30 May 2009

Retro Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981)


An American Werewolf in London
1981, 97mins, R
Director: John Landis
Writer: John Landis
Cast includes: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, David Schofield
Release Date: 21st August 1981

As the years have passed “An American Werewolf in London” has gained cult status, been an influence over countless genre directors and even earned a little seen and far less celebrated 1997 sequel. The movie directed by one time Hollywood legend John Landis is a viciously entertaining mixture of comedy and horror, drawing belly laughs from situations that other filmmakers would likely drum for tension. That’s not to say that Landis movie is devoid of good scares, the opening twenty minutes are filled with eerie atmosphere, spooky prophecy and ultimately a rip roaring Werewolf attack. The plotting is linear and works from a roughly sketched and transparent template, but ultimately the acting is robust, the special effects excellent, the dialogue witty and the wolf based set-pieces stirringly energetic and suspenseful. It’s a cut below the very finest examples of the horror genre, but fans of all things terrifying would be wise to check out this well made ode to one of cinema’s best bad guys, the Werewolf.

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are on a backpacking trip through Europe and on their travels have found themselves in the mist filled and ominous moors of Northern England. After wandering for a considerable time they stumble into a small village, and more specifically into a pub named “The slaughtered Lamb”. The residents of the Pub are perturbed by the boy’s arrivals and after probing a little too deeply, the beer guzzling inhabitants forcefully ask them to leave. However before departure they have a few wise nuggets of information, namely to stick to the roads, avoid the Moors and be wary of anything they would deem peculiar. In the dark of the night the boys fail to take heed of the townsfolk advice, stumbling onto the moor and quickly hearing bellowing and echoing howls. When the werewolf attacks it kills Jack but thanks to the locals David is saved, but not before he’s given a few wounds. David reawakens in a London hospital bed with little recollection of the occurrence, the official police report says the duo where attacked by an escaped maniac, and whilst David’s blurred memory refutes that point there is little evidence to prove otherwise. David begins to have disturbing dreams but most peculiar of all he is visited by the rotting ghost of Jack, revealing that he is now undead (as all Werewolf victims become, until the wolf chain is broken) and that David is now a Werewolf himself. Jack tells his friend that suicide is the best option, because on the next full moon David will go on a murderous rampage and create more slowly decomposing undead like his best friend.

The blend of comedy and horror in “An American Werewolf in London” is just right, it’s a hard balance to find but using his warped sense of humor Landis hits an almost perfect commodity of both. Neither outweighs the other, the easiest mistake to make when treading such genre hopping paths. After all one too many sequences of mutilation and bloodshed and the audience might find it impossible to source many laughs from what is put in front of them. Go for too many chuckles and the production is going to seem too goofy to hold any real terror. Landis divides the two and using his skills as a writer (probably more impressive than his directorial abilities) he cooks up a constant barrage of amusing dialogue and sight gags, whilst every so often relapsing into horror territory with a disturbingly eerie or suggestive moment of Werewolf violence.

The special effects pioneered in the movie have become legend within that section of the industry, before “Jurassic Park” or “T2” ignited the CGI craze, Rick Baker’s FX work on this picture was one of the most visually impressive feats committed to celluloid. The gore and such is competently handled, but the transformation sequence from man to beast remains startlingly effective. A twisted and thoroughly brutal use of make-up and FX, the 2 minute sequence has deservedly become the movie’s eternal calling card; the transformation in “An American Werewolf in London” is like the Shower scene in “Psycho”. Without it the finished product simply wouldn’t be the same.

The performances are well judged and engaging, never outstanding but certainly better than the average cardboard turns the horror genre usually peddles. Much like the story the characterizations are pretty simple but thanks to well written dialogue and the sturdy performances that does little to detract from the film. In the lead Naughton is a convincing and modestly charismatic everyman, forging good chemistry with Dunne and romantic interest Jenny Agutter. His conviction is crucial in embracing the full terror of David’s predicament and in engaging within the surreal dreamscapes into which his damaged mind sometimes wonders. Dunne despite a grotesque appearance is a principal source of comic relief and in Jack’s slashed up and battered stage of existence Baker gets another chance to romp about with his impressive looking FX toys. Agutter is probably the best of the bunch, this was filmed in the height of her popularity and explains how such success befell her, she’s sympathetic, sexy and strong willed and deserves as much credit as Naughton for making the beauty and the best element of the story work. In many ways “An American Werewolf in London” is as much a romance as it is comedy or horror, and the reason for that third label being ascribed is largely indebted to the actors portraying the love struck characters.

Landis shoots the Moors rather delightfully and captures a delightful bleakness in the countryside of England, adding to any sense of menace that this monster movie builds up. From a technical perspective the visuals certainly add more to the horror elements but there are a few moments where they might solicit laughs to, namely the ever degrading appearance of Jack. At first we’re a little shocked by his zombie state, but Landis takes it in such a direction that we’re eventually giggling.

The linear nature of the story is forgivable thanks to other strengths, but one thing that grates hard about “An American Werewolf in London” is that it just sort of stops, rather than ends. It’s not that Landis doesn’t wrap things up neatly from a narrative perspective but rather that in doing so he lazily undercooks certain emotional elements in the process. Also for what looks to have been judged as a big scale monster on the loose pay off, the finish is decidedly underwhelming in contrast to some of the more claustrophobic horror that precedes it

“An American Werewolf in London” is certainly worth checking out for those interested in horror, comedy or film as a whole, namely as a chance to see one of the movie’s most quickly forgotten sons at work. After this Landis’s career went into a quick decline primarily due to his unfortunate involvement in the death of actor Vic Morrow on set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie”. That haunted Landis career (and apparently his mind) for many years, and by the time he was willing to make a convicted return to his filmmaking career Hollywood had long forgotten his name. Along with “Animal House” and “Trading Places”, “An American Werewolf in London” is the most famous of his cinematic legacy, and despite its imperfections, it’s an impressive piece of work to leave behind.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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