Sunday, October 29, 2017

31 Days of Horror: An American Werewolf in London

Directed by John Landis.
1981. Rated R, 97 minutes.
David Naughton
Griffin Dunne
Jenny Agutter
John Woodvine
Lila Kaye
Frank Oz
Don McKillop
Michael Carter
Linzi Drew

A couple of American chaps, David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne), are on vacation and backpacking through the woods in Yorkshire when they happen upon an out-of-the-way bar called the "Slaughtered Lamb." It's one of those places where all the regulars immediately pause and stare down any outsiders who come through the door. After the locals give the boys some hassle, they decide to leave. Strangely, the camera stays in the bar while they go on their way. The bar patrons engage in a heated debate over whether or not they should actually let them go on their way all alone. It's quite clear something dangerous is lurking about. However, to preserve some secret, the bar folks let the boys alone. When we cut back to them, we see why there was so much consternation. David and Jack are attacked by some sort of wild animal. Jack is killed, but David wakes up in a hospital in London. He's having nightmares, and even seeing visions of his decaying pal Jack who is giving him advice and counseling. Occasionally, it's strange advice and counseling, but its advice and counseling, nonetheless. His nurse, Jenny (Agutter), takes a liking to him and a love affair is budding. Soon enough, David finds out what the title of film already told us. He's a werewolf.

I first saw this film in full in the early 1990s. I hadn't seen it since, so my memory of it was spotty. I remembered the most iconic moment, which I'll get to later, and I remembered the scene near the end where David enters a movie theater showing porn. For you younguns who grew up with smut at your fingertips twenty-four hours a day via the internet, this was once a thing. Some part of your porn viewing experience generally involved going out in public, but I digress. My point is that even though I knew I liked the movie when i saw it, I really couldn't pinpoint why. And since this was in the days before I let my magical fingers dance across the keyboard to record my thoughts on what I was watching, I didn't have a snazzy review to remind myself what I thought of it. This was about a fresh a viewing as one could have of a movie they've clearly remember watching.

The movie I rediscovered after all these years couldn't be more morbidly delightful. Much of the humor comes from David being perpetually shell-shocked about all the things going on with him. To say the dude is having a tough go of it is understating things quite a bit. He is continuously flabbergasted, which is entirely understandable. We can at once be mortified by and laugh at his situation. David Naughton proves to be the perfect vessel for such a journey. He makes his own fright humorous. The key is that he doesn't play it for laughs, he plays it as if he's genuinely afraid for his life.

While Naughton is a manic mess, Griffin Dunne is deadpan gold. That's not actually accurate. He's more chipper than deadpan. His Jack is essentially the devil sitting on David's shoulder (or, perhaps, the angel on the other). He's pretty calm throughout, which is probably more unnerving to David than had he been some maniacal evil spirit, yelling and trying to scare David. However, Dunne's performance is only partly of his own making. The other part is provided by the fantastic makeup he wears throughout. Each subsequent scene he appears in has him looking more rotted than the scene before. And it is masterfully done. It's a movie that is nearing forty years old, yet I still marveled at Dunne's appearance, created with nothing more than rubber and fake blood.

Makeup combines with other practical fx to make this an amazing watch. Of course, you can't talk about this movie and not at least mention its most iconic scene. David's initial transformation into a werewolf is a towering achievement in the field of special fx. Again, this is all organically created and, amazingly, still holds up after all these years. So, I have to rephrase something I said earlier in this review. I said I remembered the transformation scene. The truth is, I thought I remembered the transformation scene. Individual still shots of it stuck with me, but seeing it again in its totality was literally jaw-dropping.

At just a bit over ninety minutes, An American Werewolf in London takes those wonderful fx, the comedy, and mixes in some tight story-telling to create a briskly paced film that is actually light on werewolf action until very late in the movie. Even that's resolved by a moment that tries to tug on the heartstrings more than tapping into any horrifying elements. It also provides my one big complaint with the film. It's not how the story ends, that's fine. The problem is the way the final scene is shot. The angles are too obviously off to pull off what we're told happens. I'll say no more in case you still haven't seen it, or like me, may have forgotten this part and want to watch the film again. Other than that, the movie is just a really fun time that remains one of, if not the, best werewolf movies ever made.

Click below for more Werewolf fare.


  1. It really is a great film in so many ways. It's the opening that sells it to me. It's easy to forget that there's a long sequence in the middle without a great deal of werewolf stuff, but it never gets boring.

    Griffin Dunne, though, is perhaps the biggest selling point aside from that astonishing transformation sequence.

    1. That opening is a terrific set up, no question. Griffin Dunne...amazing.

  2. This is a film I haven't seen in a long time and man, I love it. It's so funny as well as the scene of Naughton turning into a wolf. I need to see it again.

  3. Great write-up. Funny story - my dad took my mom (NOT a horror fan) to see this film during its original theatrical release. He told her it was a straight comedy. Mom doesn't do gore so you can imagine how it went. She spent most of the movie looking at her lap. We laugh at it now, but that story STILL is part of our memories. Mom was sooo ticked off at him.

    1. I love that story. I have a few like that of my own. Most recently, my gore-averse wife wandered into the room while I was watching Train to Busan during one of the not-bloody parts. She got sucked into the story and just had to stay and watch the rest. By watch, I mean cringing and shutting her eyes only to open them a moment too soon.

  4. Now this is one horror movie I can get behind! It sets out to entertain its audience in various ways, a little humor, a little horror, a little mystery, a little romance and a little pathos blended together into a harmonious whole. The transformation is impressive as is Griffin Dunne's every more decaying Jack but they aren't all there is to the story and the filmmakers never go for the easy gross out which would diminish the picture.

    I remember when this came out and there was a great hubbub about David Naughton being the Dr. Pepper guy (I'm a Pepper...He's a Pepper...Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too!) and his extensive nudity which all turned out to a tempest in a teapot since he was ideal in the lead, earnest, bewildered and a little lost. He and Landis keep him very real, I love the telephone conversation he has with his little sister near the end when despite all that's going on he's still incredulous that she's home alone at I think it was 11 when he was never allowed to be.

    Griffin Dunne is wonderful but then that's another strength of the film the entire picture is filled with quality performers who can actually act which certainly isn't a standard in these sort of films. The use of location shooting makes it all seem very real and keeps it fresh all these years later.

    The decade too late sequel is better left unspoken of.

    1. I knew that Naughton was the Dr. Pepper guy, but had no idea there was any hubbub. However, I was really young when it came out so that sort of stuff was off my radar. As for that phone conversation. You're right about that being a wonderful touch.

      I saw the sequel, and...yeah...let's not go there.

  5. I love this movie. Best. Werewolf. Transformation. Ever!

  6. Great transformation. Great humour too. And love the reference to Wuthering Heights too.

    1. Sadly, I've not seen Wuthering Heights. I need to check that out.