An American Werewolf in London [retro review]

“Beware the moon, lads.”

The Scoop: 1981 R, directed by John Landis and starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne

Tagline: From the director of Animal House — a different kind of animal

Summary Capsule: Two American tourists get attacked by a werewolf in England; one kid is killed, the other bitten. It gets more fun from there.

Justin’s Rating: And I thought I had body hair issues

Justin’s Review: There are many things to cherish about An American Werewolf in London, but we can start where they do: the movie begins where most horror movies would end. Two American backpackers – David and Jack – are trekking across Scotland’s moors, only to find the creepiest tavern in the land. After a few heebie-jeebies from the natives and a cryptic warning to “stay on the roads”, they skedaddle away into the night, only to be tracked and attacked by a giant wolf…thing. Jack is killed, and David mysteriously awakens in a London hospital, plagued by odd dreams. Nobody believes his story about the attacks, except one cute nurse with a penchant for force-feeding.

American Werewolf is one of those films I’d assumed I’d reviewed on MRFH a long, long time ago, and kept neglecting to check. I’m a bad boy for letting this wait so long – this is my all-time favorite werewolf movie (even above Dog Soldiers) and a terrifically funny movie. That’s right: funny. From the opening banter between David and Jack to the odd behavior of pretty much everyone in the film, American Werewolf puts its slobbery tongue in its cheek and enjoys making us laugh as much as scream. The London setting offers some subtle jabs at the “proper” British culture that isn’t quite prepared for a wild and wooly… American.

Don’t worry about the screams, however; this film contains some incredibly startling images, as well as a nightmarish werewolf transformation sequence that’s long been considered the best ever filmed (particularly before CGI!). It’s great to have the laughs come along and release the pent-up pressure that builds within, but it’s also unnerving to never quite expect when the next scare is going to hit you.

It’s no big secret that David’s attack by a werewolf eventually turns him into one. This is where the tables are turned on the normal horror convention – David’s fear isn’t for what’s out there, but what’s inside of him, threatening to take him over. Disconcertingly, his dead friend Jack keeps reappearing to him (decaying more and more as the movie goes on), telling David of the curse and urging him to kill himself before the next full moon. What’s a werewolf-in-training to do?

Director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) has a lot of fun tweaking the werewolf legend and throwing in a lot of bizarre humor that helps keep this from settling into a stale horror tale. It plays out as a quick, quirky horror story that’s as scary as something your uncle might’ve told you when you were 10, and might stick with you a while after.

Puberty in adolescent males is not a pretty sight

Intermission!

  • Jenny Agutter is a smokin’ hottie
  • The Slaughtered Lamb sign
  • I’d love to be force-fed by a cute British nurse…
  • Muppets!
  • The punks on the train
  • Does that mirror scare ever stop working?
  • Never trust talking bushes
  • The porno movie scene is, oddly enough, a classic
  • Director John Landis appears briefly near the end of the film. He is the bearded man who gets hit by a car and thrown through the plate glass window in Piccadilly Circus.
  • Because of this film, makeup and industry technological contributions became recognized by the Academy Awards in 1981. This film’s visuals earned makeup artist Rick Baker the first ever Academy Award to be bestowed upon a special effects artist.

Groovy Quotes

Jack: Have you tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring.

Dart Player: Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors.
Chess Player: Beware the moon, lads.

Harry Berman: A gun is good.
Judith Browns: You just put the gun to your forehead and pull the trigger.
Gerald Bringsley: If you put it in your mouth, then you’d be sure not to miss.
David: Thank you, you’re all so thoughtful.

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12 Comments

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