The ‘straightforward’ comedies made by John Landis in the 1970s and 1980s (including Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Spies Like Us, Trading Places, The Three Amigos, Coming To America and The Blues Brothers. An impressive run by anyone’s standards) had mass appeal, but arguably one of his finest achievements to date is the ease with which he turned his hand to horror in 1981, helping to popularize the genre with the timeless creature feature An American Werewolf In London. Gory, shocking and often hilarious, it is one of the greatest scary movies ever made, and revolutionized the industry’s approach to make-up. ()
Landis actually had the idea for An American Werewolf In London in 1969, twelve years before the movie would be released. While helping out on the Kelly’s Heroes shoot in Yugoslavia, he came across a gypsy funeral where the body was being buried in a deep grave – feet first and wrapped in garlic – so that it wouldn’t rise from the dead. He decided then that he wanted to make a film about a character that ended up in limbo, although that’s precisely what happened to the screenplay. It gathered dust for ten years, but after the success of Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Landis was able to secure the necessary funding to make the picture.
Polygram suits feared the film’s comedic moments would alienate horror fans and the horror would alienate comedy fans, but they needn’t have worried. Although it initially perplexed some cinemagoers – reports at the time suggested many walked out horrified after believing they would be watching a comedy, despite the obvious clue in the title about the content – the film was a massive success and made a 600% profit on its initial budget of $10 million. Landis definitely had the golden touch back then, which makes his relative lack of success from the 1990s onwards all the more perplexing.
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne star as David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two American college kids who are backpacking round England. Arriving in wet and windy rural Yorkshire the pair find themselves in need of food and shelter and visit The Slaughtered Lamb, a pub filled with unfriendly locals where a candle-lit pentagram is painted ominously on the wall.
After Jack asks the locals about the symbol the atmosphere turns decidedly frosty. One of my favourite moments of the film – and one just as scary as any of the sudden frights that come later – is when the pub dart player misses the dartboard completely after Jack asks about the sign. “You made me miss … I never missed that board before” says the player, with about as much menace as one man can muster. The pair opt to leave, understandably, in order to find food and comfort elsewhere. One man (Brian Glover in a memorable but small role) warns them to ‘beware the moon’, while another suggests they should stick to the path. Naturally they heed neither of these two warnings, quickly get lost on the moors, and they are attacked by the guilty secret protected by the pub regulars: a prowling werewolf. The creature kills Jack but only injures David; as it is about to devour him the guilty locals appear in the nick of time and shoot the beast, which subsequently returns to human form.
Waking up in hospital in London several weeks later, David is attended to by Dr Hirsch (John Woodvine) and Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who takes a shine to the American patient. The English police and American diplomats who visit the hospital are convinced that David was attacked by a madman, and it appears as though a cover-up story has been fabricated in Yorkshire. David knows otherwise, and as his disturbing dreams and visions increase in frequency he begins to realise that something terrible is about to happen.
The tone of An American Werewolf In London is expertly judged, and the irreverent humour is present right from the start: as the opening credits appear the music playing is Blue Moon, part of a series of cheerfully upbeat songs on the soundtrack that feature the word ‘moon’ in the title. (Van Morrison’s Moondance is also used, and later on the famous transformation scene is preceded by Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising and scored with Sam Cooke’s version of Blue Moon; on the DVD commentary actors Dunne and Naughton are perplexed as to why Landis was not able to secure the rights for the most obvious song of all: Warran Zevon’s Werewolves Of London. Too obvious, perhaps?) There is banter between Jack and David as they walk around Yorkshire and when they initially arrive in the pub. When Landis abruptly ends this cheery dialogue with a wall of silence when the duo enter the Slaughtered Lamb it is a masterstroke of timing.
The presence of Jack as a decaying cadaver throughout the film is also a great comic element. David is horrified to see his dead friend at first, but as the film goes on he becomes used to the sudden appearances, and they end up trading barbed comments and jokey remarks just like they did at the start of the movie.
There is a very funny scene set in a porno theatre (Landis actually made a spoof porn film to use in the background, called See You Next Wednesday. It was actually the first thing filmed in the production) where David meets Jack, as well as the corpses of his victims. When he is introduced to a jolly couple he slaughtered earlier, their bloodied half-skeletons greet him with a bright and friendly “hello” before they discuss ways in which David could commit suicide in order to end the werewolf’s bloodline with the chumminess of old friends. It’s a bizarre moment, but like much of the humour in the film it works.
The film contains its fair share of simple (but good) ideas too. For example, when the hitherto unseen werewolf stalks the pair, David – understandably frightened – howls ‘it’s moving … it’s circling us’. At that point the camera begins to circle the actors, who stare directly back at it so we can see the full extent of the terror on their faces. Later on, when Dr Hirsch visits the Slaughtered Lamb to question the locals, Landis uses distant thunderclaps, which essentially act as Brian Glover’s punctuation. Although a horror sound effect staple, the use of thunder here is very good. Also worthy of mention is the attention to detail: Alex’s flat is situated on ‘Lupus Street’ – lupus being the Latin word for wolf.
A horror film stands or falls by its frights, though, and Landis delivers plenty. While the initial attack by the werewolf is actually quite tame, the subsequent weird dreams experienced by David are surprising and very disturbing. This for me is the best part of the film, a disorienting twenty minute period in which we see (spoiler alert) a demonic David in a hospital bed in the woods, hunting and feasting on deer and at home with his family in America before they are brutally slain by masked monster Nazis (hurrah!). This last dream is the strangest and most horrifying of all, particularly as Landis delivers a double shock by extending it into the next scene, where David has seemingly woken up in hospital. Then there’s the reappearance of Jack, a device that takes this above and beyond the ‘normal’ werewolf film; it is startling to see him, especially given the fact his personality seems to have stayed the same.
The famous transformation scene, in which David’s hands, ears, teeth and feet elongate as he turns into the hairy beast for the first time still stands out today, and Rick Baker’s special effects and use of make-up remains equal to any modern computer generated monster effects. Baker deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Make-up in its inaugural year (Baker also won the award in 2010 for his work on The Wolfman), but he came close to not working on the film at all. After waiting for over eight years while Landis attempted to secure funding, he became frustrated and decided to take the effects he had been planning to Joe Dante, who was making another werewolf film, The Howling. Landis got the green light in the nick of time, and called Baker to let him know. The pair had a furious row, but Baker left The Howling in the hands of Rob Bottin, and acted as a consultant on Dante’s picture, leaving him free to return to An American Werewolf In London. Michael Jackson was so impressed by what he saw he managed to persuade Landis to direct the video for his single Thriller, which featured effects by Baker and his team.
While the effects and the humour lift Landis’ movie above and beyond much of the competition, it is let down considerably by a weak and disappointingly abrupt ending. After all that has gone before it’s a shame that this feels so rushed, as if it were hurriedly written on the day of filming. Agutter commendably tries her best to raise the dramatic tension, but even she cannot save the day.
Overall though, this is a very good horror film, rightly lauded as one of the finest ever made. Landis deserves great credit for his lighthearted and irreverent script, and also the way he manages to meld the humour with the horror; somehow it all works perfectly. An American Werewolf In London is comparable with the second and third Evil Dead movies, and the original Fright Night, in terms of the number of laughs contained therein. It actually betters both in terms of the quality of its shocks.
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter
Running Time: 97 minutes