Aside from frequently tackling the horror genre and directing episodes of Showtime’s anthology series Masters of Horror from a decade ago, what do directors Larry Cohen, Joe Dante and John Landis all have in common? The answer (at least for me) lies in the fact that all of them had directed three of the absolute greatest werewolf movies of 1981. Cohen directed Full Moon High, Dante directed The Howling and Landis directed An American Werewolf in London. Even Michael Wadleigh’s The Wolfen (released that same year) was pretty good. The first three also offered plenty of dark humor and social commentary on the side. Since I love the first three titles equally, I feel that it would be wise for me to focus on what makes An American Werewolf in London a classic of its sub-genre.
While backpacking in Yorkshire (a county of England), two visiting American college students from the East Coast (I think New York) named David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) get attacked by a vicious werewolf after walking from the road onto the moors. Though Jack gets mauled to death, David survives, but not before being bitten by the wolf, who gets shot with silver bullets by pubgoers of “The Slaughtered Lamb”, which was the name of the bar he and his (then alive) friend entered earlier in the film.
During his stay at a hospital recovering from his wounds, David starts having weird nightmares. One of them involves a now reanimated Jack (in the first of three appearances) telling him that he must commit suicide before the next full moon occurs, which is when David will turn into a werewolf. Jack warns David, that once he is a wolf, he will go on a killing rampage. After ignoring Jack’s warnings twice (he even insults his presence), the night of the full moon eventually and inevitably comes resulting in David’s transformation into a vicious werewolf. Waking up the next day, David learns the awful truth from a front page newspaper that an animal (which was him) killed quite a few people and that Jack was not crazy after all. Now, David must stop himself before the next full moon.
With the exception of The Howling (which was released four months prior to this film), no other werewolf transformation sequence in cinema had been as truly amazing as the one in An American Werewolf in London. Once the full moon appears, David slowly and painfully begins his transformation into a werewolf. After that, all of these tiny pieces of hair start growing out of every single area of his body with his arms, hands, legs and feet stretching out completely. To put the icing on the cake, his head and face begin morphing into something monstrous looking with demon-like eyes. Makeup artist Rick Baker was responsible for these impressive effects and deservedly won an Oscar for Best Makeup (the first year, the category became available too). Personally, I feel that Rob Bottin should have taken one home for The Howling as well, which would have resulted in a tied win, but that is a whole different story for a whole different blog post. Also worth mentioning (though frequently ignored) is the particularly effective buildup to this scene which comes off as terrifyingly funny in retrospect. Before David goes into the house he is staying at, a dog (belonging to two giggling little girls) viciously barks at him and a cat hisses at him in an equally vicious way. In a bit of comic relief, David looks in the mirror and roars once or twice. As David starts anxiously pacing around, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” starts playing in the background subsequently leading up to David turning into a werewolf with Sam Cooke’s rendition of “Blue Moon” taking over.
Along with The Blues Brothers from a year earlier, An American Werewolf in London ranks as one of director John Landis two most fully realized films. Whereas the former was a commercial comedy distributed by Universal and made for $30 million dollars, the latter is a darkly humorous independent horror movie distributed by that same studio and made for $10 million dollars. Regardless of cost, both of them finish up as the purest expressions of Landis wonderfully over the top style of filmmaking. Coincidentally, I read somewhere that Landis considered this one to be his most personal film.
Interestingly enough, director John Landis has reportedly stated that his screenplay for An American Werewolf in London had originated from an experience he had back in 1969, while working as a production assistant in Yugoslavia on the set of the war comedy Kelly’s Heroes (1970). During his time there, he had witnessed a ritual being performed on a dead man at a Gypsy funeral, who was buried in a way that would supposedly make it impossible for him to come alive ever again. If anything else, this actual incident may have uniquely shaped the film as a whole.
Even though it starts off, continues and finishes as a darkly humorous horror film, An American Werewolf in London is sprinkled with a touch of surrealism during its second and third act. The first example involves David having a series of nightmares while recovering in the hospital. In this Bunuel-ish dream within a dream sequence, David dreams that he is running completely naked in the woods and in the next frame, he is graphically eating a (still fresh in this case) deer. Soon after, he sees his hospital bed there and his nurse (and later girlfriend) Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) is standing on the left side. Suddenly, David wakes up and mischievously smiles with yellow demon-like eyes and teeth. Next up is a nightmarish dream that involves a group of grotesque mutant Nazis coming into his house mowing down his parents and two younger siblings with machine guns while another one slits David’s throat. Initially, it seems as If the nightmare is over when nurse Price comes in, but after opening the drapes, a mutant Nazi suddenly appears and stabs her to death. Afterwards, David wakes up and this time, the nightmare is actually over with nurse Price keeping her eye on him. Equally surrealistic is the three times David’s dead friend Jack appears. During his first appearance, Jack is all bloodied up, in the next one, his skin is now green and begins to rot and in the final one, he looks all skeletal. The overall result is bizarre, scary and hilarious all at once.
On the outside, An American Werewolf in London comes off as a wildly entertaining monster movie/homage, but on the inside, it also openly and subtly touches upon (briefly or frequently) various themes relating to America’s relationship with Britain (historically, pop culturally or otherwise), religion, genocide, sex and ultimately, life and death. With the exception of the third one, all of these themes are tackled in a wickedly funny manner. For example, when David and Jack are in the tavern during the first act, David asks the patrons If they “Remember the Alamo”, but all of them think he is referring to the 1960 John Wayne film The Alamo as opposed to the historical event. Shortly afterwards, Jack adds “Right. With Lawrence Harvey Everyone dies in it. Very bloody.” David and Jack’s bafflement with England sparks amusement as well. The response they have to the howl of a werewolf hilariously results in them making references to The Hound of the Baskervilles, Pecos Bill (certainly not a wolf) and finally Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights (who “didn’t howl!”). This trait also occurs in other trivial matters such as when David discusses to Alex (the nurse) that he feels like Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941’s The Wolf Man and she mistakenly believes that he is referring to 1961’s The Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed. The former was distributed by Universal Pictures in California (The U.S.) and the latter was distributed by Hammer Film Productions in London, England (The UK). Both studios are iconic for their classic horror films. Ironically enough, Alex’s London flat is decorated with American pop culture. Aside from owning two figurines of Walt Disney cartoon characters (Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck), she also has film posters of Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942) which are two celebrated American films. Maybe she just prefers Hammer’s catalogue of horror. I also love how after turning back into his human form the morning after the night he turned into a werewolf, David is running around London nude trying to find clothes and bribes a little boy with two pounds (British currency) to buy his balloons to cover himself. This results in the little boy’s priceless reply of “a naked American man stole my balloons.” What makes it amusing is that the little boy says it in such a casual way as If he did not really care. Equally amusing is when David steals a lady’s red coat without any trouble and shortly after putting it on, he comments about something random with a guy, who like the kid and many around him, do not seem bothered by his appearance. Sheer hilarity is also on display when David tries to get himself arrested for the werewolf murders mouthing obscenities or stuff that would be offensive to British sensibilities. “Shakespeare’s French” comes off as the funniest of his backfired insults. Interestingly enough, the end credits features a word of congratulations to The Prince of Wales (Charles) and Lady Diana Spencer for their wedding that occurred on July 29th 1981. Sadly, their marriage proved to be a highly publicized disaster eventually and inevitably leading to them divorcing each other in 1996. A year later, Princess Diana would die in a fatal car crash.
Upon the many times I have watched An American Werewolf in London, I have become more and more fascinated by how it insightfully explores both the darker and lighter side of human sexuality (as dubious as it might initially sound). During the aforementioned dream within a dream sequence where David awakes with that scary face I just described earlier, we are sure that as a werewolf, he would maul Alex to death, but what about as a human being? Since being bitten by a werewolf, does David lust for sex in his human form the way a vampire lusts for blood? For the most part though, David’s ideal vision of romantic love can be defined as one of warmth. One perfect example is when David and Alex are making out in the shower and fittingly enough, Van Morrison’s Moondance is playing during part of the scene. Contrary to the explicit way David and Jack talk about a woman’s body near the beginning, Alex’s revelry in it comes off as more subtle. This comes when another female nurse playfully tells Alex that David is Jewish because she “had a look.” This is obviously a reference to male circumcision via Brit Milah.
Semi-autobiographically or not, with An American Werewolf in London, director John Landis may have also tapped deeply into what amuses, perplexes and scares him as an individual. Since Landis was born and raised in a Jewish family (though he identifies himself as an atheist), it only makes sense that Nazis (in this case, mutant ones) would terrify him (and lots of other viewers) the most. The stranger aspects of David’s nightmares (i.e. running naked in the woods and eating an animal) is something that any person can identify with since we have all had different yet equally weird dreams in our lifetimes. The scenes involving David’s dead friend Jack talking to him can be strangely funny: “can I have a piece of toast” or “have you tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely!” Another one is when David is in a porn theater and is trying to figure out ways to commit suicide before the next full moon appears. In it, David’s six victims (along with Jack) join in to give him advice and David facetiously says “thank you, you’re all so thoughtful.” Guilt is also explored in the scene where after dismissing Jack’s words twice, David finally admits that (when turning into a werewolf) he didn’t mean to call Jack a meatloaf. Similar to some of Landis other films (most notably The Blues Brothers, Into the Night and Innocent Blood), this one climaxes with a showstopper within its actual filming location (in this case, it would be Piccadilly Circus).
Rumor has it that the roles of David Kessler and Jack Goodman were originally for Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, but in the end, I am glad that director John Landis went with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Since both of them were low-profile at the time, it was easier for them to act naturally in portraying their characters. On the surface, Kessler (Naughton) and Goodman (Dunne) may be little more than stereotypical frat house types, which only gives more ammunition to the opinion summed up by American Embassy representative Mr. Collins (Frank Oz of The Muppets fame). In this case, it was “These dumb ass kids. They never appreciate what you do for them.” Nevertheless, as the film progresses, we learn that Kessler and Goodman are fairly grateful, likable and normal at heart. In Goodman’s first appearance as a talking corpse, he says these following words to Kessler: “life mocks me even in death.” To a small or considerable extent, we all wish that Goodman could have lived a life free of cynicism. We also learn to love Kessler more and more that we hope that he survives this werewolf curse brought upon him. Long before playing Sister Julienne on BBC’s (PBS here in the States) Call the Midwife, British actress Jenny Agutter began her career playing one of the title characters in The Railway Children in 1970 before graduating to more daring roles with Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), Michael Anderson’s Logan’s Run (1976), Sidney Lumen’s Equus (1977), and Monte Hellman’s China 9, Liberty 37 (1978). Jenny Agutter may be playing the “typical” girlfriend role, but at the same time, she manages to make it interesting. As the regular working class woman who lets Kessler stay with her, Agutter is able to make Alex Price attractive on the outside (especially in a nurse’s uniform) and tender on the inside. Her love of old-fashioned Americana, which I briefly touched upon earlier, coincides perfectly with her persona.
No doubt, their has probably been a good number of werewolf films released since 1981, but neither of them (at least in my opinion) can top the triple punch delivered during that aforementioned year by The Howling, Full Moon High and this one, which is An American Werwolf in London. With the possible exceptions of Into the Night and Innocent Blood, An American Werewolf in London was the second (the first being The Blues Brothers) and last time that Landis would allow his imagination to run delightfully and uncompromisingly hog wild. Be that as it may, at least it happened on a film that is often considered by dyed in the wood horror fans like myself to be one of (If not) the finest werewolf movie of all time.
I would love to end this review with a quote for my dear readers. The quote comes from the truck driver, whose advice to David and Jack should apply here as well:
“keep off the moors, stick to the roads. The best to ya…”
* * * * (Out of * * * *)