Horror Hall of Fame: ‘An American Werewolf in London’ (1981)

An American Werewolf in London’ isn’t just my favorite Werewolf film of all-time, but it’s my favorite horror film period.

While the film is often highly regarded as one of the best in the sub-genre, it doesn’t seem to get much love outside of that. It certainly isn’t talked about as much as other titles that have made our Horror Hall of Fame list, and as such I’d like to take the opportunity to gush about the film and make my case as to why this isn’t just a great Werewolf film, but a great horror film in general.

The story begins with two college-age American friends, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), whose backpacking journey through Europe leads them to a small village called East Proctor. The locals, who populate a pub named ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’, harbor a dark secret and their short-lived hospitality comes to a sudden halt after Jack asks one question too many. David and Jack are abruptly sent on their way with an oddly specific warning: steer clear of the moors and beware the moon. The two friends are too preoccupied by the strange behaviors of those at the Slaughtered Lamb and the dreary weather, and inadvertently wander into the moors. They learn of their mistake too late as they are attacked by a Werewolf. Jack is savagely torn apart, and just as the Werewolf attacks David, the locals from the Slaughtered Lamb arrive just in time to kill it before it can kill him – but David’s survival comes with a price, as he awakens in a London Hospital three weeks later, with his wounds healing quickly, vivid nightmares plaguing his sleep nightly, and the ghostly presence of the savaged and rotting Jack pleading with him to take his own life before the full moon. David is at first dismissive of his dead friend’s warnings, and attempts to build a relationship with Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) but is soon horrified to learn that Jack had been right, and six deaths have occurred as a result of his “carnivorous lunar activities”.

There’s a lot of great things to be said about this film. Writer/Director John Landis, who’s primarily known for his work within the comedy genre, brings his brand of humor to this story while never losing sight of the horror and the tragic tale that he is telling. There’s really a perfect balance between the horror and the humor, but with the humor staying in its lane and never completely over-shadowing the horror. The humor comes from witty dialogue and character quirks, such as the scene where Deceased Jack visits David in the hospital for the first time and engages in casual conversation about his funeral and Debbie Klein; or when in the porno theater as David’s victims from the previous full moon make eager suggestions for the variety of methods David could use to kill himself; or even with the footage from the porno film ‘See You Next Wednesday’ itself; and then there’s the scene when a panicked and guilt-ridden David attempts to get himself arrested by shouting obscenities that defy political-correctness. Oh yes, this film has its share of funny moments.

But let’s forget about the comedy for a moment and focus on the horror of ‘An American Werewolf in London’, because for me that’s what really defines the film.

Right from the start there is a sense of dread that follows David and Jack as they walk towards their fates. Both entering into the picture riding amongst a pack of sheep, and both dead before the end credits. The sky is gloomy, and the weather appears to be cold. Elmer Bernstein’s score hints at a tragedy in the making. Oh, and a sheep shit on Jack’s backpack. They’re doomed from the start.

The first great sequence of horror comes when David and Jack are on the moors; out in the open, soaked from a torrential downpour, and in a foreign territory with no safe place in sight. Their only visibility is provided by the illumination from the full moon above. The howl, perhaps the most terrifying sounding howl out of any Werewolf film, pierces the air. Naughton and Dunne completely sell the terror with their facial expressions and body language in a sequence that’s completely effective due to it being purposefully devoid of score and yet being driven by sound design, as well as the actor’s performances, and cinematography, with the camera circling around the pair at the moment the characters realize that’s what the beast is doing. You can feel that drop in gut like when you know something terrible is going to happen. When attacked Jack screams for help, and you can hear the terror and desperation in Griffin Dunne’s voice. There’s a realism to it that amplifies the brutality of the attack which we only see pieces of. This first attack sequence ends beautifully with the camera on the ground with David as he looks over and see’s the dying human form of the monster that attacked, and then away and at the Slaughtered Lamb group hovering over him.

The scenes between David’s recovery and to his first transformation are peppered with bizarre nightmare sequences that are raw, brutal, and chaotic. The most memorable of which is the double nightmare that David has in which he initially dreams of an attack on his entire immediate family from a group of Nightmare Demons, and this is followed by a dream within a dream in which Alex is attacked and stabbed to death by one of the Nightmare Demons in his hospital room. When watching this for the first time many moons ago, I was right there with David as he awakens with “Holy shit”.

Of course, you can’t talk about this movie without mentioning the incredible effects work from Rick Baker and his team. One of the most impressive pieces of make-up effects in the entire genre is that of Purgatory Jack, who first shows up in David’s hospital room with all of his wounds from the Werewolf attack; the flesh on his face and neck are shredded and flapping, and it looks so good. Each time we see Jack throughout the movie, his flesh is becoming more and more rotted, and it looks spectacular. Naturally, the disturbing nature of Purgatory Jack’s appearance is eased a bit by the banter between David and Jack, as Griffin Dunne steals the show with his performance as Jack, who oozes with personality under the mutilation make-up.

Speaking of effects, the biggest talking point about this movie is the incredible transformation sequence, which for my money is THE best Werewolf transformation ever put to film. The slow process of the metamorphosis is brilliantly brought to the screen with intimate shots of individual parts from David’s body as they elongate and extend, and the phenomenal effects from Rick Baker and his team is accompanied by a great performance from David Naughton who sells the painful nature of such a metamorphosis, which adds to the level of greatness of the effects work.

David’s first night out as a Werewolf is a little disappointing with the fact that it doesn’t show much other than the build up to certain victims crossing his Lycanthropic path, but the sequence that caps this off in which a businessman named Gerald Bringsley (Michael Carter) is chased through the deserted corridors of the subway is a fantastic scene with the way it was directed. I absolutely love the choices Landis made here – the setting, the camera running with Gerald, the lack of score and the reliance of natural sounds – there a sense of intensity and urgency to this scene as Gerald desperately runs for his life. Despite the fact that the Werewolf is only glimpsed at the end of this first night out sequence, its presence and the danger it brings is felt throughout, and this particular scene is one of the many stand-outs from the movie.

David’s second night out as the Werewolf in the third act is a wild and chaotic sequence of pandemonium. Here we only see the very beginning of David’s transformation in the porno theater, with Naughton once again demonstrating the pain of the metamorphosis, but what follows, with his Werewolf loose on the streets of London, is an amazingly choreographed sequence of chaos and destruction as the Werewolf’s rampage causes a domino effect of violence in Piccadilly Circus. The horror, the danger, and the shear brutality are fully on display, and it is wild.

The films abrupt ending following David being shot to death in the alley is often the biggest criticism of the movie that I see, and is certainly one that I shared in my first viewing of the movie, but over time I’ve grown to like the decision from John Landis to end on the emotional note of Alex crying over David’s dead body. Sure, I would have liked to seen the aftermath of the Piccadilly Circus event, and get a small exploration into Alex and Dr. Hirsch’s reactions and after thoughts on what had happened – especially Hirsch, who saw that David wasn’t just suffering from Lycanthropy, but in fact had actually been one – but I don’t need that. I can just use my imagination.

An American Werewolf in London’ is a horror-comedy that is successful in tapping into both genres, making it a fun, engaging, and brutal ride. The comedy in this movie is great, but the horror in this movie is even better. This is a movie that absolutely deserves to be considered in the hall of fame of horror, not only for the make-up effects, but also for the execution of its horror sequences.

FINAL SCORE:

Writing: 9

Directing: 10

Acting: 8

Cinematography: 10

Editing: 10

Score/Sound Design: 10

Production Design: 10

Kills: 8

Effects: 10

Entertainment Factor: 10

TOTAL:  95 out of 100

About Seth T. Miller 65 Articles
I am first and foremost a proud father of two daughters who may or may not be possessed by demonic entities/deadites (time will tell on that one, but I am pretty confident that one of them translated the Necronomicon). I am very passionate about writing, and spent a great many years focused on the craft of Screenwriting, but I have recently decided to switch gears and pursue my works as novels instead. While I do enjoy a variety of different genres and sub-genres, I am always and forever a horror film fanatic that loves the genre from the 30’s through the mid-90’s, and some afterward. I am particularly very fond of Werewolf fiction, as well as anything by John Carpenter, Stephen King, and George A. Romero.