Movie Review: An American Werewolf In London
Lauded as a horror classic by many, John Landis’ movie is heralded at once as a wonderfully zeitgeist early 80s cult film, a truly harrowing psychological thriller, a dark-as-coal comedy and a special effects masterclass. But despite juggling several different genres, Landis’ direction is masterful. In all honesty, it’s somewhat of a surprise that the guy who directed comedy classics like Animal House and Trading Places has managed to make such a gripping horror movie.
The plot follows American student tourists David Kessler (a brilliant David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (the similarly excellent Griffin Dunne) as they backpack around the north of England’s moor towns. After stumbling into an unwelcoming pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, they are turfed out after being harangued by the locals, who tell them to “stick to the roads” on the dark night they venture into. Obviously, this is a horror movie, so they don’t, and are set upon by a huge wolf which disembowels Jack and leaves David brutally scarred. David re-awakens in a London hospital, and begins to feel a bit odd…
As you can probably guess from the film’s title, we soon discover that David is now a werewolf. His first transformation from man to beast is one of the most famed sequences in horror cinema, and it’s not difficult to understand why. The suddenness and brutality of the change is relished by Landis (and SFX guru Rick Baker, whose work here is utterly amazing), and a number of savage cuts show different parts of David’s body gruesomely mutating – his feet and hands elongate, he grows a snout and fangs, and turns from a winsome young man into a truly terrifying spectacle. Baker’s use of makeup and prosthetics is so much more visceral than any modern CGI could be, and the realism of the transformation is gloriously unflinching as a result, providing the virtuoso scene in what is a superb film.
While the transformation scene gets a lot of the glory – and that’s fair praise because it’s truly astounding – Landis’ film delivers on so many other levels. The interplay between Naughton and Dunne is easy and witty, although when Kessler begins seeing his dead, decomposing friend in hallucinations their shared humour is always undercut by much darker tones. Similarly, when romance develops between Naughton’s David and Jenny Agutter’s beautiful nurse Alex, it’s very believable and creates full-blooded characters outside of the movie’s gory core.
The attack scenes, which culminate in a spectacular climax in Piccadilly Circus (Landis, himself an ex-stuntman, cameos as a bystander being knocked through a window) are similarly enjoyable, deeply unsettling tension created before the sheer ferocity of the violence itself comes to the fore. When it does, it’s hard not to enjoy a well-created disemboweling on a movie screen; Landis’ camera tracks the sanguine acts with the same morbid fascination as our own eyes do.
As with the japery between David and Jack’s ghost, there’s elements of comedy in the post-attack scenes too, as David suddenly feels much better after an evening of killing. Landis’ comedy background clearly influenced the script, but the comedy is as dark and funny as a Coen Brothers movie, if not better, and adds to the film’s overall style rather than detracting from it or seeming out of place.
In sum, Landis’ movie is one of the best horror movies ever made, and stacks up really well when compared to another small-cast, special-effects driven early 80s horror, John Carpenter’s The Thing. Both movies deserve all the praise they get, and American Werewolf can make a strong case as one of the great movies of this or any genre. Mixing comedy and horror in such a deft, skilled manner it makes Shaun of the Dead look like a student movie, An American Werewolf in London is a stunning piece of cinema which should be regarded by all movie enthusiasts as essential.
Verdict: Three excellent lead performances, some of the best effects you’ll ever see and a wonderful script put this in contention as one of the best movies put on celluloid, and a surefire contender for ‘Greatest Horror Movie Ever’ status. Beguiling, disgusting and inspiring in equal measure, An American Werewolf in London should be included in any movie canon. Wonderful.
Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. An aspiring writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.