Directed by John Landis
Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, & Joe Belcher
#ThrowbackThursday film review by Joseph Banham
Continuing our look back at classic horror during October, this week examines a film that set the benchmark for horror comedy. Like the vampires in last week’s review of Dracula (1931), this week’s film takes a look at another creature firmly grounded in horror lore- werewolves. So join me as I take a retrospective look at John Landis’s An American Werewolf In London (1981).
The plot of the film sees two young American backpackers, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), arrive in cold, wet North Yorkshire, as part of what is presumably a trip around Europe. Stopping off at a pub, it soon becomes apparent that the locals live in fear of something sinister that lurks around the moors whenever there is a full moon. Brushing off the perturbed villagers’ behaviour as simply looney eccentricity, David and Jack set off across the moors. They soon find themselves, however, having a nasty encounter with the fearsome beast, which leaves Jack mortally wounded and David badly mauled. If, like David, you have seen The Wolf Man (1941), you are no doubt well aware of what a bite from such a beast means. David is taken to a hospital in London where he forms a relationship with a kind young nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), all the while experiencing foreboding signs of his savage fate.
A sense of apprehensive dread fills the first half of the film, first over David and Jack being sitting ducks for the werewolf, and then over David inevitably becoming the monster himself. One of the most chilling factors of the film is the sound of the wolf’s ferocious screech; as David and Jack hurriedly scurry across the moors, the howl’s increasing volume evokes a wonderful sense of dread. The initial setting of the bitter cold, foggy moors screams classic horror, taking inspiration from Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.
The film is not so much about the attacks of a werewolf as much as it's about the build-up to the transformation. The gory attacks do come, but not until much later in the film’s last act. Instead, Landis is more intent on showing the audience David’s nightmarish after-effects from the initial encounter, as he becomes the next unlucky bearer of the curse. This approach leads to the inventive staging of some very strange, as well as shocking, dream sequences. The most disturbing of which involves mutant werewolf soldiers attacking a pleasant family home, which is so audaciously unexpected that its rapid violence is over before the viewer even has a chance to fathom what exactly is going on. Landis doesn’t shy away from orchestrating several jump scares either, having fun twisting the audience's expectations with the dream sequences. He even pulls off an effective double-whammy (you’ll know it when it happens).
As well as having moments of terror, the film can also be quite funny. Director John Landis is often celebrated for his comedy films, such as Trading Places (1983) and The Blues Brothers (1980). It makes sense, therefore, that American Werewolf has many humorous scenes, albeit ones that are very dark. The film doesn’t exactly produce side-splitting laughs, but it does have a comic undercurrent where the macabre elements are mixed with the more lighthearted tone. The film features scenes where the gory nature of death is presented more of a casual annoyance, primarily through the necrotized Jack returning to warn David, still conversing with him in a relatively jovial manner. It turns out that since he was killed by a werewolf, the unfortunate Jack is doomed to walk the earth in limbo until the beast is destroyed for good- meaning that he constantly shows up urging David to commit suicide. The same goes for the later victims of London, who show up, all bloodied, to beg David to end his life while trying to keep their politeness and composure.
The most impressive attribute that the film has to offer is its makeup and special effects, marking the first notable work of effects wizard Rick Baker. It’s not just the design of the werewolf, which I’ll come to in a minute, that is commendable; there is also the sight of the progressively decomposing cadaver of Jack. Actor Griffin Dunne was submerged in gruesome prosthetics to create a believable walking corpse, and it still looks marvellous. Baker clearly worked hard to come up with all the different detailed textures for the three stages of deterioration we see Jack in, from freshly massacred to rotting skeleton.
The film's centerpiece is, of course, the horrific transformation scene. The scene, finally coming after about an hour of build up, turns out to be worth the wait. When it comes to cinematic scenes of grisly metamorphosis, there is none better. Landis and Baker make ingenious use of the practical effects, which bring a sense of brutal realism to David's excruciating pain, as the camera focuses on every stretch of skin and bone. It remains one of the most visually impressive scenes of horror cinema, managing to be much more convincing than any similar scenes before or since. It was this scene that was largely responsible for the film being awarded the first ever Academy Award for best makeup in 1981. The success led to Landis and Baker teaming up several more times in the future, including for the iconic music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982).
The wolf is only seen in its full form in a few brief shots throughout the film, mostly giving the audience just short glimpses of its horrendous teeth and claws. It's achieved through puppetry and animatronics, which, while admittedly look slightly dated, still have a menacing appearance. I absolutely love this era of prosthetics, puppets, and animatronics, creating monsters that felt a lot more organic, as opposed to the more recent practice of using CGI. I’ve always felt that there is a lot more wonder involved whenever the creature is physically created and present on set.
The film’s one major flaw is in its climactic sequence, in that it wraps up before it even has a chance to get started. The finale feels very haphazard and is sorely missing a proper conclusion. The first time I watched the film, the abrupt ending took me completely by surprise and left me with the unsatisfied feeling of wanting more. It does seem as though, maybe for either time or budget constraints, the ending was cut short from what was originally planned. It also means that the relationship formed between David and Alex never really reaches an emotional apex, leaving the romantic subplot to feel completely abandoned.
Rushed ending aside, however, and we are still left with a thoroughly enjoyable film. It may be a lot more memorable for its practical effects than its story, but it is still one of the best examples of a horror comedy getting the tricky balance between the two contrasting genres just right.