate miss the point. FUN is the key ingredient. Fun is what you’re having when you’re smiling. To smile, simply insert a fish hook into either corner of your mouth and give a yank straight up.

This Kind of Fun is Called “Black Comedy-Horror”…

But when you say “black comedy-horror,” you had me at Griffin Dunne, the besieged protagonist of the most perfect Kafka-comedy ever filmed, After Hours (1985). The peak mix of comedy and horror in An American Werewolf in London hooked critics and audiences alike in 1981, and besides that it features the transformation scenes which put special effects wizard Rick Baker at the top of Hollywood’s A-list. Baker’s resume is chock full of horror classics, including The Exorcist, The Incredible Melting Man, Videodrome, and The Frighteners, to name a few. You want make-up that transforms you into a better-than-average monster, you want Rick Baker, especially if your creature concept involves any kind of fur.

Let’s Pull Up a Bowl of Puppy Chow and Dive Right In…

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two fun-loving college students out for a backpack holiday in Yorkshire, England. After hitching a ride in a sheep-wagon, they make their way to a British pub where the patrons caution them to stay on the road, avoid the moors, and be careful during a full moon. David and Jack take first prize in the category of “People Who Should Have Listened To That Advice,” and get summarily attacked, mortally so for Jack, but only into a hospitalized stay for David. Jack, in a vision that perhaps only David can see, returns from the dead to warn David that it was no ordinary wolf who attacked them, and spends the rest of his time urging David to kill himself because he’s doomed to the werewolf’s curse. Well, he still doesn’t listen to advice very well.

A Fine Line Between Parody And Homage

In the pub, Jack, who’s something of a worrywart even when he’s not undead, points out a star on the wall and references it to Lon Chaney and Universal Studios. After the attack on David and Jack, the town seems to hatch a conspiracy to convince the surviving David that a “lunatic” attacked him, not a werewolf – but that particular term for a madman has the word “luna” in its root, because the moon was once thought to provoke bouts of insanity, and, not coincidentally, transformation of the furry-inclined. This clever method of referencing werewolf mythology in-universe is the movie’s way of saying “You’re skeptical? So are we, but this is the story anyway.” It’s an attitude we’ve lost in these days where apparently being taken seriously means never being allowed to have fun again.

Perfect Balance Of Horror And Humor

The soundtrack is a wistful medley of doo-wop and rockabilly blues oldies that reference the moon, while the decaying dead and gory attacks keep getting uglier. In the scenes of transformation, we are made to realize one of those elements of lycanthropy we never give much thought to: transforming into a different body shape hurts, almost as rough on the werewolf as it is on his victims. Another problem is when you change back and find yourself running buck naked through the streets because dogs don’t wear pants. The script takes satiric potshots at everything from Margaret Thatcher to the Muppets. Jack, back from the dead, begs David to kill himself to release him from the werewolf’s curse – by telling him “I’m surrounded by the undead. You ever talk to a corpse? It’s BORING!” It’s all about the balance and contrast, artfully done with the glib direction of John Landis, who at the time had National Lampoon’s Animal House as his chief claim to fame. Even the agonizing transformation scene is undercut by a Mickey Mouse figurine smirking at the show. Nevertheless, Rick Baker’s effects are something you’ll never forget, still convincing even after we’ve seen decades of CGI.

Dated, But Still Holds Up Well

The movie takes itself so lightly that it slips a romance under our radar between David and the saucy nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter, also in Child’s Play 2), an unlikely pairing but darned if it isn’t handled so nimbly that it feels more realistic than half the love stories out there. There’s also the famous dream sequences, as David’s consciousness converts to werewolf mode, where we get a host of sight gags which are over with in a flash rather than being pounded in. Minimalism and underplaying are the key styles of this movie, an art we may yet someday rediscover.

Which isn’t to say they didn’t invest the effort where it counts. A bit of trivia: David at one point flees the horror of night into a movie theater that shows a porn called “See You Next Tuesday.” That’s a running joke in every John Landis movie; play with the acronym and see what you come up with. Now during the attack in the subway earlier on, pause to view the posters on the walls and you’ll see an advertisement for this same fictional film – “A non-stop orgy!” It’s touches like this that makes it fun to re-watch.

Modern audiences might not appreciate the ride in patches. The dream sequences do next to nothing to advance the story, just serving as a vehicle for throwaway gags. As at least the prominent critic Roger Ebert pointed out, the short attention span of the editing makes it feel like it’s too busy clowning to treat its story with dignity. Jaded horror veterans will roll their eyes at the jump fake-outs. Especially the ending feels less like an ending and more like “let’s stop right here before we run out of budget.” But An American Werewolf in London still glistens like a Milkbone in doggy heaven, for those that care to dig down to find its marrow.

The Verdict:

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http://www.penguinpetes.com/

Writer, artist, prophet, cult leader. Take good care of my memes. I’ve raised them since they were daydreams.

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