Directed by: #JohnLandis
Written by: #JohnLandis
Now and then, a film comes along that’s so spectacular, so revolutionary, it redefines a genre. It doesn’t often happen; once in a blue moon. But John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is one of those films; redefining not only the horror-comedy genre but the werewolf movie too. Along with The Howling, An American Werewolf in London ditched the crossfade editing techniques of old. It made good use of pioneering developments in practical special effects to develop the visceral and bone-crunching transformations (still the best ever put to screen) we’ve become accustomed to, and, in the process, introduced us to the more lupine and bestial werewolf.
An American Werewolf in London is also one of those superb horror films that make excellent use of its setting to instil a sense of dread and alienation within its audience. It does this by taking two average, young Americans, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), and placing them in entirely unfamiliar surroundings—Northern England. I’ve spoken before about how the gloom of the British countryside can make for a fantastic horror-movie setting and the moors of the North (seen during the beginning of the film), complete with the isolated rural pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – is the absolute pinnacle of this.
It’s at the Slaughtered Lamb that David and Jack meet a menagerie of locals, including David Schofield, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye, and a very young Rik Mayall. For my money, this is one of the best scenes in the movie as it perfectly defines the rest of the film. The tension is apparent from the moment the boys walk through the door; they’d be less out of place if they were on the moon. Awkwardness mingles with humour as the close-knit locals soon begin a bit of friendly banter—at the “yanks” expense, of course. But when Jack asks about the five-pointed star painted on the wall, the locals become decidedly more hostile (“You made me miss!”) and the boys are expelled from the building, with the now-infamous warning of “Beware the moon, lads. And stick to the road.”
And for the next 10-minutes, with the nighttime stroll through the moors, the unseen creature lurking in the dark, and the god-awful sound it makes, the film becomes pure horror gold. The film’s ability to switch between being very funny and genuinely terrifying is, for me, what really sets it apart. Horror and comedy is a notoriously tricky balance to get right, and yet, Landis manages it with considerable finesse. There’s barely a foot put wrong in the manufacturing of the film’s tenor, and both Landis’ writing and direction are largely to thank.
The casting of two young and relatively unknown American actors in the central roles, then juxtaposing that with the predominantly more experienced British cast was an inspired decision. A risky choice for any filmmaker, but one that really worked well here. It conjures a sense of alienation almost immediately, both on and off the camera, allowing both Naughton and Dunne’s’ natural unease to shine. I think it’s fair to say they’re both terrific, particularly given the difficulties of the genre and the complexities this film demands. David’s transformation scene really stands out for me because of the sudden brutality of said transformation, and the anguish that can be both seen on his face and heard in his voice. And, of course, any scene with the undead Jack visiting his best friend is a masterclass in horror-comedy film-making; capable of eliciting dread, sorrow, and hilarity. But it’s perhaps the bond between the two friends that really makes us, the audience, sympathise with their predicament—so strong and naturally occurring that it is. Throw in a robust and memorable supporting cast of characters (including the ever-brilliant Jenny Agutter as Nurse Alex Price, David’s love interest), and you have a real winner.
Of course, the film wouldn’t have been the success it was if not for Robert Paynter’s keen eye for cinematography and Rick Baker’s game-changing practical effects. Taking inspiration from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic of suspense, Jaws, Paynter never allows the audience to glimpse too much of the creature – mostly for the same budgetary reasons we never see much of “Bruce” the shark – and makes good use of medium/close-up shots to build tension during the moments of more out-and-out horror. The few exceptions to this are during the transformation scene – an exquisitely painful sequence to watch – and Jack’s grisly return from death: both showcasing Baker’s phenomenal work in make-up and practical effects. So brilliant was his work, in fact, the “Best Make-up” Academy Award category was created to recognise it.
I kind of feel that An American Werewolf in London is a bit of an underappreciated or forgotten masterpiece, at least outside of the critical sphere. I hardly ever hear people talking about it with the same reverence I do, with the same reverence it deserves. I hope I’m wrong, this is the finest werewolf movie ever made and one of the best horror-comedy films too. It pioneered the use of practical effects in film and changed the cinematic landscape, the results of which are still being felt today. This is essential viewing for any horror fan;you’re not a proper horror fan until you’ve seen this movie. And, with the recent Arrow Video 4K restoration re-release (full of fantastic extras), there’s never been a better time to get stuck in.