An American Werewolf in London (1981)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember seeing John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” on VHS when I was 16. I remember being so mad at the way it ended that I told myself I didn’t like the movie…and then, shortly after that, I bought the DVD and a T-shirt with “BEWARE THE MOON” (a line from the movie) sewn onto it. Yet, I was still convinced I didn’t like the movie…which is why I watched it countless times since then?

It took longer than I’m proud to admit for me to realize I did like the movie…I just didn’t like the ending.

“An American Werewolf in London” is a horror film with a sharp satirical sense of humor that makes for some uncomfortably funny moments. It begins with two American college students—David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne)—being dropped off in English country with a truckload of sheep…considering everything that happens to these two, I won’t even call this “subtle” foreshadowing.

David and Jack reach a local pub (called The Slaughtered Lamb) in a small village, a place that already seems disconcerting without the angry glares from the patrons and the barmaid. Before they leave, they’re warned to keep walking on the roads, stay off the moors, and “beware the moon.” Well, it’s a full moon out that night, and they ignore the warning and walk away from the road…and that’s when they are attacked by a ferocious creature in the dark.

Jack is killed, while David is hospitalized in London after being mauled by the creature. But the problem is no one, not even the police, believes his story that it was a large wolf that attacked them, since it was the corpse of a man that was uncovered at the scene of the crime, not a monster. While David is recovering from his injuries, he suffers a series of strange, harrowing nightmares, all of which involve him attacking animals and eating them (among other horrific details). But things get even stranger when Jack, now a decomposing corpse walking in limbo as one of the undead, visits David and warns him that he is becoming a werewolf. It was a werewolf that killed Jack and merely mauled David, and now, the curse has been passed on to David. If David doesn’t kill himself before the next full moon, he will become a monster and kill people.

It turns out Jack was right (of course), and on the next night of the full moon, David transforms into a werewolf and goes on a rampage. What everyone remembers from “An American Werewolf in London” is the transformation sequence, which shows the painful process of becoming the wolf-like creature. Makeup-artist/creature-creator Rick Baker supervised the effects, working with the makeup and prosthetics, and the result is not only effective but also one of the most amazing, memorable, lasting moments of its kind I’ve ever seen in any movie of its sort. (Baker won the Oscar for Best Makeup for this film, becoming the first winner for the category that was new at the time.) Carefully chosen cinematography and effective acting from Naughton make you feel the pain and suffering David is going through as his body goes through slow, numerous changes before ultimately becoming the American Werewolf in London.

“An American Werewolf in London” works well as a horror film, not only because of its effectively done scary set pieces (such as the boys’ first werewolf attack or a later attack in a Subway station) but also because we care for the character of David and feel sorry for him while he’s in this uncontrollable situation. But it also works as a black comedy, thanks to director Landis (who’s known for outrageous comedies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) who inserts many nice elements that are fun to laugh at. The most memorable and relevant of such elements comes with the character of Jack, who after his death visits David three times. Even though he looks worse and worse with each visit, as his body is slowly wasting away, Jack maintains the persona of a perky college student that makes for great comic relief.

Something else that keeps the rooting interest of the film going is a nice little romance between David and his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who takes him in after David leaves the hospital. It’s sweet without being sugary, and you feel the attraction between the two. Much of the reason we want David to find some way to get through the curse is because we know Alex feels deeply for him. And then there’s David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (well-played by John Woodvine), who discovers there may be more to David’s story than he initially thought and does his own investigating. This subplot would be uninteresting if the part wasn’t played by an interesting actor who helps keep the film grounded in reality.

OK…let’s talk a little about the ending. Without giving away what happens, I still don’t like it. I feel like the film does so well, right up until this final minute or so. It feels so anticlimactic that it made me wonder why I spent so much time leading up to it. It let me down with how abrupt it was. But the more I thought about it (and I’ve watched this film several times), I might give the film a little bit of credit that there might not have been any other way it could’ve resolved itself…but I don’t know if I can forgive the film for immediately cutting straight to the credits with an upbeat pop song that tried to make me forget the utterly dire resolution I was just subjected to!

However, I can’t let something like that get in the way of the delightful horror-comedy I enjoyed for years (even if many of those years were spent in much denial). “An American Werewolf in London” is very well-made, contains Landis’ trademark blend of lightheartedness and weightiness, and may just be the best “werewolf movie” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.

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