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AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981): Retro Review…A Perfect Balance

An American Werewolf In London – 1981

Although I’ve been known to enjoy a “horror-comedy” or three in my experience as a fan, I find that I typically prefer one or the other; in my opinion, most attempts to mix the two often result in washouts, the forced combination weakening both aspects.  Of course, I’m not saying that there aren’t some really funny movies with horror elements; Stitches, Shaun of the Dead, even classics like Army of Darkness; I found all of these hilarious, great flicks.  However, I didn’t find any of them remotely scary; it’s obvious that wasn’t the intent.

To find a film that makes you chuckle and  tremble; a true horror  movie that just happens  to have some funny moments…now that’s doing something.

A truly clever scary  movie, like life itself, quite often has humor mixed in with a bad situation; the trick is to never let the humor dilute the terror.  It’s always a treat to run across a flick that is able to pull off this delicate balance, and a prime example of this is John Landis’ 1981 film An American Werewolf In London.

The film follows David, the titular American traveling with his friend Jack on a little hiking tour of Europe.  After wandering too far into the moors of northern England, the pair is assaulted by a vicious beast, leaving David wounded and Jack torn to shreds.  David awakens three weeks later, somehow having been transported to a London hospital, where he quickly strikes up a relationship with lovely nurse Alex Price.  Unfortunately, he is also visited by the bloodied specter of Jack, who informs him that he has been tainted with the curse of the werewolf, and is doomed to transform into a beast like the one that had attacked them on the moors and murder innocent people.  What’s more, these victims (like Jack) will be forced to roam as the undead until the bloodline of the wolf is severed; for this reason, Jack encourages his friend to end his life, and thus the curse.

David Naughton and Jenny Agutter

David, however, believes himself delusional, and after being released from the hospital decides to stay with Alex for a time, as their romance is growing, and he feels she can help him with his “delusions”.  Very soon, however, the full moon rises in the English sky, and David, home alone while Alex is at work, undergoes a painful and horrific transformation…

John Landis, known at the time for Animal House, showed his chops as a storyteller with this lycanthropic tale.  The story weaves traditional folklore with a completely believable friendship (the camaraderie between David Naughton as David and Griffin Dunne as Jack is as convincing as any you will see) and a romance that, although very brief,  nonetheless feels largely natural.  You find yourself at the mercy of Jenny Agutter’s performance as Alex; you cannot help but feel sympathy for her plight as she realizes the man she’s come to love is a monster.  Add in the subtly emotive performance of Naughton as a man who believes first he’s losing his mind, then, coming to terms with his affliction, struggles with the questions of continued existence; watch for the scene when he phones his family to say goodbye: I was impressed.  Right up until the boldly abrupt but fitting ending, the performances are spot-on.  The cinematography was extremely well done, whether the scenes were on the misty moors or in the back alleys of London. The absolute most was made of perspectives and shadow; the scene in the tube station, with its use of long shots to establish isolation and the stark tiled walls combined into an incredibly suspenseful sequence.  Finally, the flick features the special effects mastery of Rick Baker, and it was one of his masterworks; the full transformation scene was the most incredible ever committed to film at that point in time (and is still pretty goddamn awesome even today).

Jack…quite pleasant for the shape he’s in…

His gore, although used judiciously, was still very effective and properly gut-wrenching; the character of Jack deteriorated a bit more each time you saw him, going from a walking dissection to zombie to Crypt Keeper throughout the course of the film.  The beast itself, although also used sparingly, looked far more real than most onscreen werewolves and was very easy to believe in, mixing elements of fantasy and the more traditional aspects of the werewolf in its design.  It was with good reason that Baker’s work on this film received the first ever Academy Award for Best Special Makeup.

I’ve always been a big fan of this one, folks; the way that the humor pops in and out of the horror is masterful scriptwriting.  It makes everything seem more real, juxtaposing the funny aspects of such an affliction (finding yourself nude in the zoo and having to find a way to get home; conversing with the undead apparitions of people whom you’ve killed in your transformed state who, while very British in their politeness, are still none too happy with you) with the terror of the stalking beast in the darkness, it’s howls a spine-tingling chorus echoing through the busy streets of London…it was all brilliantly done in this film.  Even the inner struggle of David, finally convincing himself of the impossible, was appropriately handled with a blend of personal horror and gallows humor…much as we deal with stresses in reality.

What big eyes you have…

For those Fellow Fans who haven’t had the pleasure, I recommend that you see this one; whereas I can see where some might find the film dated, I daresay I’ll take Baker’s practical effects in this film over any digital werewolf any day of the week.  Beyond that, An American Werewolf In London  is simply a well written, directed, and acted movie that just happens to center on an unfortunate man cursed to become a monster, and we live through that journey along with him.

What more could you ask for?


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Andrew Thompson

Editor-In-Chief at LeglessCorpse
The Mouse...VP/co-owner of LC Films, Editor-In-Chief of your average guy with what is most likely an unhealthy affinity for horror movies, sci-fi, superheroes, bacon, old cartoons and horror movies. Oh, I almost forgot, I really dig horror movies; new ones, old ones, it matters not; I love 'em. Husband, father, veteran and scribbler. I like bacon as well. The Mouse abides 😉