An old-fashioned monster movie gore-fest that hasn’t dimmed in popularity, John Landis’s slightly twisted telling of a hiking mishap pulled nervous laughter from audiences pre-primed to expect ground-breakingly shocking special effects. Rick Baker delivers the shape-shifting fireworks in a two-minute sequence that goes way beyond easy laughs. The story is thin but the execution slick in a Landis film fashioned from his own screenplay, written at age 19.
An American Werewolf in London
1981 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date October 29, 2019 / 49.95
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover, Frank Oz, Sydney Bromley.
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Film Editor: Malcolm Campbell
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Art Direction: Leslie Dilley
Special Makeup Effects Designer and Creator: Rick Baker
Produced by George Folsey Jr., Peter Guber, John Peters
Written and Directed by John Landis
John Landis didn’t overtax Hollywood connections to get into moviemaking. A fast-talking movie nut and incredibly funny man (I can vouch for this personally), Landis skipped college and talked himself into various gopher and stuntman roles in European movies before spending several years establishing himself as a hot comedy director. I can fully see Landis getting and keeping unlikely jobs simply because he’s just so entertaining to have around. I remember Steven Spielberg telling us that Columbia was springing for all the Saturday Night Live comedians he wanted for 1941, because John Landis’s Animal House had become the most profitable comedy ever made. Despite other big hits like The Blues Brothers, Landis has probably made more money as a producer of both TV and film fare. The IMDB still lists him as the executive producer of a new remake of a certain werewolf movie that established his horror cred, back in 1981.
Landis has the clean and direct style of the Golden-Era comedy directors he admired — even in this horror picture, he favors slightly wide angles that give his talent more room to breathe. An American Werewolf in London is his first solo scripted project since his clever monster comedy Schlock, from a full decade previous. The werewolf story was reportedly written while Landis worked on Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia… when he was nineteen years old.
After his John Belushi & Dan Ackroyd movies Landis fans definitely expected a comedy, and although the basic through-line of An American Werewolf is serious, it is overlaid with a thick coat of ‘wink wink’ knowing humor that some might think undercuts the story. Yet Reagan-era fanboy audiences eager for edgy shocks lapped it up — hearing “Blue Moon” on the soundtrack simply helped set the scene.
American backpackers David Kessler and Jack Goodman (David Naughton & Griffin Dunne) stumble into a pub on the moors of Northern England, only to be made unwelcome by the sullen locals. 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). But his sleep is wracked with horrible nightmares, in which Jack advises him to kill himself, to put an end to a horrible curse. When the nightmares become full-on waking hallucinations, David thinks he’s going insane. But he feels better when, upon release, Alex invites him to sleep over in her apartment. But he can’t ignore the mental blackouts he suffers, and his hallucination-visitations from Jack become more insistent: he’s going to turn into a werewolf during the next Full Moon.
Even with its joke title allusion to a Gene Kelly musical, An American Werewolf doesn’t go soft on the horror — it’s definitely from the time when the top fright pictures were about carving up babysitters. Graphic gore effects repelled the (shrinking) older audience but thrilled kids looking for a jolt on movie night. The humor is surprisingly uneven. A high number of joke attempts simply fall flat, like some sub- Clouseau business with a maladroit Scotland Yard assistant inspector that goes nowhere. We’re certainly not expecting anything profound, when pop songs about The Moon — three versions of ‘Blue Moon’ for example — are never far away. Kids may have laughed when Creedence Clearwater jumps onto the soundtrack, unmotivated except to remind everybody that, ‘wooo! Something’s gonna HAPPEN!’ The narrative is quick to include lazy narrative content that panders to the audience — lovemaking scenes, a shower scene, etc.. An inside joke sees director Landis’s signature phantom movie See You Next Wednesday showing up on the screen of a porn theater, only to become an excuse for more T&A. Someday Landis should tell us more about his friendship with the French director Roger Vadim, with whom he shares a penchant for designing movies to see actresses disrobe.
The horror material is played very straight. Most of what we see would fit in perfectly with a 1943 picture with Turhan Bey and Evelyn Ankers — the good doctor Hirsch scoffs at David, and then investigates his story personally; the cops conduct a disinterested inquiry. David’s serious wolfy mayhem doesn’t begin until the hour mark, so we’re instead treated to horror moments in David Kessler’s dreams, which are outrageously violent. He imagines his hospital bed in the middle of a forest, with Alex attending him like Snow White; he also pictures a domestic scene where his family is slaughtered by grotesque Nazi werewolves with machine guns. More disturbing (and original) are the dream visits by Jack Goodman, as a half-shredded corpse in various states of putrefaction. Is Jack a manifestation of David’s guilt, a chit-chatting death wish generated by his traumatized brain? Or is the threat of turning into a werewolf real? These shock scenes keep up interest even as they prevent An American Werewolf from establishing anything like a consistent tone. No matter — as this is a Reagan-era teen flick, the only rule is not to bore people, to deliver some jolts they can tell their friends about, and to make reviewers describe the show as yet another ‘rollicking roller coaster movie of chills and thrills.’
The big talent & major ’70s heartthrob Jenny Agutter certainly keeps us interested, even if her love interest is a nothing role. Griffin Dunne would score big several years later with Scorsese’s After Hours, and his appearance here is precise and adept, even if he spends a lot of it wearing grotesque makeup. The well-cast David Naughton has a charm and geniality to stay fresh even though his character is the fall guy in a shaggy-dog story. We want to take the story seriously, something the half-comedy tone prevents. When poor David must scoot around half of London fully naked, Naughton performs the scenes with dignity… none of that material is particularly funny though, ’cause we’re also concerned for David and especially for Alex: from Lon Chaney to Oliver Reed, werewolves have a terrible habit of killing their own girlfriends.
Landis doesn’t cheat the audience of it’s roller coaster ride. The action finale in Piccadilly Circus is big and violent. The film’s action arrangers set up a series of gross-outs with passersby being crushed by cars, knocked through storefronts, etc.. Landis made the ‘excessive car crash overkill’ game pay off with big laughs in The Blues Brothers. The mayhem here isn’t exactly fun, though… we instead think, ‘gee, they shut down the center of London to film this.’
The film’s big must-see draw were its famous makeup effects. Rick Baker had already won attention for being the realmonster character effects talent in the De Laurentiis King Kong of 1976, but this was his breakthrough. Some lobbying, along with general industry acclaim culminated in his receiving the Motion Picture Academy’s first annual award for Best Makeup, a category that had never been considered prior to the 1982 Oscars. His career rocketed from that point forward: Rick has since won a grand total of seven Oscars, putting him up there with the most-rewarded participants in the movie biz since the Oscars were invented.
The two minutes of David’s lycanthropic transformation took months to prepare, even more considering that Rick Baker had worked up much of his action plan preparing for Joe Dante’s equally accomplished The Howling, before the Landis film got underway. Instead of atmospherics, dramatic surprise or mystery, Landis opts to showcase the effects. Although the sequence finishes in subdued light, the entire process is lit high-key, and selective parts of David are chosen for us to witness Baker’s exacting transformation tricks with stretching rubber and hair that grows by itself. It’s still pretty impressive — with Naughton’s acting, it looks painful as hell, as if David’s bones are breaking inside him as his body rearranges its anatomy.
Makeup definitely dominates the show. The effects 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.
Although the ‘jarring dream cutaway’ tricks get old fast, apart from the transformation the most successful gore effect are the three stages of rot we see coming over Jack. Macabre horror takes a giant step forward when David’s undead buddy makes jokes. If we chuckle, the laughter is very nervous. Earlier horror pics stuck with actors reacting to unseen victims — we took their word that throats were torn out. Landis and Baker give us a friendly face that looks like it’s tangled with a boat propeller. That the Jack Hallucination is chatting and arguing is truly nightmarish.
In the end David Kessler is only marginally sympathetic. Like traditional monster martyrs, he makes things worse for himself, by acting up in the street, etc. Alex and Doc Hirsch would be all to happy to lock him up for the night like Oliver Reed, but David is willing to risk more lives and create more undead victims. We’re much more concerned for Alex’s feelings, 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, keeping the audience wondering how many outrageously violent attacks and car accidents will be thrown at them. The ending is oddly unaffecting — it needs the boost of one more iteration of “Blue Moon.”
An extra on an older Criterion disc of Videodrome features a somewhat historical talk-show gathering of three ‘young Turk’ horror directors with new pix in the pipeline: John Landis, John Carpenter, and David Cronenberg. You’d think the first two were total loners. Carpenter is his usual uncommunicative self and the almost-always jovial Landis is uncommonly reserved — maybe the three didn’t know each other well, and didn’t want to act competitive, or perhaps they didn’t trust the host? Of the three, the only one comfortable with fielding the somewhat intellectual questions asked, serious stuff, was Cronenberg. Landis is never at a loss for words, but comparing An American Werewolf to Videodrome on the Deep Think Scale wasn’t going to work out in his favor.
In later interviews Landis has been open and candid about his movies. Made at a time when average exploitation horror or sci-fi simply played up the sex and gore for the teen crowd, An American Werewolf at least offers a sincere effort and likable characterizations. This was when I was tuning out of the horror genre, being too old for wish-fulfillment teen puberty fantasies, sex dreams for nerds. An American Werewolf in London does play like a script written by a very young monster fan. Despite the scattershot humor, it has retained its basic appeal because it pays tribute to the Universal tradition.
In the 1980s and ’90s Universal toyed with the notion of hiring proven directors to do remake-rethinks of its horror greats. Landis was for a while involved in an effort to re-boot The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but the studio instead went for a so-so musical play attraction at the Universal Theme Park. Joe Dante was attached to a remake of The Mummy but the studio instead embarked on the first of several attempts to mold a new horror franchise, with monsters appearing like guest stars in action shows more akin to Indiana Jones spectaculars or martial arts movies. At some point in time Guillermo del Toro developed remakes of Creature and Frankenstein for Universal; his time developingCreature, of course, paid off later.)
If Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man do need to be resurrected, let’s hope the studio someday tries straight takes on the originals again, and that they especially stay away from the cocaine of CGI. Joe Johnston’s The Wolf Manfrom 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 replacement and/or ‘augmentation’ of some of Rick Baker’s physical effects in that film contributed to his decision to retire a few years later.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray of An American Werewolf in London is a terrific remaster of this highpoint of 1980s monster fandom. John Landis supervised the 4K restoration. I’ve read about earlier video versions having revised sound effects and dull mixes; this presentation bills both an original uncompressed 1.0 mono and an optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which certainly sounded fine to me — the thunder rumbles and the wolf howls in the first scenes were startling in themselves.
Arrow appears to have collected the earliest promo pieces for the film, older DVD extras including a full-length docu, and then augmented them with a wealth of new extras. Another full-length interview documentary by Daniel Griffith pulls in quite a few makeup effects experts that worked on the picture. All consider the show a monster highlight of its time. Landis has not lost contact with his pleasant video personality. He hosts a short filmed-in London introductory featurette where he talks about Brit horror he likes, and explains how the movie came about.
The list below will assure viewers that the movie is being covered from all angles, especially the fan-centric subject of the makeup effects. A 16mm crew covered the casting of David Naughton’s forearm and hand, and we get to see several of Baker’s talented assistants as they were ‘back in the day’ (it’s been almost 40 years, folks). Jon Spira’s featurette I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret certainly fronts an interesting theory, which is a welcome switch from interpreting a monster curse in terms of gay anguish. The original folklore would definitely connect with historical anti-Semitism, I’d think. The film’s Nazi werewolves might fit better in a movie about Jewish insecurity, than they do this picture — they seem related to the small-boy Nazi-fear defensive fantasies in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. But psychoanalyzing John Landis and second-guessing his motives is a slippery slope: the director just loves monster movies, basically.
If this were any more of a ‘goodies’- type release, it would need to include a werewolf toy! But we are given a two-sided poster with original poster art, and cards representing an original lobby card set.
With corrections/assistance from Gary Teetzel.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An American Werewolf in London
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: New 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; new interview An American Filmmaker in Londonwith John Landis; new 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; new 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. Limited edition 60-page booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and more.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in keep case with book and extras in heavy card sleeve
Reviewed: October 22, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson