September 22, 2008
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
1981 was a great year for Horror, as three excellent movies about werewolves were released that same year in a "once in a blue moon" event: "Wolfen", "The Howling", and "An American Werewolf in London". Of the three, John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London" is probably the most famous, but not without a reason, as it's more than a brilliant horror movie, it's simply one of the best movies ever made. Being only 31 years old and right after the hit comedies "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers", Landis found himself able to finally make his dream project, a story he had conceived when he was just 19: the story of a young American who finds himself transformed into a werewolf while on a trip through England. Like the classics "The Curse of the Werewolf" and "The Wolf Man" did before, "An American Werewolf in London" would redefine the werewolf myth and bring it to a whole new audience.
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American tourists backpacking through the United Kingdom. One night while traveling across the Yorkshire moors, they are attacked by a strange beast that savagely kills Jack but is killed by the townspeople before it kills David. Weeks later, David wakes up in a London hospital, where he receives the tragic news of his best friend's death; however, this is not the worse that will happen to him, as Jack appears to him as ghost and tells him that what killed him was a werewolf and he can't rest in peace. But the worse part is that now David is a werewolf too, and cursed to become a savage beast under the full moon. Thinking it's all a hallucination caused by the shock, David refuses to believe this, but he begins to have weird visions as the full moon gets closer.
Written by Landis himself, the movie is a delightful mixture of black comedy with classic horror that works perfectly together in the film. While the comedy is certainly one of the film's strongest points, Landis follows the pattern set by Universal's "The Wolf Man", and keeps the tragedy of the werewolf's curse as the main theme. As in Curt Siodmak's classic story, romance plays a big part of the story in the shape of Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), a nurse who becomes David's lover, and the one in charge of stopping the beast. The story unfolds nicely, and focuses on the suspense of the events before the unavoidable transformation, giving the movie a sense of impeding doom that fits nicely with the cynicism and tragedy of Landis' version of the werewolf myth. Robert Paynter's cinematography was the perfect complement to the story by capturing all the British landscapes (both urban and countryside) with a surreal beauty.
The direction of the film is simply flawless, with Landis skill as storyteller shining as he makes his story come alive. As written above, most of the movie focuses on the fear and paranoia that David feels before his transformation, showing him in the state of disbelief when confronted by the ghost of his friend; however, this is not to say that the actual action of the movie is downplayed, as when the climatic scene of the metamorphosis arrives, it doesn't disappoint. Landis proves with this movie that he can direct scenes with heavy use of special effects with the same care as the normal character driven scenes. The film moves at a nice pace, never becoming boring or tiresome, and the use of classic songs with "moon" in the title is just another of the small details that makes Landis' masterpiece an unforgettable film.
John Landis direction and Rick Baker's awesome make-up effects tend to downplay the work by the cast in the film, but this doesn't mean there are bad performances. David Naughton tends to be the focus of the criticism, and it is easy to see why, as not only he certainly is the weakest link in the cast, his character is not really a likable one at first. As a tourist, he starts as an arrogant brat, and his disdain for Jack's petition makes him less sympathetic; but this just increases the power of the climatic transformation. Jerry Agutter is very effective as Alex, and makes an excellent counterpart to Naughton. However, the supporting roles are the ones who shine the most, as Griffin Dunne and John Woodvine steal every scene they are, the first one as David's friend Jack, and the second one as Dr. Hirsch, the only man who tries to help David.
Unlike most movies from the same era, it doesn't feel dated and still looks very fresh today. The mix of black humor and tragic horror works nicely against all odds and is the trademark of the movie. Baker's remarkable work in the make-up department is now a classic work in the history of the genre, and helped him to take his career to new heights after the slight downfall he had after "King Kong". The transformation scene is definitely now an iconic scene in the genre, pretty much in the same way as Jack Pierce's make-up for "The Wolf Man". Still, this film is much more than impressive effects, it's a tale of fantasy and horror told in a very classy and entertaining way. With all respect to Waggner and Fisher's movies, Landis' spin on the werewolf's myth is personally, the best rendition of a werewolves' story ever put on film.
Definitely 1981 was the year of the wolf in cinema, as together with "Wolfen" and "The Howling", this movie gave new life to the legendary beasts that roam by night. It's really a shame that Landis's career became so troubled by the late 80s, as he has an enormous talent for directing. True, ever since the beginning of cinema many movies have portrayed werewolves in many different stories, but in my humble opinion, this brilliant film tops them all.
Buy "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)