John Landis‘ An American Werewolf In London continues to endure as a genre classic, not least because it’s patently unsettling and well made but because it strikes a uniquely fine balance between horror and humour that’s rarely been matched but often imitated.
John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London boasts a unique quality in that this great exponent of horror would not look out of place on a list of best comedies. A rare if unheard of quality when the film was released originally in 1981, the film provoked a reaction from young and upcoming filmmakers to marry comedy with horror for cinematic effect. This ultimately saw a host of films become bona fide classics such as Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s increasing comedic sequels, Scream, The Return of The Living Dead, Tremors and Gremlins.
Harmonising Horror & Comedy
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein might be considered the first commercially successful film to combine horror and comedy but John Landis perceived the genre as one that should be genuinely frightening. When you think of Mel Brooks bringing elements of horror and comedy together in 1974’s Young Frankenstein, it’s the comedy that takes centre stage. In An American Werewolf in London, not only do we get a horror film that is genuinely unsettling but the seamless use of humour that complements the darker elements of the story. In fact, Landis harmonises fear and laughter to deliver a unique experience.
“You Made Me Miss”: The Slaughtered Lamb
Landis brilliantly captures the idiosyncrasies of the traditional northern British pub when the American backpackers enter, every single patron stopping what they are doing to stare in silence at the newcomers. A sort of small-scale territorialism results in a fear in those who aren’t one of the locals that this situation will happen to them; that a supposedly public place is actually welcoming only to its regulars. Landis plays on this idea, ultimately showcasing a genuine fear in the locals that these outsiders will reveal their macabre secret involving a werewolf prowling their moors. There’s lots of brilliant things about the scene, not least the line “You made me miss” when Jack asks about the five-pointed star and Brian Glover’s “Remember the Alamo” joke.
A Feat Of Logistics & London At Its Most Characterful
Landis said the climactic scene, which sees the werewolf attack various members of the public after emerging from a Piccadilly Circus porn cinema, was “like a time capsule of London in 1981.” The production team was the first to be allowed to film on location at Piccadilly Circus since the 1960s thanks chiefly to Landis getting into the good graces of the Metropolitan Police through a screening of his hit new release The Blues Brothers.
It means we get a privileged view of London at the turn of the decade, the city’s characterful red double-decker buses and iconic Piccadilly Lights memorialised with a sense of the macabre as Landis fetishises bloody carnage. Indeed, the wonderful nostalgia doesn’t end there as the director orchestrates a multi-faceted action sequence with real cars smashing into people and buses with puppetry bringing to life the werewolf on the city’s bustling streets. This sequence nowadays would be done in a studio with green screens and Andy Serkis in a mo-cap suit.
Academy Award Recognition For A Horror Film
It’s not often that the Academy Awards recognise horror films but An American Werewolf In London can claim to enjoy that rare bit of recognition. Rick Baker was the recipient of the Best Makeup and Hairstyling Oscar for his work on the creature effects. Alongside Dick Smith, his startling efforts particularly on the werewolf transformation sequence, remain a defining moment for live action special effects and ensure Baker is rightly regarded as one of the greatest make-up artists of all time. Indeed, while David’s painful, bone-stretching experience turning into the lycanthrope is worthy of praise, Baker’s work on Jack’s decomposing body is equally impressive. Landis recalls having to begrudgingly cut some more fine work from Baker after a negative reaction at a pre-release screening involving Jack eating a piece of toast only for it to drop out of his neck wound.
The Best Werewolf Transformation Ever
Rick Baker’s brilliant special make-up and puppetry effects elevate An American Werewolf In London’s capacity to terrify and titillate. Envisaging a transformation sequence like nothing before, Landis and Baker knew that the process of turning into a werewolf would not be a pleasant or simple experience. They also smartly made it the film’s centrepiece. Baker’s work sees David’s skin grow fur, his bones stretch, his nails pierce skin as they elongate, his eyes change colour, his face contort. All the while the young American backpacker screams in anguish. Landis offsets the horror, which includes a deeply unsettling moment when the werewolf, mid transformation, looks directly into camera (at us the audience), with Sam Cooke’s Blue Moon playing in the background.
The Support Cast
Although David Naughton does a decent job as the film’s protagonist David Kessler, it’s the support cast that really shines. Griffin Dunne is brilliant as his best friend, a young man who is attacked and killed by the werewolf only to re-emerge carrying the scars of animal mutilation to advise David on his impending future as a lycanthrope. Dunne’s delivery is steeped in irony, his jovial conversations about things like haunting his own funeral are weirdly imbalanced by the appearance of a decaying body. Similarly, much of the film’s enjoyment stems from other smaller roles – the doctor intrigued by David’s story enough to investigate what happened, the hapless police detective who’s a puppet to his superior, the regulars at The Slaughtered Lamb, especially Danny Glover and his gleefully racist Alamo joke, and of course love interest Alex (played by a young Jenny Agutter during a period of her career when she was the pin-up-of-choice for many teenage boys).
Landis trawled the record shop for every rock n roll reference he could find (and get the rights to) for inclusion in the film. It works well, especially in the way it cuts through the scares to support An American Werewolf in London’s horror-comedy combination. Landis finds irony in the upbeat sensibilities of his music choices but it’s never used as a throwaway gag. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising is the ideal precursor to the film’s showpiece scene, pre-empting a wonderful version of Blue Moon by Sam Cooke as David begins his infamous werewolf transformation.
Legacy and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”
The film’s legacy sees it continue to be written about and praised long after its initial release in 1981. Edgar Wright, director of Shaun of the Dead, said the film was a milestone in the genre and one of his filmmaking inspirations. But amongst its plaudits, few are better than its influence on arguably the greatest music video ever made – Michael Jackson’s Thriller. The King of Pop loved the film so much he hired Landis and special make-up effects wizard Rick Baker to produce the near 15-minute horror-themed music video.
One Of Cinema’s Scariest Sequences
For pure terror, I’m always drawn to the scene on the moors pre-empted by Brian Glover saying that chilling line – “beware the moon lads” – with unnerving stoicism. It is genuinely haunting and as we come to find out, rightly so. Landis, with a backdrop of mist closing in, directs the werewolf attack with claustrophobic close-ups, handheld motion, and editing that takes its cues from a quickening heartbeat. Everything happens at frenetic pace: fast-cuts, bloody images and the sounds of tearing flesh… and screaming…
An American Werewolf In London is an enduring favourite of fans and critics. Not only that, despite plenty of werewolf films made in the years since its release in 1981 – including some very good ones like Dog Soldiers – none have yet surpassed its ability to unease and unsettle or capture the lycanthrope myth with the same potency. And then there’s the fact Landis’ horror-comedy also makes us laugh despite the hairs standing up on the backs of our necks as we cower behind the sofa.
Perhaps the film remains a great example of the werewolf movie because it was a genuine pioneer. Be it the juxtaposition of uplifting rock n roll and lighthearted humour with sequences designed to scare the pants off us or the almost seamless, revelatory in-camera creature effects from Rick Baker, there’s something that remains fresh about it in spite of the film sporting a glowing reflection of 1980s pop culture and London’s symbolic idiosyncrasies.
Indeed, the passing of time has been gentle on An American Werewolf In London. Nostalgia can be a wonderful thing, and seeing London of the period, its fleapit cinemas and Piccadilly Circus at night, is both time capsule and celebration of a city in possession of a unique character. And, maybe, as we look back, we can forgive Landis for not really giving us an ending. Instead it’s another evocative quirk that forever leaves us wanting more. And in this case, satisfaction can only be found by watching it all again.
Over to you: what are your favourite things about An American Werewolf In London? Is there a better werewolf movie?