Howling with Laughter and Fear:
40 Years of
An American Werewolf in London
Dean Newman offers his thoughts on the seminal lycanthrope film, An American Werewolf in London (1981) which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. This article contains spoilers.
At the time of release, it had been 40 years since the release of Universal’s The Wolf Man (George Waggner, 1941), with Lon Chaney Jr. And now, just as much time has elapsed since John Landis’s classic.
A unique beast of a movie, An American Werewolf In London (1981) is something of a hybrid of a film. One moment it is laugh-out-loud funny and the next it is shriek-out-loud scary.
It’s hard to think of a film that has melded horror and comedy to better effect, although at the time filmgoers apparently didn’t really understand the shifts in tone.
An American Werewolf In London charts the journey of two American friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who are backpacking across the Yorkshire Moors (albeit filmed in Wales). It’s a memorable trip for all the wrong reasons as one is killed and the other is savaged by a werewolf.
Their fate is foretold at the very start of the film, as they are sharing a back of a van with sheep, and then head to The Slaughtered Lamb pub. That’s David and Jack, they are to become the slaughtered lambs.
David lives but keeps seeing Jack, in various states of decomposition, warning him that on the next full moon he too shall become a rampaging werewolf. Jack’s scenes are difficult to watch knowing that the year after this film was released Dunne’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend, having just completed work on Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982).
In many ways this is a love letter to classic Universal horror, Director John Landis is certainly a fan, even though – pulling something of a Jaws (Stephen Spielberg, 1975) – we don’t get our transformation scene until an hour into the film: David’s visions become weirder until, finally, he transforms, in the middle of London.
That Universal feel is perhaps best exemplified when our two wandering Americans stumble upon The Slaughtered Lamb pub and are met with silence. It’s a classic moment in a film chock full of them, with its pentagrams, missed dartboards, and a brilliant turn from Brian Glover as a young Rik Mayall watches on.
The lack of a lycanthrope for that first 60 minutes doesn’t mean we aren’t treated to scares that still leave scars. The initial attack on the Moors – if only they had stuck to the road as warned – is swift but shocking, especially since just moments earlier they were laughing and joking.
Then come the dream sequences, particularly the – never explained but no need to as everyone was too busy being scared – vampiric David in his hospital bed, looking like an extra from Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979).
There follows the surreal horror of David watching The Muppet Show with his family (huge at the time – Frank Oz AKA Missy Piggy and Fozzie Bear also features elsewhere as US Embassy rep, Mr. Collins) when the doorbell rings. David’s dad answers the door to be blasted away by Nazi werewolf monster thugs. It’s the scene ‘WTF’ would perfectly sum up had it existed in 1981. Leftfield, unexpected and downright disturbing, leaving a mark on its viewers – in their pants probably – and mentally for decades to come. What’s great about this though is that when David awakens, his nurse goes to the window and is promptly stabbed by one of the Nazi beasts. Nearly pulling the Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976) trick midway through the film. Waking up a second time, David exclaims ‘Holy shit!’ Too right.
The transformation scene is still the best committed to film, all done practically and in-camera. No wonder the rumour is that the best make up Oscar category was created specially to honour this film and Rick Baker. And it doesn’t take place in a dark alley but a fully lit living room.
Between this and Rob Bottin’s work on the following year’s The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982), they were arguably the zenith of practical special effects. Bottin also took charge of effects on Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981), which was released the same year as the Landis film. In fact, Baker left The Howling due to his promise to Landis to work on An American Werewolf in London.
And almost 30 years later, Baker would yet again trump at the Oscars with a second werewolf film, this time a remake of The Wolf Man (Joe Johnston, 2010). Talk about coming full circle with a pentagram at the centre.
As well as being a technical marvel, the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London really conveys the agony of the change. To all intents and purposes, this is David’s death scene. And knowing that it was all done on set and not one pixel at a time in a computer (take note Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004) and An American Werewolf in Paris (Anthony Waller, 1997) – lame dogs both) only adds to the thrill. Never has the juxtaposition of Mickey Mouse been so disturbing. It’s still as visceral, disturbing and mesmerising to watch to this day, in fact, by this point it is more than fair to describe An American Werewolf in London as a tragi-comedy of sorts.
Post transformation, we have a flurry of attacks, including one that makes fantastic use of the tube which you won’t fail to think about it next time you find yourself in an empty tube station at night or on a deserted escalator. The unfortunate victim was played by Michael Carter, the very same actor who portrayed Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983).
With its similar time-frame, a group of memorable British character actors, its UK setting, denial of what is unfolding and its tragic ending, I always saw An American Werewolf in London as something of a companion piece to The Omen (Richard, Donner, 1976).
Agutter is a compelling and memorable love interest (no doubt the first crush for many), but it is Doctor Hirsch who appeals most of all the supporting characters, especially when he is in full investigation mode and travels to The Slaughtered Lamb. He reminds me somewhat of David Warner’s character in The Omen.
An American Werewolf in London still packs a powerful punch and is funnier and yet more horrific the older it gets, or perhaps that should be the older this viewer gets.
Like Jaws – Landis even helped on Spielberg’s film’s pier incident scene – it never puts a padded-foot wrong and grows in stature with every passing year, and repeated viewing. There is always something new to like(nthrope), marvel at or enjoy.
The shadow cast by the full moon of An American Werewolf in London looms large over every werewolf film that has followed, and for good reason. Its eyes still burn bright and its teeth still retain their bite.
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