One of the perverse realities of being a movie critic is that it’s easy to end up better acquainted with current releases, no matter how unimportant they are, than with the classics. This hit home with me recently when I realized I’d seen every werewolf-themed wide release of the last ten years — including all of the Twilights — but not An American Werewolf in London. Obviously, one can only live with this knowledge for so long before one is compelled to take corrective measures.
New to Me: An American Werewolf in London (1981)
What I already knew before I watched it:
- This is one of the few times that director John Landis, normally a maker of comedies, has tried his hand at horror. (Blues Brothers 2000 doesn’t count because he wasn’t trying.)
- It’s one of three major werewolf films released in 1981, the others being The Howling and Wolfen. An American Werewolf in London came from Universal Pictures, the studio whose iconic The Wolf Man had been released exactly 40 years earlier.
- That means The Wolf Man was as old to AAWIL viewers in 1981 as, say, The Godfather is to us now.
- The sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, released 16 years later with none of the same cast or creative personnel, was lousy, to the surprise of no one.
- AAWIL won the Oscar for best makeup in the first year the category existed. The specific winner — indeed, the only makeup artist whose name you even recognize — was Rick Baker.
- It is my understanding that the American werewolf is in London on a student visa and has to return to the U.S. as soon as he graduates from werewolf school.
- Warren Zevon’s song “Werewolves of London” always reminds me of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” But neither song is in AAWIL, so this is not relevant.
* * *
I’ll avoid spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen the film (but what kind of loser has never seen An American Werewolf in London?).
John Landis comes from the generation of filmmakers whose movies are filled with references to the movies they grew up watching, and to moviegoing in general. AAWIL overtly mentions The Wolf Man, among others, and the characters are aware that what’s happening to them is similar to what happened in that film. When a man warns the American tourists in the very first scene to “keep off the moors,” I thought: That is definitely the sort of thing you expect to hear in a werewolf movie. Landis is doing it right.
The two Americans, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), are interchangeably wry and jokey in the manner of just about all male duos in ’80s comedies. I do believe you could arbitrarily reassign half of David’s lines to Jack, and half of Jack’s lines to David, without having to change anything else. And wow: you either find these two tolerable, with their jovial banter and general snarkiness, or you really, really don’t. If one of them is going to die, I hope it’s the one who looks like Cousin Larry from Perfect Strangers.
Landis cleverly avoids showing us any werewolves until he absolutely has to. That’s useful for building suspense, but it’s also practical, since what we’re dealing with is either a stuffed animal or a guy in a wolf costume. Nonetheless, despite the comparative cheesiness of the monster, the first attack scene is effective because it’s unexpected and bloody, coming as a great shock after an opening 15 minutes in which nothing is taken very seriously.
Werewolf movie trope alert: the victim of a werewolf bite is rendered unconscious for three weeks, so that when he wakes up, it’s almost time for the next full moon. The movie would have to kill a lot of time if the bite only knocked him out for a couple days.
I’ve heard a lot of things about England’s healthcare system, but I had no idea you were allowed to plant a kiss on a pretty nurse and then go home with her and have an incongruous and gratuitously long sex scene. We’d probably have more support for a single-payer system in the U.S. if we played up this aspect of it.
I like the white-haired old physician, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), because even though the movie is set in the present, he seems like he came from the 19th century. When it is believed that Jack and David were attacked by a lunatic (rather than a werewolf), Dr. Hirsch says, “They say a madman has the strength of ten.” Oh, is that what “they say”? Is that your modern, professional, scientific opinion? Later he barges into a rural pub, orders a weird drink, and spoils a chess game. He’s totally full of himself. Whether this is an homage to the pompous “heroic” scientists and doctors of classic sci-fi and horror movies or simply the way Landis wrote the character, I don’t know.
The real star of the film is Rick Baker’s makeup effects. I suspect I won’t get much argument there. The famous transformation sequence (which I’d seen before) is a masterpiece: realistic enough to convey the horror and pain that would accompany such a change in real life, but un-real enough to make it feel like a nightmare.
It’s also one of the few moments of real horror in the film, is it not? The whole movie deals with horror elements, but it’s only in a handful of scenes that it tries to be out-and-out scary. It generally succeeds; it just doesn’t try very often. If you expected a wall-to-wall scare-fest, you’d be disappointed.
Which brings us to the major risk in making a horror-comedy: nine times out of ten, the result is neither as scary nor as funny as you were hoping. But An American Werewolf in London avoids the pitfalls of the genre better than a lot of its fellows. Landis keeps things short (93 minutes without credits), fast-paced, and uncluttered. There aren’t any unnecessary subplots. That amazing transformation scene and a few other key moments thrill and terrify us, but otherwise the film is a sublime, easy-going pleasure.
(An American Werewolf in London is currently streaming on Netflix.)
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