Remember That Movie: An American Werewolf in London

Ok, so imagine you’re a nurse in London. You’ve had three one-night stands and a couple bad relationships. You work for a doctor that’s pleasant enough, but can be a bit arrogant to his patients. One day, a guy comes in with lacerations on his face and chest. The details of his ordeal are a bit mysterious, but the official claim is he was attacked by a serial killer, or something of the sort. He gets treated and seems fine until three months after his arrival he comes into consciousness and soon after he begins talking about being attacked by a wolf. In fact, he’s insistent and bewildered by claims that he was attacked by a man. He’s otherwise cute and charming enough and you get along with him rather well. You even stay by his side to read to him when he’s having nightmares in the middle of the night. Well, one night, imagine you hear him scream and you run into his room where he suddenly kisses you and confesses that he’s a werewolf – that his dead friend visited him and told him so.

What do you do?

You’re torn between feeling very sorry for him and finding him very attractive – that combined with your awesome history with men clearly makes a winning formula for a promising relationship. So naturally, you bring him home with you and make sweet, sweet love to him to the music of Van Morrison.

This describes the implausible subplot of An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 classic directed by John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Three Amigos!). Yes, Landis is primarily a comedy director and he does inject some humor effectively into this horror romp (such as the jovial suicide brainstorm session with a woman moaning in sexual pleasure in the background). Actually, because Landis mostly restricts his humor to the dialogue, this acts less like a romp and more like a slow-burn. This is what makes a great horror, people: horror that takes its time, builds character, and reduces the comic relief to some well-written dialogue.

And this is why An American Werewolf in London mostly holds up today. The film opens leisurely over an empty desert country while ‘Blue Moon’ plays in the background. Our main character, David, doesn’t get attacked until 15 minutes into the film – and he doesn’t transform into a werewolf until 45 minutes later! Most films of this genre are so anxious to get to the scares that they sacrifice character and tension. I didn’t find An American Werewolf in London particularly scary as much as an effective werewolf story. That’s a compliment, because the film isn’t as worried about scaring its audience as telling a good, coherent story. It takes its time to explain its idea of what happens when someone becomes a werewolf and to those torn to shreds.

Also, Landis takes a page from Spielberg’s Jaws and resists showing the werewolf as much as possible. We see quick flashes of eyes and snarling teeth and the camera occasionally switches to the creature’s point of view as it approaches its victims. This was a smart choice, because it suggests Landis knew the restrictions of his time. If a puppet or an animatronic animal is shown too much, it looks silly and won’t hold up. The film comes dangerously close to this problem during its chaotic climax, but everything that’s come before helps prevent this from becoming much of an issue.

It should be noted that one of the film’s biggest achievements is the creature effects by Rick Baker. A sudden fit turns into one of the greatest, most painful physical transformations ever put to film. And it’s all due to Baker’s work, with a little help from David Naughton’s acting. Also, the make-up of the attack victims – especially on Griffin Dunne’s decaying corpse – is excellent.

What doesn’t work well anymore (if ever) is not only the subplot, but the dream sequences that mostly feature David running naked through the woods. They are silly and don’t effectively convey what must be a subconscious transformation into something horrifying. But these are small grievances of what is mostly an excellently executed horror story. It’s a shame films like these are a rarity in the genre.


Should you see it? Rent

An American Werewolf in London is available in two special edition DVDs and a Full Moon Blu-Ray.


Popular posts from this blog

Best of the 2010s: Love Stories

Best of the 2010s - Animated Movies