When casting my eye over the frequently unloved werewolf genre (one of the benefits of having no real life to speak off), I’m always shocked about how few genuinely world class movies there are about that pesky ailment known as lycanthropy. Sure, thanks to magazine covers promoting baby smooth skin, no one seems to want to go for a REAL hairy partner anymore but maybe the world in general needs to put this preference to bed and start seeking out the fuzzy bastards and give them the cinematic love they seem to be starved of.
Lucky for us and werewolves in general, An American Werewolf In London pretty much balances out this gap single handedly.
Young American backpackers David and Jack are wandering the Yorkshire moors on their vacation and upon visiting a remarkably eccentric and hostile pub head back out into the night with the puzzling warning “Beware the moon!” ringing in their ears. Of course, before you can say “you’re about to be attacked by a werewolf” the two youths are promptly attacked by a werewolf and Jack is immediately and very fatally shredded like toilet paper while David survives with deep scratches to the face and chest. Awaking three weeks later in a hospital in London, David starts to experience horrifying nightmares but also strikes up a very sweet romance with Alex, a nurse who has been helping him recuperate (classic upside/downside scenario) but marring things is the very grizzly reappearance of Jack. Claiming that because of his unnatural death he is trapped in limbo as one of the undead, he urges David to take his own life in order to break the cycle otherwise he’ll change into a slathering beast at the next full moon and create more victim like hapless Jack. David, not unreasonably, assumes that this is yet another vision brought on by the trauma he went through but as the full moon steadily approaches and his relationship with Alex blossoming, could there really be something in this werewolf guff after all?
Quite possibly the most remarkable thing about American Werewolf is how fresh and new it feels even after over 35 years after it’s release. A higely funny take on what place the supernatural has in the modern, everyday world (well… London 1982 at least), the movie strips away any pretence of what you would think of for a horror film and keeps things as firmly grounded as a concrete balloon. With no overly scary score, no creepy lighting and no cheap-ass jump scares, the movie admirably does things the hard way and is somehow legitimately scary while also being adorably hilarious. Take the devastating double nightmares that David has of his family being mutilated by Nazi/werewolf/demons (David is Jewish), which is then followed by it seemingly spilling over into real life only to be revealed as another nightmare within the nightmare like the filling of some jump-inducing mince pie only to have an amusing scene with a hospital porter. Genius.
Sure, some of the culture clash jokes about life in 1980’s England have aged noticeably (the 3 TV channels gag, while still funny, is hopelessly dated) but somehow the film is staggeringly relatable considering, not only the time period, but the fact it involves a dude turning into a wolf and terrorising Picadilly Circus. We’ve ALL walked into a hostile pub utterly rammed full of locals and been epically given the stink eye and anyone who has ever used the London Underground will no doubt had their traitorous brains invoke the magnificent scene where an impossibly stiff upper lipped business man (“I can assure you this isn’t the least bit amusing!”) is stalked on the escalators. The raucous laughs (typical of legendary director John Landis) are subtly staged too, enhancing the horror instead of smothering it as horror comedies often do, with the superlative slice of undiluted gallows humor interacting perfectly with the chills and gore. In fact the scene where David is confronted by the limbo cursed victims of his “carnivorous lunar activities” in a porn theater who all helpfully chime in with all the different ways he could and should commit suicide.
Of course not mention of American Werewolf could possibly omit some of the greatest physical effects ever put on film and it’s a relief to say that even in the days of 4k remastered, THAT transformation scene is still remarkable. Filmed in entirely bright, unforgiving light (no shadows to hide the joins) and with only one cutaway in the whole thing, Rick Baker’s oscar winning sequence is a bone cracking, hand stretching delight, equally wince inducing (it’s gonna take a bit more than some deep heat to ease THOSE joints) and fascinating in equal measures with extra props going out also to the gorgeous final beast (the bear sized, dagger-fanged lupine feels more like an animal than a classic monster) and Jack’s three-stage, undead degeneration (that wiggly bit in his open throat when he’s still quite “fresh” is a stroke of nauseating genius).
The three young leads played by David Naughton as the cursed David, Griffin Dunne as the doomed Jack and a VERY fetching Jenny Agutter as Alex are crazy likeable and all have breezy chemistry with each other that gives every raw scare and silly gag extra weight and believability to the gorily left-field proceedings – a must in a film like this.
Loaded with crackling dialogue, witty touches – every song on the soundtrack is moon related – and a nihilistic ending that boots me clean in the feels everytime I see it, An American Werewolf In London is not only the greatest werewolf movie in existence (sorry, The Howling, you’re a close second) but probably the finest horror comedy ever made that changes genres far less painlessly than the kind the lead experiences.
It doesn’t just howl at the moon, it shoots for it.