I was about 10 years old when I first saw John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The flick made quite an impression on me then, with its mix of scary stuff and jokes, the Dr. Pepper guy as the tragic teen who becomes a monster, and one mean looking beast. I really enjoyed it then, and I still do now. Though I much prefer Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING to it, AMERICAN WEREWOLF has some great stuff to offer.
For the uninitiated, the flick starts off with American teens David and Jack backpacking across Europe. A farmer transporting sheep drops them off among the fields of England, and warns them, “Keep off the moors, stick to the road.” They’ll soon regret not following his advice. But first, they end up in an odd little bar, the Slaughtered Lamb. The place is inhabited by a group of locals who clearly do not appreciate intruders. When Jack asks about a pentangle on the wall, he makes a dart player miss the board. Unwelcome, the Americans leave the bar under the full moon, and quickly head off the road, onto the moors. A werewolf attacks, tearing Jack to shreds and killing him, biting David before the bar patrons arrive and shoot it dead.
Landis does a lot right in the opening. Those moors are a creepy place even before the sun goes down. David and Jack’s interactions with the patrons indicate that something is very wrong here, even if there’s nothing explicitly so. The tension he builds up as the beast hunts them on the moors builds up the scares, as he shows very little of the werewolf but provides plenty of howls.
The film then sets up its middle act in a hospital, as David heals and we await the lunar cycle he can’t escape. David Naughton gives a great performance as David Kessler, a high school kid who’s alone in England, where nobody believes he was attacked by a werewolf. Naughton is adept at cross cutting the horror and the humor of it all, no easy task. I felt for Kessler, more so than I do for scores of kids in slasher flicks. He’s a tragic character, as anybody who’s ever seen the Universal Classic monsters knows there’s no cure for lycanthropy but being on the wrong end of a silver bullet.
Speaking of silver bullets, this is a werewolf film, and without some superior effects Landis’ movie may have fallen flat. Fortunately, he had a young Rick Baker on his team. Baker today is an acknowledged master of special effects, but at the time he didn’t have that lofty status. Even so, much of his work here is great. The one exception for me has always been the transformation scene. You may call me nuts after you read this, but I’ve never been impressed by it. Naughton grows a lot of hair and his body stretches out to grotesque proportions, which seem more comical then horrifying (scoring it with the film’s 27th version of “Blue Moon” didn’t help). And the final shot of the scene doesn’t even show him fully transformed. Rob Bottin’s transformation of Eddie Quist in THE HOWLING not only shows the completed product but it blows Baker’s work out of the water. Fortunately, once fully transformed, the monster is terrific. The quadrupedal werewolf is a nasty looking beast, and scared all Hell out of me when I was young. Given its size and tooth-filled snout, it still does. In any werewolf flick, the monster makes or breaks the movie. AMERICAN WEREWOLF works in large part because Baker’s beast is among the best of all time.
X Marks the Oscar: Baker’s werewolf was so impressive, in fact, that the Academy awarded him the first Oscar for Best Makeup, the first of its kind. This may be the real reason why X prefers AWIL over THE HOWLING.
What follows the transformation is a back-and-forth between horror and comedy for the rest of the film. The night’s hunt is scary stuff, especially a scene in a subway station and up an escalator. Landis follows this up with Kessler waking up in a zoo, naked among the wolves. “A naked American man stole my balloons” sums it up perfectly. Bouncing between tones is risky in any horror comedy, but Landis does it to sweet perfection. For a tragedy, the film never gets too dark until the very end; and for a comedy, the humor is natural, derived from the situation, instead of Landis throwing yuks into it where they don’t belong.
Though AMERICAN WEREWOLF has plenty of great stuff, it leaves me longing in several places. Foremost is the Slaughtered Lamb. The bar and its occupants set the film in motion, but both are underdeveloped. Sure, I get the weird vibe, but why are these folks covering up a werewolf? Why are they so insular? Late in the film, Dr. Hirsch heads there looking for answers that may help David. But all he gets are cold shoulders and half whispered, halfhearted backstory. It would’ve served the film better if I knew more about this weird town. Once the film deserts it for London, it also deserts answering the mystery.
When the film arrives in London, it presents another problem: David Kessler spends the entire second act in a hospital bed. Sure he has plenty of violent nightmares (in which he appears naked—why did Landis have Naughton naked in so much of this film?), that provide some horror and add some action to bolster things. And he and Jenny Agutter’s Nurse Alex have time to develop a peculiar romance. But he’s still confined to a bed. It’s a long time before David’s first nocturnal prowl, a bit too long for me.
Fortunately, Landis peppers in scenes of Jack appearing to David, a little worse for wear each time. Dunne gives the best performance here, and Landis loads him up with great dialogue that is funny and somehow real. Their final meeting, in a porno theatre in Piccadilly Square, is both comic and grotesque, with Jack, who’s now falling apart, having collected David’s victims in their torn up, bloody forms. This sets up one final run, as David in werewolf form causes havoc in the streets, leading to his final meeting with Alex, and the film’s end.
That ending has always left me high and dry for years. There’s an emotional peak as Alex tells the wolf David that she loves him, and then within seconds it’s over (I won’t ruin the ending for you, though if you understand tragedy, you already know it). It happens so abruptly, and then it breaks into the 57th version of “Blue Moon” without offering any resolution. I would’ve liked to see some tie up for the remaining characters, but I guess Landis figured this flick starts and ends with David Kessler.
Back when I was 10 or so, late night HBO introduced me to some flicks that would lock me in as a horror fan, ALIEN and THE THING among them. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON showed me what great things a horror comedy would do, and how scary a werewolf could be. It would be another year or two before I would see THE HOWLING, which I’ve always preferred. That’s no sleight to Landis, who was the first to teach me to “Beware the Moon.”