The smash hit monster-gore popcorn flick comes to 4K Ultra HD two years and four months after a deluxe Blu-ray, so we do a pointed comparison for purchase-crazy fans that want official sanction for their madness. Happily, you don’t need to be full-moon looney to go for the 4K: David Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s descent into a lycanthropic nightmare is as wrenching as ever.
An American Werewolf in London 4K
1981 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date March 15, 2022 / Available from / 59.95
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover, Frank Oz, Sydney Bromley.
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Art Director: Leslie Dilley
Film Editor: Malcolm Campbell
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Special Makeup Effects Designer and Creator: Rick Baker
Produced by George Folsey Jr., Peter Guber, John Peters
Written and Directed by John Landis
The street date for a 4K disc of a certain high-profile werewolf movie is The Ides of March — which a reputable Internet source tells me will be exactly three days before the actual Full Moon! So if you receive this product on street date and are particularly superstitious, calculate “Your Time Allowed” at a lupine-loopy 72 hours, more or less!
Quick! Name John Landis’s most influential, widest-seen horror themed film project, the one presently difficult to see in a decent copy. Yes, it’s his 1984 13- minute music video Thriller with Michael Jackson, the dance-themed Halloween delight narrated by none other than Vincent Price. The newest disc I see of that gem is a 2010 compilation DVD. I’m su-u-u-re that the ownership rights, profit sharing setup, etcetera, for Thriller can’t be an issue (cough, cough, choke), but somebody please correct me if there is indeed a high-quality viewing option of any kind to be had. It seems crazy that it’s not available considering its continuing popularity — aren’t there still amateur groups that perform it for fun? The crying shame is that it Thriller was filmed in 35mm, and would seemingly be a cinch to remaster in 4K, 8K, 50-channel stereo sound, whatever.
Then there’s John Landis’s other fun horror-themed item An American Werewolf in London, the director’s follow-up to his wildly successful The Blues Brothers, itself a follow-up to his industry-warping comedy hit National Lampoon’s Animal House.
Landis always had the instincts of a classic Hollywood comedy director: he shoots scenes in a clean, straightforward manner. Even in this gruesome-funny horror picture, he favors slightly wide angles that give his talent more room to breathe, Laurel & Hardy- wise. American Werewolf was his first solo scripted project since his first feature, the clever monster comedy Schlock.
Film fans in 1981 definitely were primed for some kind of comedy, and the show is overlaid with a thick coat of ‘wink wink’ knowing humor — in between some zinger ‘Boo!’ moments. Reagan-era fanboy audiences eager for edgy shocks lapped it up, and the doo-wop versions of ‘Blue Moon’ on the soundtrack helped set the scene.
Vacationing backpackers David Kessler and Jack Goodman (David Naughton & Griffin Dunne) find themselves unwelcome in a pub in the hinterlands of Northern England. After a ferocious attack on the moor, David wakes up weeks later in a London hospital, attended by Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) and the lovely nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). His sleep is wracked by horrible nightmares in which Jack advises him to kill himself, as the only way of putting a stop to a horrible curse. Beset by full-on waking hallucinations, David thinks he’s going insane. But he feels better when Nurse Alex invites him to stay in her apartment. Jack’s hallucination-visitations become more insistent: he’s going to turn into a werewolf during the next Full Moon.
This comedy doesn’t go soft on the horror — it’s definitely from the time when fright pictures laid on the graphic gore effects, repelling the (shrinking) older audience but thrilling kids looking for a jolt on movie night. The humor is surprisingly uneven, with lots of sub- Clouseau slapstick that doesn’t pay off. We’re certainly not expecting anything profound, when a new pop song about The Moon shows up every few minutes, including three versions of ‘Blue Moon.’ Kids may have laughed when Creedence Clearwater jumps onto the soundtrack, reminding everybody that, ‘Wooo! Something’s gonna HAPPEN!’ The show contains patented John Landis content — abundant nudity, lovemaking scenes, and the director’s signature See You Next Wednesday inside joke as an excuse for more random T&A. Someday Landis should tell us more about his friendship with the late French director Roger Vadim, who gravitated toward movies in which actresses disrobe. Or even better, Landis should try to locate Vadim’s MIA horror classic Blood and Roses.
The horror material is played straight, and the details would fit in perfectly with a 1943 picture with Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers. The good doctor Hirsch scoffs at David, yet investigates his story. The cops mostly can’t be bothered. David’s personal wolfy transformations are delayed for almost an hour, and preceded by his absurdly violent nightmare visions. He imagines his hospital bed in the middle of a forest, with Alex attending him like Snow White; he also imagines a domestic scene where his family is attacked by grotesque Nazi werewolves with machine guns.
Most disturbing are the dream visits by Jack Goodman, as a half-shredded corpse in various states of putrefaction. Is Jack just a manifestation of David’s guilt, a chit-chatting death wish generated by his traumatized brain? These shock scenes keep up interest even as they prevent An American Werewolf from establishing a consistent tone. No matter — in Reagan-era teen flicks the only rule is not to be boring: to deliver jolts for kids to cluck over, and to make reviewers write the words ‘rollicking roller coaster movie of chills and thrills.’
The big talent & major ’70s heartthrob Jenny Agutter certainly keeps us interested, even in what is really a nothing role. Griffin Dunne would score nicely several years later in Scorsese’s After Hours. His appearance here is precise and adept, even when half-buried in grotesque makeup. The well-cast David Naughton retains his charm throughout his entire haunted ordeal. The half-comedy tone prevents us from taking the story too seriously, though. Poor David must scoot around half of London fully naked, scenes that Naughton performs with dignity. If we laugh, we’re still concerned for the innocent Nurse Alex: from Lon Chaney to Oliver Reed, werewolves have a terrible habit of attacking their own girlfriends.
Landis indeed delivers the roller coaster ride. The action finale in Piccadilly Circus is big and violent, an extended series of graphic gross-outs. Passers-by are crushed by cars, knocked through storefronts, etc.. Landis made ‘excessive car crash overkill’ humor pay off in The Blues Brothers, but that show didn’t have a bloody body count. The production value here is impressve: Landis shut down the center of London to film his finale.
Unlike its 1981 competition The Howling, Landis’s film relies almost completely on its makeup effects. General industry acclaim and some effective lobbying culminated in artist Rick Baker receiving the Motion Picture Academy’s first award for Best Makeup, a category that had never been considered before. His career rocketed from that point forward: his subsequent Oscar score has put him up there with the most-rewarded participants since the Awards began.
David’s two-minute lycanthropic transformation took months to prepare, even more considering that Rick Baker had done a lot of R&D before the Landis film got underway, prepping Joe Dante’s The Howling. Instead of atmospherics, dramatic surprise or mystery, Landis opts to showcase the effects. Most of the transformation process is lit high-key. We get a clear look Baker’s tricks with stretching rubber and hair that grows by itself. It’s still pretty impressive, and with Naughton’s acting it looks painful as hell. We hear David’s bones break as his skeleton reconfigures itself.
The makeup effects elsewhere range from cartoonish to disturbingly convincing. The Nazi werewolves could have escaped from an underground Zap Comic, while a throat-slitting and a score of disembowelings are more grisly than those seen in Italo zombie movies. To please the ’80s crowd jaded by teen massacre movies, An American Werewolf makes sure that everything is explicit and easy to see.
Apart from the transformation the most successful gore effect are Jack’s three stages of rot. Forget the horror movie tradition of not showing explicit wounds, and letting actor’s horrified and sickened expressions sell the gore. Seeing the Jack Hallucination chat and argue with David is truly nightmarish — our laughs are more than a little nervous. Landis and Baker make Jack’s friendly face look as though it tangled with a boat propeller.
By the finish David Kessler is only marginally sympathetic. Even Oliver Reed knew he was a menace and begged to be locked up for the Full Moon, but David is willing to risk more lives and create more undead victims. We’re much more concerned with poor Nurse Alex, who must stand around doing a sad feel-sorry act. Instead of getting deeper into the material, Landis sticks to the skeleton of horror tradition. The ending is oddly unaffecting — perhaps it needs the boost of one more iteration of ‘Blue Moon.’ Still, there’s no denying that American Werewolf delivered the ha-ha-EEK! shocks the audience craved.
The sad part of Universal’s horror legacy are the studio’s misguided attempts to renew the franchises, which mostly ended up with utter disasters like Van Helsing. John Landis and Joe Dante were involved in attempts to reboot some classic monsters, until the studio tried to shift its Mummy monster into an Indiana Jones adventure format. Joe Johnston’s The Wolf Man from 2010 was an attempt to do a straight remake; its box office failure discouraged Universal from doing any more follow-ups with that approach. The CGI augmentation/replacement of some of Rick Baker’s physical effects in that film reportedly contributed to his decision to retire a few years later.
Arrow Video’s 4K Ultra HD of An American Werewolf in London is packaged identically to their October 2019 Blu-ray special edition. The 4K disc is a new restoration performed by Arrow Films from the original negative, in Dolby Vision, HDR10 compatible. The image is just great: seem side by side with the older Blu-ray the improvement is clearly visible. I also notice that Amazon is listing the 4K as a best seller at the moment.
It’s not easy explaining the impact of 4K, especially when I know perfectly rational people that tell me they haven’t upgraded from DVD to Blu because ‘there’s no difference.’ The improvement of 4K requires a recent setup, player plus monitor or projector. The larger the screen the better — even though the 90″ display monitors that blew me away are big, big purchases. I believe that my 65″ monitor is just big enough to get a full appreciation of the higher resolution and contrast range.
I’m told that some people that don’t see much of a difference are not seeing the (dramatic) contrast boost because their setup can’t deliver the HDR boost, or they don’t have it enabled. Here’s how a more technically-oriented associate (who evaluates remastering jobs) described it:
“If you have a 4K transfer with standard dynamic range on one monitor, and a BD downconversion of that same master on another monitor, you won’t notice a dramatic enough difference to want to upgrade; you’d probably have to compare really fine details. If the 4K has high dynamic range (and is being played on a monitor with HDR), you will immediately see the difference, particularly if we’re talking about something like an action or sci-fi or superhero movie. A straight drama . . . not as much. Would it be enough to make you want to upgrade? Would depend on how much you like the movie.”
We’ve heard that before … the worth of entertainment choices is always a personal decision. For many the quality makes an appreciable, pleasing difference. Then again, I have family members perfectly content to stream show mastered from blurry 1990s-era telecines, NTSC conversions, with frame rate issues, even.
In the big years of the Laserdisc craze we were tickled pink to see those flat-letterboxed NTSC transfers. Wow, all of 2001 with only 5 side changes! Lasers stayed alive because industry elites wanted them, but 25+ years later, the Blu-ray and 4K markets are driven by a much larger crowd of collectors and home video enthusiasts. I really hope the corporate streaming giants don’t strangle hard media. It’s the 21st century, kids — we appreciate the ability to give private theater-quality presentations of favorite pictures, at our convenience.
… And back to An American Werewolf, which comes through really strong on Arrow’s disc.
Some 4Ks have offered a second Blu-ray copy, but Arrow has more frequently packaged the film’s extras on a second Blu-ray disc, without a second encoding of the feature. Here the long menu of added value extras are on the one 4K disc. Unless I’m mistaken, the inventory of extras replicates that of the earlier Blu-ray special edition, right down to the folding poster and the miniature lobby cards.
Arrow seems to have a policy of including every extra possible extra that can be found for a title, including the earliest promo pieces and DVD extras. They produced their own full-length interview documentary, which gives quite a few makeup effects experts a chance to reflect on their work. John Landis’s short filmed-in London introductory featurette talks about Brit horror he likes, and explains how the movie came about.
The full list below goes heavy on the fan-centric subject of makeup effects. A 16mm crew covered the casting of David Naughton’s forearm and hand. Jon Spira’s featurette I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret poses a theory different than the 1,001 college essays that interpret monster curses in terms of gay anguish. It makes sense that original werewolf folklore would connect with historical anti-Semitism. The film’s Nazi werewolves seem vaguely related to the kill-Nazi fantasy of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Second-guessing John Landis with psychoanalysis is a slippery slope, though: the obvious motive is a readily understandable love of monster movies.
This is definitly a ‘goodies’- type release. We like that two-sided poster with original poster art, and the cards representing an original lobby card set. I looked carefully in the package, but saw no werewolf toy, darn it. I’ll have to substitute a broken Chewbacca doll at playtime.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An American Werewolf in London 4K
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Very Good and extremely popular
Supplements: Audio commentary by Paul Davis
Audio commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne
New feature-length documentary Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf by Daniel Griffith featuring interviews with John Landis, David Naughton, Joe Dante and others
Interview An American Filmmaker in London with John Landis
Video essay I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, by Jon Spira
Conversation featurette The Werewolf’s Call: Corin Hardy chats with Simon Ward about their formative experiences with the Landis film
Featurette about costumes and effects artifacts Wares of the Wolf with SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes
Feature-length docu Beware the Moon by Paul Davis
Short archival featurette Making An American Werewolf in London
Lengthy archival piece An Interview with John Landis
Featurette Makeup Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London
Archival interview about Universal werewolf movies I Walked with a Werewolf with Rick Baker
BTS coverage from Rick Baker’s workshop Casting of the Hand with David Naughton.
Plus Outtakes, original trailers, teasers and radio spots, an extensive image gallery; double-sided fold-out poster, six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions.
Illustrated 60-page booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and more.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc and one Blu-ray in keep case with book and extras in heavy card sleeve
Reviewed: March 3, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson