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Thursday, April 21, 2011

An American Werewolf In London (1981) review


David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman)

Directed by John Landis

The Short Version: Unique to the 1980s were two werewolf movies of significance and distinction. Both were loving homages to the horror genre and both were compiled by brilliant directors with passion for their work. While both films attained classic status, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON generally nudges out THE HOWLING by the narrowest of margins. Containing some wholly terrifying moments coupled with comical lewdness, I prefer THE HOWLING, but it's no denying the genius of this signature horror/comedy work from John Landis; a film that is far more scary than other pictures that are labeled among the horror genre.

Two friends, David and Jack are on vacation in England. Enjoying the rural countryside of Yorkshire, the two happen upon a pub called 'The Slaughtered Lamb'. Having failed to ingratiate themselves on the regulars, the two friends make their exit, but are warned to stay off the moors and beware the moon. Disregarding these peculiar warnings, David and Jack are attacked by a wild beast. David survives and is later disturbed by violent visions and night time visits by his dead friend Jack, who claims he must take his own life, or else he will change into a werewolf on the next full moon.

John Landis, one of the best chuckle film directors of all time, mixed two of his passions, comedy and horror together for the first of two times in arguably the best example of the form--this major studio werewolf classic whose genesis had been in the making for over a decade prior. While the mention of a 'horror comedy' more often than not causes many horror fans to cringe, AMERICAN WEREWOLF is a successful melding of the two styles perfectly balancing the gore with the giggles. It's really a bizarre endeavor at first glance. There's bursts of jarring brutality that some may find out of place, but it works incredibly well riding the back of sometimes subtle comical outbursts. Some of this brutality stems from some curiously savage dream sequences. It's joked about that David is possibly Jewish and one of his nightmares apparently confirms this when his home is besieged by Nazi werewolves(!!) brandishing knives, machine guns and torches. They mow down his parents and his younger brother and sister before torching their home and slashing David's throat. Just this scene alone captures more horror than some movies that are supposed to be genre affairs from start to finish.

The opening of the film is extremely well done and the moments leading up to the initial attack on the moors maximize the suspense. Like most all the scare sequences, Landis possesses an uncanny ability to create a sudden and shocking jolt that makes the audience feel momentarily uncomfortable. This is frequently followed by a "release" through a spurt of laughter. The raw, overly adult approach the director exploited in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) is evident here. This is overly apparent when David goes to meet up with his walking dead friend, Jack in a London porn theater along with several other victims of David's rampage. Incidentally, a porn theater was the setting during the opening of Joe Dante's superb THE HOWLING (1981).

In keeping with the playfully dangerous atmosphere, Landis even adorns the soundtrack with various "moon" songs including multiple renditions of 'Blue Moon' and CCR's great 'Bad Moon Rising'. In a bit of utter befuddlement, the exclusion of Warren Zevon's 'Werewolves of London' is inexcusable. If ever there was a perfect marriage between a song and a movie, this is it.

The characters present here are quite good and likable. Jenny Agutter is possibly the best character in the film in terms of her performance and her unmistakable ability to bring a great deal of pathos and believability to her role. The aborted sequel script originally had Agutter's character as the title werewolf. Her portrayal is surely one of the best and most warming roles in all of horror cinema.

David Naughton shines in the lead and should be commended also for his apparent comfortability in doing numerous scenes fully nude. This willingness to "bare all" allows for some of the funniest moments in the movie. Naughton will also be remembered as the 'Dr. Pepper guy' and his stint on the short lived disco TV show, MAKIN' IT (1979). Naughton also sang the hit theme song. Naughton also starred in the innocent, childishly funny comedy cult flick, MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1980). Rick Baker's award winning transformation effects are still astounding especially in light of how everything is done in a computer these days. Still, I much prefer the more grueling transformation sequence seen in THE HOWLING (1981).

To compare the two films is a bit unfair considering the difference in budgets as one was a major studio production and the other was an independent. Both films bring something different to the table and both were hits at the box office. A third werewolf picture, WOLFEN, was released around the same time that also took a unique approach to the material, even more daring, I'd say. That film died a quick death and has remained a minor footnote while both Landis's and Dante's films have survived the decades. My preference leans towards Dante's more fanciful, atmospheric and loving tribute to the genre. Landis's movie is vastly different as it should be. There's an aura of dread in the scenes out in the British countryside. Even the daytime shots contain an atmosphere of evil. The attack scenes are nicely edited and filmed and a graphically violent assault in Piccadilly Circus closes the film on a horrifically downbeat note.

Whereas THE HOWLING aborts the classical werewolf lore that a man bitten will turn by the light of the full moon (but keeps the silver bullet method of destruction), AMERICAN WEREWOLF embraces the lunar aspect (but abandons silver as lethal to the werewolf!) with the addition that all those killed by the beast will forever walk in limbo until the bloodline of the wolf is severed. The scenes of a rapidly and continuously decomposing Griffin Dunne offer up some of the more ghastly humorous moments. The werewolf itself is a bit different design from those seen in THE HOWLING and other lycanthrope themed pictures. The beast seen here is a quadruped and more dog like in appearance, but bearing a far more fearsome visage. Fans of CHEERS will no doubt have a smile brought to their face upon seeing Lila Kaye as a barmaid in the 'Slaughtered Lamb'. Kaye played essentially the same role in season three's 'The Bartender's Tale' episode.

Easily a quintessential 80s movie, and, like THE HOWLING (1981), one of the best horror films of all time. John Landis attempted a similar success with the vampire flick, INNOCENT BLOOD (1992), but that film was far from the ingenious melding of guffaws and gore that this much earlier, and far more memorable movie emblazoned. Of the few genre pictures from Landis, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) is inarguably his best and will no doubt continue to stand the test of time remaining a favorite among many fans.

This review is representative of the Universal special edition.


A hero never dies said...

I love both of these movies, but I too would have to put The Howling first. Great review!

onemorebullet said...

I was lucky enough to see An American Werewolf in London in a theater last Halloween. The only thing I really have anything negative to say about it was the ending, which I think uses one too many leftover cars from the Blues Brothers car scenes. ;)

The Film Connoisseur said...

A classic no doubts about that!

I favor this one over The Howling, I just think its creepier, scarier with its images. Yes, it has comedy, but when the horror is on, its on! David's nightmares are pretty freaking freaky, the one you have pictured above, where David looks like a vampire in the woods, that image freaked me out when I was a kid!

Make up effects wise, I think both pictures excell, they both had amazing effects artists behind them so that is no surprise.

That scene where David and his friend walk into "The Slaughted Lamb" and all the village people start telling their spooky werewolf tales reminded me of the way that every Hammer movie would being.

venoms5 said...

@ Hero: Thanks for stopping by, I've been really lax lately keeping up with things here. Sorry for the delay in responding back!

@ onemorebullet: I only ever got as far as seeing the trailer on TV. I did try and get my mom to take me to see it, but she refused. I do like the ending, though, for its ability to shock with all the chaos happening from the wolf and the cars running over people and so forth.

@ Fran: I like them both almost equally, but HOWLING edges it out marginally. I totally agree about the nightmare scenes and the opening is great, only the bar patrons never say anything about the wolf. They make the two leave when they inquire about the pentagram on the wall. That opening is good and suspenseful, too! I don't think there's been a better melding of horror and comedy that is so successful at realizing both styles.

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