An American Werewolf in London
Director: John Landis
Writers: John Landis
Featuring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, Brian Glover, David Schofield, John Woodvine, Don McKillop, Paul Kember
On a backpack tour of Europe two American youngsters, David and Jack, find themselves deep in the north of England. After getting a lift to a village called Proctor the boys find themselves in the local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, where they met less than a cordial welcome. Quickly leaving the pub the youngsters forget the mantra ‘stay on the road and off the moor’ and soon they find out all too soon why…
I first saw this film in the cinema around 1981ish and I loved it then. Surprisingly I never saw it again and it was 38 years later that I finally bought a version to home view. In this case Blu Ray.
You have to say for a film nearly 40 years old with special effects, acting and film-making from that era age has not sullied the experience in anyway.
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, now a successful director as well as an actor, make a likeable and believable couple of colleague ‘buddies’ from the get go and clearly they must have had some on-set chemistry at least. Although the setting of ‘op north’ is partial cliche and pat for British viewers it is also a fun way to start the film and throw in stalwart, mainstay, British actors Brian Glover and David Schofield and you feel as if you are in safe hands. Even Rik Mayall turns up playing chess right in the middle of his Kevin Turvey, Young Ones fame. Unfortunately director Landis was unaware of this and his appearance is fleeting.
With the great settings and scenery Landis sets up the story efficiently and with no fat – and from this point on the story clips for point to point for the entire 97 minutes running time. More modern film-makers could take a lesson here.
When it first came out ‘American Werewolf’ cause some consternation amongst audiences as it was billed by many as a comedy whilst some viewers were unaware of the horror in the film being, well, rather gory and horrible. Unusually for films that try this I would say An American Werewolf in London hits this difficult target more often than it misses. Even the clumsy, Mr. Beanish, police detective-sergeant although a bit broad was amusing. The undead souls, including Jack, are exactly the right mix of horrific effects and situation and amusing blandness.
To give the film a romantic twist and touch the film cast quite possibly the sexiest nurse in the history of all films, Jenny Agutter, as Alex, the rather unbelievable and subservient nurse, without even trying she oozes crisp sex appeal which really revved me up as a 19 year old and this view has not really changed much in the intervening 38 years old. Blimey is it hot in here?
Not only that she owns a huge downstairs flat in London, on her own, on a nurse’s salary, she’s a keeper – although she does hook up with American patients who she’s only spoken to for a few weeks that could be part of some police investigation and possibly murder, but hey-ho, no one’s perfect.
Probably the rather lovely Jenny and the handsome David Naughton romance is the weakest point of the film as it would be rather unlikely, you would have thought his loving family might have come over to see him at some time or make sure he got back to the States safely but apparently they weren’t that fussed and were happy to get updates from Frank Oz.
Of course this is not the thurst of the film and we are all here to see a man change into a wolf and boy do we. It is a well-known matter of record that Landis wanted a man changing into a wocking great wolf and not have bloke in a hairy suit walking about with a dog’s head mask on. So in comes Rick Baker and his crew. Landis wanted a horrifying and painful transformation and that is what we get. Even now nearly all of these years later the Oscar winning effects are still superb. All onset with no CGI. Some look a bit hokey but even the slower more plasticky looking ones still stand up. You believe that David changes into a giant wolf and it bloody hurts as his bones and organs crack, stretch and transform. All the more ground-breaking for the transformation being shot in bright light in a normal British sitting-room, no shadows and dark corners to hide your workings. Literally fantastic.
The stalking murders of victims take place in the more traditional ‘what was that – arrrggh’ style but the film remains on point and strong throughout. All of the actors are on good form and clearly having fun, cinematography seems to be up to the standard of the times, nothing dark and murky but the miserable wet weather of the UK and the scenes in rain-lashed village Proctor remind you of miserable Word War One scenes at times. Good stuff.
Once the the transformation happens the film rips along at a fair old pace, it was already moving rapidly along, and takes us to a dark and traditional werewolf film-ending.
I have waxed lyrical about a 1981 film but even with some biggish plot holes I think it is safe to say no one has really made a werewolf film as good or as outlandish as An American Werewolf in London in the intervening years. It’s horrifying, scary, funny and even blooming sexy and of course silly. The locations used are reassuringly familiar to British film goers making the story somehow more scary in a way.
Then throw in Jenny Agutter and you are being very unfair on an 18 year-old, horror-film-loving, dateless wonder and not much fairer on the 56-year-old version either. Just not cricket Mr. Landis.