An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Two American tourists in England are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.

    Tagline: Beware the Moon.

    Directing:
    • John Landis

    Writing:
    • John Landis

Release Date: 1981-08-21
  • Country: GB, US
  • Language: English
  • Runtime: 97
  • Budget: $10,000,000
  • Revenue: $31,973,249

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John Landis

Director

David Naughton

David Kessler

Anne-Marie Davies

Nurse Susan Gallagher

Paddy Ryan

First Werewolf

Sean Baker

2nd Dart Player

Rik Mayall

2nd Chess Player

Brian Glover

Chess Player

David Schofield

Dart Player

Joe Belcher

Truck Driver

Lila Kaye

Barmaid

John Woodvine

Dr. J. S. Hirsch

Griffin Dunne

Jack Goodman

Jenny Agutter

Nurse Alex Price
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  • When someone asks you who the great horror directors are, many names are bound to come to mind. Browning, Hitchcock, Romero, Carpenter, Craven, Hooper, all have their place in the horror lexicon and all have earned it well. So, it does come as something of a surprise to see one of the best creature movies of them all coming from a man who is known primarily for slapstick comedies. Hot off the success of films like Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Kentucky Fried Movie, director John Landis was given nearly free reign to make whatever kind of movie he wanted to. Going back in his files to a screenplay he had written when he was only 19, Landis did deliver that comedy, just one that involved werewolves, zombies and a lot of blood.

    Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton, the guy from that 80's singing Dr. Pepper commercial), are two American's fresh out of high school backpacking across Europe. A flip of the coin sent them to Northern England before Italy, and Jack isn't afraid of admitting it. He's just looking for plenty of cheap sex, while David is just doing his best to enjoy what time they have. After hiking through the moors for hours, they stumble across a small village and decide to enter the local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb , for the night. The locals seem hesitant, almost agitated to see outsiders coming into their town upon this of all nights, but aside from thinking them a bit strange, David and Jack don't think much of it. Some drinks and a few jokes later, all seems to be well, at least until Jack notices something on the wall: a carved pentangle with two candles burning on either side of it. Out of curiosity, Jack asks the significance of the symbol, and the locals promptly kick them out with some advice.

    Stick to the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware the moon.
    Running from the village, they immediately ignore the villagers advice and get lost after wandering onto the moors. Not too long after, a strange howling pierces the night. At first they wonder what it is, a dog perhaps? A coyote? No, coyotes don't live on the moors. As it howls some more they realize that whatever it is is getting closer and is getting closer fast. By the time they ready to double back into town, it's too late. David trips, and as Jack tries to help him up, they're attacked by an enormous wolf-like beast. David is scratched and bitten, while Jack is mauled beyond recognition and killed. Moments before the wolf is readying to deliver a death blow to David, the villagers appear with shotguns and kill the beast. Moments before David lapses into unconsciousness he turns his head to see their murdered attacker, except it is no beast. it's a man.

    He wakes up weeks later in a London hospital, tended to by Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). He claims to anyone who will listen that he was attacked by a wolf, but with the official police report reading that it was the work of an escaped lunatic, nobody believes him as anything other than a man in shock. As he begins to question his own sanity, he's plagued by strange dreams of running through the forest, attacking the deer and having the face of a monster. As the dreams become more vivid and more violent, David is also becoming rather infatuated with Alex, a feeling that is thoroughly mutual. Days before being discharged and believing his monster dreams to be nothing more than shock, David is finally beginning to feel comfortable.

    And that's when Jack shows up. Well, what's left of him anyway. Still horrifically mauled from the animal's attack and still very much dead, the friends joke about for a bit while David finally believes he has gone insane. Jack comes with news that David is not insane, oh no, he is suffering from a fate much, much worse. As it is, the animal that attacked them on the moors that night was a lycanthrope, a werewolf, and as long as the werewolves bloodline is intact, its victims must walk the earth in limbo as spirits. And with only one who can see the dead being someone who is afflicted with the werewolves curse, Jack leaves David with the message that he must end his own life before he winds up killing anybody.

    Believing he is insane, yet with a clean bill of health, David is discharged from the hospital. Taking an offer from Nurse Price, he moves in with her for the duration of his visit in England. They quickly fall in love, but with the full moon imminent, things are about to get pretty hairy.

    I can not praise An American Werewolf in London enough for modernizing the werewolf story. Gone is a lot of the mysticism, gone is the mythology, instead it's just treated as something that people have to deal with. You don't need a silver bullet or wolfs bane to take out this wolf, it's just an animal like any other. One particularly humorous scene involves David sitting in a porno theater surrounded by the grisly spirits of the people he killed on his first night as a werewolf as they make various suggestions as to how he could kill himself.

    The acting, writing and direction are all solid and well done. Relative unknowns Dunne, Naughton and Agutter pull off sincere, heartfelt, and often hilarious performances. John Landis tackles the horror genre with great energy and spirit, creating horrific scenes that are so absurdly paced that despite the fact that they are grisly and violent, they're also funnier than hell (i.e. the Piccadilly circus massacre, the aforementioned porno theater.) Additionally, his design for the film's soundtrack featuring songs all featuring the word "Moon" in the title is a delightful touch. At the very least, his contribution in regard to the casting must be commended, since the studio was pressuring him into hiring friends Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the lead roles. Landis refused, going with the unknowns and adding a more authentic approach to the movies feel.

    But, the greatest strength of this movie is by far its astounding makeup effects. This was the movie that made the Best Makeup a regular category for the Academy, and it earns that distinction in spades. The Rick Baker supplied effects are simply amazing. David's first transformation from man into werewolf takes place in a brightly lit room. There are no shadows to hide in or cover fades, everything is done onscreen and in agonizing detail. Hair rips its way through the skin as bones noisily shift and grow under the skin. The mutation of David into beast is all at once painful and horrifying. Additionally, special credit must also be given to the "zombie" spirits that surround David, particularly in his dead friend Jack. Throughout the movie Jacks spirit rots to a point where by the end of the movie he's more or less a skeleton barely covered with strips of flesh. Years later Landis and Baker would team up again to do the music video for Michael Jackson's Thriller, and these early zombie makeups definitely reflect upon the later video.

    All in all, An American Werewolf in London is a fun ride with generous amounts of splatter, werewolves and hilarity, and is one I highly recommend.

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