At the Movies with Alan Gekko: An American Werewolf in London

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Horror-Comedy/ Stars: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Don McKillop, Brian Glover, David Schofield, Lila Kaye, Frank Oz, Paul Kember, Sydney Bromley, Frank Singuineau, Will Leighton, Michael Carter/Runtime: 98 minutes

It goes without saying, but I feel that 1981 truly was a great year for Horror. This is because that was around the time that three excellent movies about werewolves were released in what can only be described as a “once in a blue moon” event: “Wolfen”, “The Howling”, and “An American Werewolf in London”. Yet of the three, I feel that it is John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” which is probably the most famous, but not without reason. This is because Werewolf in London is more than just a brilliant horror movie. It is also, like The Curse of the Werewolf” and “The Wolf Man” did before it, a film that also managed to truly redefine the werewolf myth and at the same time bring it roaring to life for a whole new audience.

The plot is as follows: David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American tourists backpacking through the United Kingdom. Yet one night while traveling across the Yorkshire moors, they are attacked by a strange beast that savagely mauls Jack, but which is killed by the townspeople before it kills David. Weeks later, David wakes up in a London hospital, where he receives the tragic news of his best friend’s death. However, being the kind of movie this is, this will not be the worst thing that will happen to him. So it is that soon thereafter Jack appears to him as a spirit trapped in limbo and tells him that what killed him was a werewolf and he can’t rest in peace until the werewolf’s bloodline is completely severed once and for all. Worst of all however is the fact that apparently David is the last remaining werewolf seeing as he survived the attack, and is now cursed to become a savage beast under the full moon. Thinking it’s all a hallucination caused by the shock, David naturally refuses to believe this, but he begins to have weird visions as the full moon gets closer, and soon the true horror begins….

Now written by Landis himself, this movie is a delightful mixture of black comedy with classic horror that manages to work perfectly together in the context of the film. Yet while the comedy is certainly one of the film’s strongest points, Landis also manages to quite successfully follow the pattern set by Universal’s “The Wolf Man”, and keeps the tragedy of the werewolf’s curse as the main theme. This is because, as in Curt Siodmak’s classic story, romance plays a big part of the story. In this film it is in the shape of Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), a nurse at the hospital who subsequently becomes David’s lover, and soon thereafter the one in charge of stopping the beast. The story also manages to unfold at a nice and steady pace, and wisely decides to focus on the building of suspense of the events before the unavoidable transformation. This of course does a wonderful job of helping to give the movie a sense of impending doom that fits nicely with the cynicism and tragedy of Landis’ version of the werewolf myth. Also Robert Paynter’s cinematography is the perfect complement to the story by capturing all the British landscapes (both urban and countryside) with just an absolute surreal beauty yet with just the right touch of melancholy as well. The direction of this film is simply flawless, with Landis’ skill as a storyteller shining as he makes his story truly come alive. Now as written above, most of the movie focuses on the fear and paranoia that David feels before his transformation, and also showing him in the state of disbelief when confronted by the ghost of his friend. However this is not to say that the actual action of the movie is downplayed. I say that because when the climactic scene of the metamorphosis arrives, it absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Indeed Landis proves with this movie that he can direct scenes with heavy use of special effects with the same care as the normal character driven scenes. This plus the fact that this film is never boring or tiresome, and the use of classic songs with “moon” in the title is just a few more of the small details that makes Landis’ masterpiece a truly unforgettable film.

Now while John Landis’ direction and Rick Baker’s awesome make-up effects tend to downplay the work by the cast in the film, this doesn’t mean there are bad performances. Indeed while David Naughton tends to be the focus of the criticism, it is easy to see why. I say that because I think the reason is not because it’s bad acting. Rather, I just think his character is not really given a chance to shine except for when he’s vulnerable or scared or questioning his sanity as these events unfold around him. Yet ultimately these could be seen as strengths since all this just increases the power of the climatic transformation that he eventually undergoes. Jerry Agutter is also very effective as Alex, and truly does make an excellent counterpart to Naughton playing the Beauty to his Beast as it were. However, the supporting roles are the ones who shine the most as Griffin Dunne and John Woodvine steal every scene they are in. Indeed as David’s friend Jack who comes back to warn him and subsequently looking worse and worse each time he does, Dunne manages to bring a sassy yet also macabre sense of humor to what could’ve been a truly clichéd role. Whereas as Dr. Hirsch, the suspicious doctor who treats David and who soon decides to look into the matter himself after coming to accept that David might actually be telling the truth, Mr. Woodvine manages to bring a sternness yet also a humanity and caring side to his performance and it pays off beautifully.

Also, unlike most movies from the same era this one truly doesn’t feel dated and still looks very fresh today. Indeed with the mix of black humor and tragic horror working nicely against all odds this still proves to be a trademark of the movie. It is Rick Baker’s remarkable work in the make-up department however that is now a classic work in the history of the genre, and subsequently helped him to take his career to new heights after the slight downfall he had after “King Kong” back in ’76. Indeed pretty much in the same way as Jack Pierce’s make-up for “The Wolf Man”, this was revolutionary for film history because this was the first time we ever got a monster transformation sequence that could be called realistic if not genuinely painful. Indeed it will leave you wincing at least once before it’s all over. Still, this film is much more than impressive effects; it’s also a tale of fantasy and horror told in a very classy and entertaining way which also helps make Landis’ spin on the werewolf myth one of the best renditions ever put on film.

All in all 1981 was definitely the year of the wolf in cinema. This is because together with “Wolfen” and “The Howling”, An American Werewolf in London managed to give new life to the legendary beasts that roam by night when the moon is full. Indeed while it is true that ever since the beginning of cinema many movies have portrayed werewolves in many different ways, it is in my humble opinion that this brilliant film is one of the best and will always be one of the best. Therefore take heed lads and lasses and I beseech you; stay on the road, and always always beware the moon…. On a scale of 1-5 I give An American Werewolf in London a 4 out of 5.