An American Werewolf In London

1981 | UK/US | Directed by John Landis

Logline: Two college students on a holiday trek are attacked by a werewolf on the English moors, which none of the locals will admit exists. 

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two young American tourists reluctantly enjoying the invigorating countryside of Yorkshire, England. As nighttime descends they stop at a tiny pub, with the rather ominous name of The Slaughtered Lamb, to get some supper, but the locals don’t want their nosy kind, and shoo them on. “Stay on the road and beware the moon” is the sage advice they’re given. But before they know it the lads have strayed onto the moors, and something big and nasty is circling them in the cold light of the full moon.  

The night doesn’t end well for the two friends. David ends up in a London hospital where he meets lovely nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), and a curious doctor (John Woodvine), who starts sniffing like a hound dog around David’s insistence that it was a wolf that attacked them on the moors. David’s undead buddy Jack pays him a visit and warns his dear friend that he must break the lycanthrope curse, quickly, and there is only one way. 

Landis wrote the screenplay in 1969, aged nineteen, and when it finally got the green light ten years later executives pushed to have Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the lead roles, both of whom were riding high on the success of Landis’s raucous comedies Animal House and The Blues Brothers. There is definitely an element of Landis’s trademark goofiness that he injects into his werewolf screenplay. He casts Frank Oz in a very brief role, and later uses an excerpt from The Muppet Show to punctuate the beginning of a particularly harrowing nightmare sequence. He also parodies adult movies with See You Next Wednesday playing in the grindhouse where David has his second transformation. 

Despite a quaintness that permeates the movie, it is this uncomplicated approach to the narrative; the simple and direct plot that provides the movie with much of its dark charm. It might not appear to be quite as sophisticated as many of the big-budget horror movies of today, but in many ways it’s far cleverer than much of today’s over-written fare, especially in its sense of mischief and nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Landis has created a superb example of the classic monster movie - especially in the movie's first twenty or so minutes - in fact its original tagline was simply that, “The Monster Movie”, but he very slyly twists what has been the convention of love conquering the beast. 

The opening scenes leading up the attack on the moors, and the subsequent scenes in the hospital as Alex and David get to know each other are wonderfully etched in terms of character development, atmosphere, tension, suspense, and shock. He punctuates several key scenes, right from the opening credits, with classic songs that reference the moon, Blue Moon (three versions), Moondance, and Bad Moon Rising, and, in a couple of scenes – the extraordinary transformation and the surprisingly emotional ending – the upbeat music is used in complete contrast to the macabre tone of the scene, which toys with the movie’s dark sense of humour. 

Rick Baker’s special effects makeup is, arguably, the real star of the movie. Using techniques pioneered by Dick Smith, Baker and his team created one of the greatest transformations in the history of the modern horror movie. Baker went on to win the inaugural Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. 

During the pre-production of the movie, Baker’s protégé, 21-year-old Rob Bottin, was lured away by director Joe Dante to design the sfx makeup for The Howling. Bottin used many of the technical procedures he’d learned from Baker, as well as pioneering some of his own. Landis was royally pissed off because American Werewolf had suffered a delayed schedule and subsequently The Howling was released first, even though it had begun production months after the Landis picture. 

Great werewolf movies are a rare breed of beast. It’s hard for me to roll off more than five that I consider truly memorable, but An American Werewolf in London still tops the list for me, followed by The Howling, Ginger Snaps, and its unusually good sequel, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed, Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers, and, although not strictly a werewolf movie, another release from 1981, Wolfen

As a curious end note, in an interview made in 1982 Landis mentions how he cut a gruesome and scary scene where a trio of tramps are savaged (in the released version they are killed off-screen) because at a preview the audience were so freaked out Landis felt they missed crucial plot points that immediately followed. In hindsight Landis realised his mistake. Shame he never made a director’s cut and put that scene back in. Maybe his son, Max, will include it in the remake he’s helming, which has a young woman, Alex, as the central protagonist. Apparently he's following his father's screenplay in terms of story, but I'm not counting my chickens. 


An American Werewolf In London screens Friday, 16th June, 7pm, Skyline Drive-In, as part of the Sydney Film Festival.