Arrow Video: An American Werewolf in London (1981) - Reviewed

Stuart Walker’s 1935 horror classic Werewolf of London was the first major Hollywood film to prominently feature lycanthropes on the big screen, paving the way for the likes of The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr. and spawning an entre generation of horror movies for decades to come.  Both films were produced and distributed by Universal Pictures which would establish its own brand of monster movies throughout the 1940s.  The subgenre of humans transforming into murderous human/wolf hybrids is an ongoing one but few years in horror films gave such a bright spotlight to the creature of the night than 1981 which saw the creation of not one but five werewolf movies: Night of the Werewolf; Full Moon High; Wolfen; The Howling and the Academy Award winning An American Werewolf in London.

Of the four the most technically sophisticated ones were The Howling and An American Werewolf in London with some measure of competition between the two.  In an unusual bit of crossover, visual effects artist Rick Baker who copped an Oscar for his work on London was originally hired to do The Howling before passing the work onto The Thing maestro Rob Bottin.  To this day there’s still fierce debate over which film is the superior of the two technically and in terms of horror.  What’s undeniable though is that out of the four werewolf movies to grace the multiplexes in 1981, only one of them treaded into the uncanny valley of horror comedy or a straight-laced horror film that happens to also be riotously funny.  This is due in large part to the film’s (at the time) iconoclastic writer-director John Landis who found his footing as a comedy filmmaker but at heart had his blood in horror movies.

Originating in 1969 by a then twenty-something Landis while working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes, the project sat on the shelf while Landis began work on his first film Schlock which forecasted many of the jokes and payoffs found later in his National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as An American Werewolf in London.  Up until this point, Landis was the last man you would expect to deliver a full-blooded horror film as his consistent sense of humor in his previous film The Blues Brothers cemented the filmmaker as a first-rate comedy director.  As time and legacy have shown, however, Landis would have the last laugh in a movie that was among the first epic horror comedies of the 1980s, paving the way for such like-minded big budget productions as Ghostbusters, Gremlins and Little Shop of Horrors. 

The story is an exceedingly simple fish-out-of-water setup: two New York-based American college kids, Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton), are on a trip through the moors of Yorkshire, England when their evening is upended by a deadly werewolf attack, leaving Jack dead and David mortally wounded.  Awakening in a hospital, David is recuperating from his inhuman cuts and scratches but finds himself plagued by nightmares of running naked through the woods feasting on animal flesh when he isn’t experiencing hallucinations of his dead friend appearing more and more decomposed and rotten with each ghostly visit.  Soon David finds his world unraveling after awakening naked in a zoo as reports of residents in the London area are attacked and mutilated by a strange creature. 

What’s most memorable about An American Werewolf in London is the iconic in-camera, in real time transformation of David into the titular creature of the night.  At the light of a full moon, David screams in agony and strips naked as every part of his body slowly starts to physically change before his petrified eyes as instincts beyond his control gradually take over his mind and body.  It’s a still spellbinding technical achievement which rightfully won the much-deserved Academy Award and forever changed the ways of makeup effects in horror films.  Many who see this for the first time will notice a similar effect also provided by Rick Baker in John Landis’ music video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, right down to the same sound effects, another testament to the film’s changing power in the horror landscape.

Then there’s the recurring ghostly vision of David’s dead friend Jack who first reappears with his throat torn out and half of his face ripped off.  Each recurring visit the character is more and more decomposed, with his flesh turning gray and peeling from his face until by the end he’s a skeleton with eyes still intact.  It’s a remarkable mixture of comic irony and abject horror, successfully traversing into comedy-horror territory without making a misstep.  It also helps that it plays like a horrific sight gag, inviting you to laugh while also startling you with the level of grisly grue on display. 

In the years since it’s release, An American Werewolf in London is largely contextualized by the point in the writer-director’s career it had before an all too infamous tragedy on the set of the director’s Twilight Zone: The Movie threatened to scrub the filmmaker from the public eye completely.  It’s also known by most as a companion piece of sorts to his Thriller video by serving up the same grungy aesthetic with brilliant makeup effects by Rick Baker and for continuing a long-running gag of characters in Schlock, An American Werewolf in London and Thriller watching a film called See You Next Wednesday.  Though Landis would dabble in comedy again years later with Coming to America, the director returned to horror once again with the vampire horror film Innocent Blood along with his contribution to the Masters of Horror series.

An American Werewolf in London also managed to spawn a sequel film (without Landis), An American Werewolf in Paris though that film by contrast was widely derided and is now all but completely forgotten while London continues to terrorize, thrill and entertain horror fans.  The film also managed to spawn a radio play by Alien III: Audible director Dirk Maggs with some of the original cast members reprising their roles.  While word of a remake penned by John’s son Max Landis floated around for a bit before allegations of abuse all but kicked the proposed project into development hell, the announcement of another stab at this story seems pointless. 

Newly remastered and re-released in a deluxe special edition by Arrow Video with the full participation and supervision of Landis himself, the original remains a timeless classic of modern horror that remains a product of its time which still manages to impress with its stunning visual effects and inspired mixture of comedy into the proceedings.  It also remains the pinnacle of John Landis’ career in terms of bringing comedy, horror and technically proficient filmmaking together in a fashion that paved the way for arguably one of the greatest modern monster movies ever made.

--Andrew Kotwicki