The 1980’s was a great decade for movies. That was when we got titles like Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, a couple of Star Wars sequels, and all three Indiana Jones movies* to name a few. If you’re listing some top 80’s cult classic movies you can’t leave out John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981).
Two American young men, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are on a backpacking trip in England. While making their way through the North Yorkshire Moors it gets dark, and they decide to rest at a pub in a small village. When Jack asks about the 5-pointed star on the wall, the pub-goers suddenly act very strange and quiet. David and Jack decide to leave, but not before receiving bits of advice like “Beware the moon, lads” and “Keep to the road.” Conversing as they walk, they do wander off the road and into the moors, where they are attacked by supernaturally large animal. Jack is killed, David is mauled and the animal is killed by some of the pub-goers come to rescue the young men. David is rushed to a hospital in London where he recovers 3 weeks later. David is tormented by strange dreams during recovery. A reanimated corpse of Jack shows up to tell David that David is now a werewolf and that Jack is stuck in limbo as an undead corpse so long as the bloodline of the werewolf that killed him survives. Jack urges David to kill himself for the sake of Jack and those David will inevitably kill. David goes home with his nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), for a tryst. After Alex has gone for her late night shift, Jack's warnings come to pass and David transforms into a werewolf to wreak havoc on London.
As I mentioned in my Ghostbusters review, horror and comedy usually don’t really fit well together. In American Werewolf they don’t, but rather than being awkward and bad, it makes the movie quirky. The juxtaposition of humor and horror isn’t as good as it was in Ghostbusters, but it is fun. When Jack appears to David with open, rotting wounds, one of the first things he says to David is, “Hey, can I have some toast?” Later when David wakes up in the London Zoo after being a werewolf, he takes balloons from a kid to hide behind while he finds some clothes. The boy approaches his mother and pointedly states, “A naked American man stole my balloons.”
Any werewolf aficionado will tell you that the werewolf transformation in this movie is second to none. This was before CGI morphing and animation. So when David’s hand and then the rest of his body is stretched and contorted into a lycanthropic killing machine, it’s all done with good, old-fashioned makeup and movie magic. This truly gives a realistic quality to it. The transformation scene in the 2010 remake of The Wolf Man was done with CGI. While that scene isn’t bad, it just doesn’t hold a candle to American Werewolf; the makeup special effects really makes this transformation scene a classic bit of cinematography.
Throughout the movie, Landis did a superb job of setting the ambiance of the movie. Especially during the uncomfortable exchange between David and Jack and the pub-goers, followed by the young men being stalked by the werewolf. Landis really gave it a disquieting atmosphere which amplified the tension. There was not even any background music to supplement it, but the tension was still palpable.
My biggest complaint was that I wanted to see more of the werewolf. I wanted to see it chase people, rip things apart, and really see why people were afraid of it. Why else watch a werewolf movie? But we primarily see people running away from a low, angled camera representing the werewolf’s view. We really don’t see any full body shots, just some close ups of the werewolf’s face. That was disappointing, but the transformation scene makes up for it, I suppose.
For what it was, An American Werewolf in London was pretty good. It was weird, silly, scary, and fun, and worth watching if you’re into that sort of thing. It is rated R, what with the sexual dialogue, nudity, language, and gore. There is certainly some content that would put off some viewers. I still say this is a pretty good movie, and among the best werewolf films.
*Yes, I said all three Indiana Jones movies.