FROM THE DIRECTOR OF “ANIMAL HOUSE” – A DIFFERENT KIND OF ANIMAL.
When John Landis decided to finally make the horror comedy he wrote ten years earlier, studio bosses allegedly suggested that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi should play the two leads. Landis refused – this was not going to be a film in the vein of his Blues Brothers (1980), but one that would earn its R rating based on the blood and the scary atmosphere. The movie arrived on the heels of two other pictures about werewolves, The Howling and Wolfen, but this one had the edge.
Backpacking on the Yorkshire moors
American twentysomethings David Kessler and Jack Goodman (David Naughton, Griffin Dunne) are backpacking on the Yorkshire moors. When it starts to rain one evening, they seek shelter at a local pub but the customers are so hostile that they decide to go back to the moors. They are warned not to leave the safety of the road but end up in the middle of the moors anyway. They hear a howling and are attacked by a fierce animal of some kind; Jack is killed and David ends up in a hospital. He is nursed back to health, not least thanks to the tender care of Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), but suffers from bloody nightmares and is startled when Jack visits him as a ghost.
David’s friend tells him that they were attacked by a werewolf and that he is now undead; unless David takes his own life, Jack won’t find peace and David will turn into a werewolf and start killing people. David foolishly refuses to believe in him…
Great rapport between Naughton and Dunne
The film wouldn’t be this good without Landis’s sense of humor. The film is peppered with songs that all have the word “moon” in their titles (“Blue Moon” is the perfect choice for the opening scene), and most characters behave in offbeat ways. That’s particularly true in the case of the wary Yorkshire pub customers, but watching uptight Londoners react to David’s werewolf attacks is also part of the fun. Naughton and Dunne have great rapport as the college students whose friendship takes a very unusual turn. David’s conversations with Jack’s rapidly decomposing corpse are hilariously laidback, especially the one in the porno theater where David is confronted with his freshly killed victims who are rightfully annoyed with him.
The atmosphere and the special effects should prevent anyone from thinking this is only a comedy. People are killed in gruesome ways; Jack is virtually slaughtered on the moors and the final scenes in London where the police are hunting David have several car crashes with very bloody consequences. That along with the eerie tension is what shapes the backbone of the horror. There’s no need for blood in the sequence where the werewolf goes after a man in the London Underground; that’s scarier than anything else in the film. Rick Baker’s brilliant makeup design is so good it made the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invent a new category; David’s now-classic transformation into a werewolf is still damn impressive.
Fusing comedy and horror is very difficult. It’s a pity that Landis makes movies so infrequently these days because he’s one of those directors who know how to do it. He successfully repeated the formula in 1992 with Innocent Blood. It’s about time he came up with another funny, gory idea.
An American Werewolf in London 1981-U.S. 97 min. Color. Produced by George Folsey, Jr. Written and directed by John Landis. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Makeup: Rick Baker. Cast: David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), John Woodvine, Brian Glover… Frank Oz, Rik Mayall.
Trivia: Followed by An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).
Oscar: Best Makeup (first winner of that award).
Last word: “Cities are like children. You turn away for the briefest time and they’ve completely changed. The London of ‘Werewolf’ has probably disappeared now. When I was working there in the 1970s I went to those little cartoon theatres they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly. So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a ‘Road Runner’ cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theatres had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, ‘See You Next Wednesday’. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.” (Landis, The Guardian)