An American Werewolf in London (1981) / Horror-Comedy
MPAA Rated: R for violence, gore, nudity, sexuality, and language
Running Time: 97 min.
Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Frank Oz (cameo)
Director: John Landis
Screenplay: John Landis
Review published March 15, 2007
Vacationing American friends, David (Naughton, Midnight Madness) and Jack (Dunne, Lisa Picard is Famous), stumble off the beaten trail into a pub called the "Slaughtered Lamb" only to find its inhabitants odd and the pentagram they have drawn on their wall to be even odder. They are warned to beware, as it is a full moon, only to find out why once they set off on foot and get lost shortly after. Jack gets mauled to death, while David is hospitalized, and all he remembers is that he was attacked by a ferocious creature, like a wolf. While recovering, David has strange visions of himself running free and attacking people, while Jack also pays him visits, with each one showing more of his decomposing state. With the help of his attractive nurse (Agutter, Walkabout), David wants to get better, but he's afraid that Jack's assertion that he is a werewolf might be all too true.
Special effects maestro Rick Baker (King Kong, Videodrome) brings life to this comic werewolf story by writer-director John Landis (the two previously collaborated on Schlock! and Kentucky Fried Movie), who worked his wonders the previous year on another notable werewolf flick, The Howling. While the effects earned the film the most praise (Rick Baker's first Oscar, in fact), it's really the blend of dark comedy and gory horror that has people returning for more scary good times. It's certainly offbeat, with better characterizations than your usual werewolf flick, as we come to know the characters before calamity sets in, and though the special effects are an asset, they never dominate the story. In-jokes abound, such as the plethora of "moon" songs in the soundtrack ("Blue Moon", "Moondance", "Bad Moon Rising", etc.), as well as the perfunctory appearances of the Landis' fictional trademark, "See You Next Wednesday" as a porn flick, and the "ask for Babs" addition to the Universal Studio Tours end card after the credits.
The only major disappointment in Landis' quirky homage to the werewolf film comes in the mystifying ending, in which Landis resorts to more car crashes (a la The Blues Brothers) to provide some excitement, but in this bloody horror film, they are far from necessary. The final scene in particular is abrupt and unsatisfying, as the credits roll without the benefit or more proper closure.
An American Werewolf in London is a cult horror film that will most likely please those into horror movies on the irreverently funny side, especially ones that don't skimp out on gore or bits of wry humor. Enthusiasts consider it to be the best werewolf film made; I'm not a big fan of the film, or of werewolf films in general, but I can't honestly disagree -- I personally haven't seen one yet that I like more. If you are one who shies away from grisly cadavers and buckets of blood, you will probably want to stay away, although in the years since the film was made, there are certainly more egregious examples of gore to be found. Speaking as someone who usually finds films in the horror genre to be lacking most of the time, it managed to hold my interest to the end, and gave me a chuckle now and then, but the lack of a satisfying climax does diminish the impressive build up.
Trivia: Landis and Baker would work together again in a similar fashion in the legendary video for Michael Jackson's "Thriller".
-- Followed by An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).
©2007 Vince Leo