An American Werewolf in London (1981)



(director/writer: John Landis; cinematographer: Robert Paynter; editor: Malcolm Campbell; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: David Naughton (David Kessler), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), John Woodvine (Dr. Hirsch), David Schofield (Darts Player), Brian Glover (Chess player), Lila Kaye (Barmaid); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producer: George Folsey Jr.; Universal Pictures; 1981-USA/UK)

“A fresh look at getting at the werewolf fable.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The black comedy horror film by John Landis (“Animal House”/”The Blues Brothers”) owes much of its success to the creativity of makeup artist Rick Baker, who does a tremendous job transforming both David Naughton and Griffin Dunne into werewolves. Baker won an Academy Award for his amazing effects and creature designs.

The film opens as two American students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are on a hiking tour of the English countryside in the Yorkshire moors. At nightfall the tired backpackers reach a small village, East Proctor, and stop in at the local pub, “The Slaughtered Lamb.” Treated with unfriendly stares and strange behavior from the patrons and the barmaid they are ordered to leave after they ask too many questions, but are given a warning to stick to the main road and not wander onto the moors. Of course, they get lost and ignore this warning and are subsequently attacked by a werewolf.

Only David survives, waking up three weeks later in a London hospital to be cared for by the supple Brit beauty Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). David is tormented by recurring nightmares as he recuperates from shoulder wounds and when he begins to regain his memory is visited by his badly decomposed dead friend Jack, who reports that he will turn into a werewolf with the next full moon–and that the only way to lift the curse is suicide. Because the town of East Proctor has covered up the real cause of the murder, David is stuck with his unbelievable werewolf story. The police are convinced an escaped lunatic is responsible, and dismiss his explanations as trauma related. When discharged, he is taken in by nurse Alex. As Alex and David get it on together, the next full moon begins–and David is faced with the problem of turning into a werewolf and rampaging through London’s Piccadilly Circus.

This unorthodox homage to the genre (especially The Wolf Man movie) and the perfectly realized way this film works as both a tongue-in-cheek comedy and horror film, allows the filmmaker a fresh look at getting at the werewolf fable. It wisely plays it straight and avoids going over to camp, which immeasurably allows the comedy and horror and youthful sexual fantasies to merge, as the film tunes into the workings of how the contemporary viewer now sees the genre armed with Freudian data. Landis imbues the film with eye-popping visual dream sequences (over sexual guilt and shock heavy Nazi executions) and enough scary scenes to keep it in genre.