Day 9: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis

Starring: Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, David Naughton, John Woodvine

Runtime: 97 minutes

While we’re on the subject of shapeshifters, let’s talk about perhaps the best werewolf film out there: An American Werewolf in London. It’s interesting that The Howling and Wolfen also came out in 1981. They are very different films. The Howling is more simplistic, straightforward horror, and more predictable. Wolfen is about intelligent super-predator wolves. And An American Werewolf in London is a horror comedy.

werewolf

The painful werewolf transformation. Landis asked expert makeup effects artist Rick Baker to make the transformation look real, and to occur in full light.

That’s right, horror comedy. There’s plenty nowadays, but I think it was a pretty novel concept back then. Also, you won’t find many other horror comedies on my favorite horror movies list. Most of them can’t compare to the smart, strange humor of this film that holds up today, and after repeated viewings. The dialogue, and interplay of characters, is some of the best I’ve seen in either horror or comedy. This has to do with Landis’ knack for comedic film that you can see in previous movies such as Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

The horror element doesn’t suffer either, partly because of Rick Baker’s famous groundbreaking makeup transformation effects, partly because of Landis’ unflinching focus on violent death scenes, and incorporation of surreal nightmares. There’s also a subtle Gothic element running through—David and Jack are attacked on the moors, the paranoid and menacing village people, and the suspenseful night scenes where victims are being stalked.

Although this follows werewolf conventions in some ways—the full moon brings transformation, the werewolf is a tormented soul not in control of his bestial counterpart (a convention overturned by the willfully malevolent werewolves of The Howling), it also breaks from it in others—silver bullets aren’t needed to kill, the werewolf is haunted by the souls of his victims until he is killed, and the creature is four-legged animal more akin to a cross between a wolf, a bear, and wolverine (that’s my best guess!).

I also appreciate the use of music here—pretty sparse I think, except for two versions of “Blue Moon,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.”

So if you haven’t seen this, do yourself a favor and watch it: the transformation scene alone is worth it. Some of the death scenes are pretty crazy too, and the ensuing chaos as the werewolf escapes into Piccadilly Circus is quite impressive as well. But I suspect you’ll also find yourself laughing along the way.

Frank Oz

Cameo by Frank Oz (voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzy the Bear)–just one of the great comedic moments of the film.

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One Response to Day 9: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

  1. duplexofthedamned says:

    Comic at moments, yes–using gothic elements to provoke both humor and terror, like Charles Dickens–but “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” it ain’t. This viewer can’t help but shed a few tears for the now absurdly young-looking Griffin Dunne and David Naughton as they “walk along the moors/on many misguided tours” (The McGarrigle Sisters), and meet their inevitable–and quite graphically portrayed–fates.

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