Thirty years of horror: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Tom: Could this be the last great werewolf movie? Or even the last non-awful werewolf movie? Because since then, I can’t think of any decent werewolf movies. I can, however, think of some real howlers (get it?). Jack Nicholson peeing on James Spader’s shoes in Mike Nichols’ Wolf. CG Anthony Hopkins dog vs. CG Benecio del Toro dog in a CG burning building at the end of The Wolfman. Lichens in the Underworld series. Taylor Lautner.

Chris: It’s literally been 20 years since I’ve seen it, but isn’t there some sort of widespread underground affection for The Howling? I saw that before I was old enough to really appreciate anything other than the coolness of werewolves ripping people up. Does that movie pre-date this? I’m having trouble thinking of any werewolf movies before or after this one I’d rather see. I think this could be the only great werewolf movie.

After the jump, have you ever talked to a corpse before?

Tom: Everyone remembers Rick Baker’s make-up/special effects in American Werewolf in London, and they should. Time was werewolves were just time lapse photography. Here we have a full body shot of David Naughton’s head on a writhing animatronic body in mid transformation. This was a landmark effects movie and arguably the pinnacle of pre-CG practical effects, along with Rob Bottin’s unparalleled work in The Thing. But what struck me when rewatching this is how cool the fully transformed wolf looks. The animatronic beast, far more wolf than man, is low to the ground and menacing. I absolutely love the shot in the London Tube from the top of an escalator when it’s stalking the businessman.


Yet the wolf has a slightly cartoony look. It wouldn’t be amiss alongside a gnome ranger in World of Warcraft. It fits the heightened reality you’d expect when the director of Animal House makes a horror movie full of dream sequences that may or may not be jokes. Nazi werewolves violently slaughtering a family while they watch The Muppet Show? Griffin Dunne’s progressive decay? All the werewolf’s victims sitting morosely in a porno theater? Is Landis serious?

Chris: This is a movie I remember from the early days of having cable TV. I was just then starting to figure out things about critical thought, and I remember that while the movie itself was a blast to watch. More than that, I thought Griffin Dunne just jumped off the screen. David Naughton was the star and sex symbol (based on a Dr. Pepper commercial and a sitcom). The monster was frightening, and the awesome transformation was justifiably talked up by critics and monster geeks for being the outstanding work that it is. With all that, though, for me this film still becomes stuff that happens between the parts where Griffin Dunne’s living dead body shambles onscreen.

I’m not sure how much here is scripted and how much was Dunne making acting choices, but it’s brilliant, isn’t it? It’s actually kind of easy to accept that he’s dead, because in his current state he can’t really distinguish between Debbie Klein seeking solace in Mark Levine’s bed and asking his best friend to kill himself. It’s never quite certain that David isn’t going nuts and seeing his buddy walk the earth not a hallucination, but I like to think he’s really there. As an added bonus, meeting the victims of his rampage inside the porn theater is a hilarious play on British mores. I loved the cheerful, bloody dead couple.

Tom: In a way, this is really Griffin Dunne’s movie, isn’t it? Certainly more than it’s David Naughton’s movie and perhaps even more than it’s Rick Baker’s movie.

Chris: I also totally bought into the other supporting bits. I’m not sure how many doctors go to the moors because of something a crazy patient tells them, but it gave us more opportunity to see the daft (and dangerous) pubfolk again, so I was all in.

Tom: And Jenny Agutter as a nurse? The British healthcare system is doing something right!

Chris: Yeah, right? If they’d promise that 1981 Jenny Agutter would sit at your bedside and read to you, I think socialized medicine would really take off.

Tom: The Piccadilly Circus finale is still brilliant. It’s like all of John Landis’ trademark chaos compressed into a tiny patch of London. It begins in a porn theatre and spills out into the streets, as if the sexual absurdity of Animal House bled into all the crashing cars of The Blues Brothers, grinding up innocent bystanders and flinging them through glass. The confused snarling werewolf is almost incidental to the carnage. Is Landis serious? The transition from the final scene to the credits, which shocked me when I saw this as a kid, pretty much answers that question. American Werewolf in London manages that really difficult balancing act of horror and comedy. Intentional horror and comedy, I should say, because it intends both. Plenty of horror movies are accidentally funny. It takes a director like Landis, in his heyday, to pull off both.

Chris: This movie has always been about the juxtaposition between the humor and horror, and I agree with Tom that it gets both of those things so right. Besides the obvious zombie caricatures, though, I think it’s the music cues that Landis uses here that really set the table for all that. The use of “Moondance” during the lovemaking scene and “Bad Moon Rising” during David’s transformation scene tell us it’s ok to laugh…which makes the gory, violent attacks resonate all the stronger.

That’s especially true the way Landis uses “Blue Moon”. The movie opens with Bobby Vinton’s languid, dreamy version, and it almost fits with the pastoral setting of the English countryside. The ending, however could be utterly, totally shattering as presented, but then Landis rolls credits immediately with The Marcels’ bouncy, goofy doo-wop version of the song. The effect is like having an older brother pull off a mask after he’s just scared the crap out of you, letting you know that it’s all in fun.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)