Just over a week ago, An American Werewolf in London, directed by John Landis, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. With that in mind, I recently gave it a slightly belated birthday viewing. And you know what? It still holds up today.
American Werewolf has the distinction of being one of the original ‘horror comedies’ (a horredy?). Not a comedic spoof of horror, but a film which, when done properly, can find just the right balance between the two genres. In this case, it’s able to quickly turn from being light-hearted fun to an exercise in genuine terror, and so was ahead of its time in a lot ways. Take the early scenes set on the Yorkshire moors as an example, as we watch doomed tourist buddies David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) amiably banter and bicker about everything from the weather to women. But it’s not long before the rain sets in and, along with it, the howling starts. Soon they’re running, panic stricken, from some unseen horror, yet even then they try and make light of the situation. Of course, it all comes to a shocking and bloody end.
The film continues this balance of humour and horror throughout. I think my favourite scenes are those that focus on David and Jack together. There’s always a great sense of chemistry between them. And I’m not just referring to their opening sequences. By far, the best gag here is that the two characters spend time with each other even after Jack has been mauled to death. He appears one morning before David’s hospital bed with a smile on his face. Only problem is, his face has been ruined by claw marks, and his entire throat has been torn to shreds. As this image sinks in, he calmly points at David’s breakfast tray and asks, “Can I have a piece of toast?”
That’s brilliant. And there’s two more scenes just like it later on. In each, Dunne’s makeup becomes increasingly more gruesome to the point where he is finally portrayed by an actual practical effect! He also appears to become more snarky as his condition deteriorates (all things considered, I guess you can’t exactly blame him). But he carries a serious message for David. Jack can only be at peace if the wolf’s bloodline is severed. In other words, David has to die! It’s not just Jack who’s trying to get this message across, however. During their final meeting in an erotic theatre, he’s accompanied by a handful of fresh corpses (a result of David’s third act killing spree), who all offer up suggestions for how the poor werewolf could potentially kill himself. In particular, there’s an excitable young couple who seem to be taking the whole death thing rather well, and are quite eager to suggest the simple use of a gun in the mouth (“Then you’d be sure not to miss!”). They’re all sunshine and happiness at the time, too, despite being caked in blood.
On the opposite end of the tonal spectrum, some of the film’s most frightening scenes take place in David’s mind. While recovering in hospital after the initial attack, he has several disturbing dreams (in which he runs naked through the woods and rips a deer’s head off) that soon morph into nightmares. In one, there’s a truly startling jump scare which will leave an image burned into your mind whenever you turn off the lights, while another starts off with a cosy image of life at home with David’s family... before they’re all suddenly massacred by a squad of machinegun-toting Nazi werewolves. Yeah, David’s reaction of “Holy shit!” is putting it lightly if you ask me.
You can't make this stuff up.
Then there are the later scenes where, after his transformation, David prowls around London in search of potential victims. Gorehounds will likely be disappointed to discover that, save for one severed hand, these parts are virtually blood free. The standout sequence here involves one very unlucky train commuter, who is stalked through the blank corridors of a deserted subway station until he’s finally cornered on a rising escalator. It’s a masterful example of what building suspense can achieve over out-and-out violence.
Speaking of “carnage candy” (thanks, Scream 2), the movie does eventually go all-out just in time for the climax. David’s final, chaotic rampage through the speeding traffic of Piccadilly Circus is at once a devastating and hilarious sight. It’s an uncompromising orgy of screaming crowds, crashing vehicles and crushed bodies which ends the film with about as big a bang as you could hope for.
You can’t write anything about American Werewolf without mentioning Rick Baker’s incredible special effects. I’ve already noted Dunne’s extensive makeup, but as great as that is, it is of course the transformation scene that’ll really blow you away. Emphasis was placed on making David’s metamorphosis from man into beast look as painful as possible. They succeeded. Just look at the expression on his face as he watches his hand violently spread out into an inhuman shape. Then the same thing happens with his feet. Hair starts sprouting all over his body. His spine moves and crunches under his skin as he finds himself forced onto all fours. Lastly, his face elongates into something hideously canine. All the while, he’s screaming. In the great ‘Practical vs. CGI’ effects debate, this film gives the old-school team a major advantage. And you’ve gotta love how a light and breezy rendition of ‘Blue Moon’ plays over the whole, agonising sequence.
But it’s not completely without criticism. I do find it odd how, despite them quite clearly being great friends, David never seems too choked up about Jack’s death. Also, though it’s still a memorable creature, the final werewolf design does at times resemble a walking carpet, and maybe isn’t quite as fearsome as other cinematic lycanthropes (such as those from the same year’s The Howling). But since it spends so much time out of sight, this isn’t exactly a major issue. And I’m sure many will be put off by the film’s abrupt ending, though I do personally quite like it.
So, is An American Werewolf in London still an excellent horror classic that’s worthy of your time and attention even after thirty years? Absolutely. And there’s a fair amount of great stuff I haven’t even mentioned, such as the tense scene where David and Jack stop off at a (very local) pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb”, or the sweet but tragically short relationship David shares with his nurse (Jenny Agutter). If you haven’t seen the film before, then I highly recommend you go give it a watch.
Just, you know... stay off the moors and all that.