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An American Werewolf in London (1981)
An American Werewolf in London is a strange beast. Its mixture of innovation and blatant cliché gives the viewer the unsettling (though not necessarily unpleasant) feeling that they are watching two different movies. The film’s beginning is so extravagantly ‘borrowed’ from every other werewolf film ever made that we may be lulled into a false belief that we are about to watch a so-bad-it’s-good, substance-free monster flick. Not so. Still, the first few scenes of the film are certainly good for fans of the aforementioned well-respected genre. Hey kids, can YOU spot some windswept moorland, a pub full of suspiciously paranoid locals, a distant howl and the choice bit when they suddenly remember ‘Beware the moon – and keep to the road… oops…’?
Yes, two young American lads are on a walking trip in the English countryside when they chance upon a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb. Mmm, classy. How could they not want to sample the delights of such a pleasantly named establishment? Of course, they go in, and the Westcountry-accented locals stare a lot and are mysteriously obtuse about the pentagram drawn on the wall. So far so Hammer Horror. The scary locals then give them some (predictably unexplained) advice about the moon and the moors and send them on their way. They stray onto the moorland, and get attacked by (no, surely not) a wolf, who kills one of them, Jack (Griffin Dunne) and savages the other, David (David Naughton).
So begins the portion of the film set in London, and suddenly we’re looking at a much more interesting and substantial movie. Firstly, there’s the sudden switch from werewolves in an unrealistic, gothic-horror setting to werewolves in your proverbial back yard. Then there are the nightmares. The tame, generic-horror-movie beginning little prepares us for the slowly-building terror that follows. The film wisely focuses less on gory killings than on the workings of David’s mind as he comes to terms (or not) with being a lycanthrope. He is haunted by horribly real nightmares, in which anonymous, masked killers fire machine guns coldly and at random, killing his loved ones. The line between imagination and reality is perilously thin, and David genuinely seems to be going mad, much to the chagrin of his love interest in the film, the kind and sexy nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) At this point the look of the movie is less Hammer Horror and more A Clockwork Orange.
However, the grimy terror of the nightmare scenes is tempered by a streak of wickedly black humour that runs throughout the film. One symptom of David’s ‘madness’ is an annoying tendency to see his recently deceased friend, who just wants a nice chat, bless him. Undead and forced to walk the earth after being killed by the werewolf, he biodegrades before our very eyes. We also get to see David’s freshly killed and blood-soaked victims cheerfully suggesting different ways in which he might commit suicide for the good of humanity. And look out for a screening in David’s local cinema of the most thinly disguised porn film ever made. Then there’s the line, ‘A naked American man stole my balloons’, but that’s almost better out of context. Also, listen carefully to the soundtrack. Every song used in the movie has the word ‘moon’ in the title.
Yet despite all this the most successful part of the movie (and the bit that everybody, for good reason, remembers), is David’s transformation into a wolf. Soft music plays. David is restless and bored. He eats. He reads a book. He tries lying down. He eats again. He reads a book again. Suddenly the music stops and he screams in pain. The transformation process is amazingly physical. You can almost feel the pain of claws pushing through fingers and the elongation of face and limbs. The scene is refreshingly free from both ‘polite’ camera angles and intrusive, gratuitous computer effects. This raw, real, believable scene alone is quite enough to warrant the Oscar won by the special effects expert. This is fortunate, however, since the finished product is a disappointing, Muppet-looking monstrosity that’s outdone tenfold by the wolf in that children’s classic, The Neverending Story.
An American Werewolf in London is not always brilliant, but it’s certainly worth it for the bits that are. As a whole, it amuses, it entertains and it scares. The acting is understated but always hits the mark, with excellent performances from Naughton, Agutter and Dunne. While it can sometimes be bitty, this film is always fun and occasionally quite wonderful. Overall, a highly enjoyable movie and a must for werewolf fans everywhere. Incidentally, this was followed by the utterly pointless and otherwise unrelated An American Werewolf in Paris, which is an emphatic must-not.
Landis's trademark, the words "See You Next Wednesday," appears as the title of a porno here.