(1981) Written and directed by John Landis; Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter , Griffin Dunne and John Woodvine; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: **** ½
Several years back I was fortunate enough to attend a horror convention in Los Angeles, and listen to Clive Barker discuss his thoughts about writing and filmmaking. Barker remarked (I’m paraphrasing here) that comedy and horror rarely worked well together. So, what does this have to do with John Landis? Well, it got me thinking about the two disparate (some might argue mutually exclusive) genres, and how the two rarely mix successfully. An American Werewolf in London is one of those rare examples, balancing equal measures of scares and laughs. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, yet somehow does.
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American friends backpacking through Europe. Failing to heed the warnings of suspicious locals, they inadvertently wander from the main road and onto the moors. A mournful howl cuts through the night air, as they attempt to make their retreat back to the road. Jack is savagely killed by an unseen assailant and David is injured, lapsing into unconsciousness.
Death, however, isn’t the end for Jack. He’s doomed to wander the Earth in limbo until the last werewolf is destroyed, which of course, means that David will have to die. Jack returns to David in an increasingly advanced state of decay, warning him about his impending fate. The interplay between the two actors is consistently amusing, with Dunne often getting the best lines (“Life mocks me even in death.”). While his character was often morosely funny, Dunne commented that he felt “incredibly depressed” in Rick Baker’s corpse makeup, as if he were confronting his own death.
Landis cast Naughton for the role of David, based on his appearances in the Dr. Pepper commercials that were a ubiquitous presence on TV in the late 70s. Naughton is instantly likable as David, who’d rather be laughing at his ridiculous supernatural circumstances than brooding. He’s an otherwise ordinary person trying to make sense of an extraordinary situation. As it dawns on him that he’s afflicted with an irreversible curse, his tone becomes more melancholic. Naughton’s performance compares favorably to Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured portrayal of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man. In one of the film’s saddest scenes, David calls home to speak to his family. The tone is deceptively light as he bickers with his youngest sibling, but we know that he’s saying goodbye forever. We’re invested in David, who’s in over his head; a slave to forces he can’t control.
Naughton in his previous job
Jenny Agutter plays Alex Price, the nurse assigned to David’s hospital ward. She’s strangely attracted to him, drawn by his charisma and sadness. Against her better judgment, she invites him to follow her home to her flat. There’s a nice chemistry between Naughton and Agutter, making David and Alex’s brief romance seem credible, despite the unlikelihood of the situation.
* Fun Fact #1: Agutter and Landis had a mini-reunion of sorts nearly a decade later, when they both appeared in a cameo as doctors in Sam Raimi’s Darkman.
Writer/director John Landis skillfully traverses the line between comedy and horror with An American Werewolf in London, frequently evoking laughter and revulsion in the same scene. In one of the most memorable darkly comic moments, David is confronted by his victims in an unlikely location – a Piccadilly Circus porno theatre.* Jack and the other victims try to provide helpful hints for committing suicide. Another memorable scene involves a dream-within-a-dream sequence that was influenced by Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (A favorite of Landis’). Another inspired touch is Landis’ choice of music throughout the film, incorporating songs with “moon” in the title: “Bad Moon Rising,” Moondance,” and “Blue Moon. In his screenplay, which was originally written in 1969, he successfully weaves the metaphor of body transformation within the lycanthrope mythos.
* Fun Fact #2: The Title of the film playing in the theatre (and emblazoned across the theatre’s marquee) is See You Next Wednesday – a Landis in-joke that can be found in several of his films. The title allegedly refers to an unsold screenplay by Landis, but it also references a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey, another one of Landis’ favorite films.
Rick Baker’s Academy Award-winning makeup effects work has stood the test of time. The effects are still just as impressive more than 30 years later. It took six days to film David’s transformation scene, requiring taking casts of Naughton’s entire body. Landis wanted the transformation to occur entirely on-screen, as opposed to jump cuts or other trickery. Baker developed sophisticated prosthetic devices to depict the excruciatingly painful body restructuring, showing what it would look like for hair to grow, skin to stretch, and bones to crack and reshape. Landis also insisted that his werewolf should be a departure from previous versions, walking on all fours instead of its hind legs. We only catch brief glimpses of the final result, which resembles something like a cross between a wolf and a bear. Baker’s makeup depicting Jack’s various stages of decomposition is similarly masterful. The final version of Jack utilized a puppet instead of the actor (with Dunne providing the voice and controlling the mouth movements instead).
Some critics disliked what they deemed to be an inconsistent tone in An American Werewolf in London, unsure whether it wanted to be a horror movie or a comedy. For audiences that have come to love and appreciate the film over the years, this seems to be a moot point (It’s okay to be both). Landis’ groundbreaking film set the standard for many subsequent horror films that contained a similar mix of jokes and thrills, but with generally inferior results. In Landis’ film, the comic elements humanize the characters, and bring us closer to their plight. It’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness that every time I watch it, I hope that the outcome somehow changes, but like David’s fate, it is destined to run its course.