Written by: John Landis
Directed by: John Landis
Distributed by: Universal Pictures (United States) & Barber International Films (United Kingdom)
Runtime: 97 minutes (1 hour 37 minutes)
Certificate: X/18 (UK)
When it comes to werewolf films, one title always stands above the rest as not just one of the best of the werewolf genre, but also as one of the best films in the horror genre. John Landis created the perfect werewolf movie and it doesn’t include silver bullets! It does however include an oddly cheerful soundtrack and ground-breaking practical effects AND it was even the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-Up which was a category that was created in 1981, the year of this film’s release.
American friends, David Kessler and Jack Goodman are backpacking through England when they arrive at a small village in the Yorkshire Moors. After being scared out of a local pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, for asking about a pentagram symbol on the wall, they are given a simple warning “Stay off the Moors, stick to the road and beware the moon!”. After they continue their journey into the night, the boys find themselves under attack from a mysteriously large wolf. Jack is killed in the attack but David survives and wakes up in a hospital in London.
Taking pity on him, Nurse Alex allows David to stay with her, as the two of them become romantically attached to one another.
After a while, David begins to have strange dreams and blackouts in his memory. He also seems to be visited by the spirit of his dead friend Jack, who tells David that he needs to die, to break the curse of the werewolf, so that Jack and other victims of David’s moonlit murders can pass on to the other side.
American Werewolf is an absolutely brilliant film, written with such great pacing, and designed with revolutionary effects that are still unmatched to this day. The plot is easy to follow which means anyone can watch this film and not get lost in werewolf mythology as this is a film that as much as possible, is based more on a sense of realism.
David’s dreams are the most bizarre element in this film. From running naked in the woods and hunting deer to nazi werewolf demons terrorizing and slaughtering his family. His dreams become more bizarre as the days go by but these two certainly stand out as some of the most weird and horrifyingly wonderful dreams ever seen in a werewolf movie.
I really love the idea of some conspiracy behind the werewolf, regarding the small village that David and Jack visited in the beginning of the film. David’s Doctor in the film, Doctor J.S. Hirsch, portrayed by John Woodvine, goes to the village to investigate the story David told him about the werewolf, but the villagers become very shifty and anxious whenever someone mentions the attack. This leads to some interesting plot development that pushes the Doctor to contact Nurse Alex, portrayed by Jenny Agutter, to ask about David’s condition. At this point, David has already transformed and been on a killing spree but he doesn’t know this yet as he blacked out during the night only to wake up naked in the zoo which leads to some very comedic scenes that really brighten the mood before it all comes back to horror again.
The 80s was a great decade for horror and even for Werewolf horror as a sub-genre, as not only did we get American Werewolf, but also The Howling, both of which were spectacular horror films that are always in any of the lists of top Werewolf films, including my own which you can read here. Wolfen, another high-profile werewolf-themed film also released in 1981, the same year as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.
When it comes to special effects in werewolf films, An American Werewolf in London was groundbreaking for its body-horror style of transformation from man to beast, which was all done with ground-breaking new practical effects, that allowed body parts to stretch and transform.
These effects were designed by Rick Baker who has worked on many famous projects over the years. The same year as working on this film, he too worked on the incredible effects of The Howling which explains why both of these films were incredible to watch when it came to werewolf transformations. Rick created new mechanisms for American Werewolf that would allow David’s hands and legs to appear as though they were being stretched out from their original form, creating a horrific and painful-looking transformation that audiences applauded. Rick went on to win the award for Best Makeup at the Academy Awards in 1981 (when the category was created) and the following year in 1982, he won in the same category at the Saturn Awards, with the film also going on to win Best Horror Movie in the same awards ceremony.
Speaking of makeup though, the werewolf is not the only supernatural being in this movie that unsettles the audiences. David’s friend, Jack did not survive the attack at the beginning of the film but that doesn’t mean we never see him again. One of the best horror elements of this film is that we see Jack time and time again throughout the film, tormenting David whilst trying to help him. As time progresses in the film, Jack’s appearance becomes more horrifying as his body deteriorates and rots away more and more. This makeup was so brilliantly gruesome that even Griffin Dunne who portrayed Jack, said he felt unsettled by his appearances in the makeup as he basically got to see what he would look like as a rotting corpse.
This should probably be a category I talk about every time I write a werewolf review but nevertheless, I wanted to make a separate section to talk about the werewolf in this film, because no matter how many werewolf films there are, none of the monsters come close to being as creative and terrifying as this one.
Landis stated that he wanted a “four-legged hound from hell” for this film, and boy did Rick Baker and the rest of the team deliver on that. Although it’s been said that Baker and Landis had various disagreements about the werewolf of the film, as Baker had previously used his initial designs for American Werewolf to create the werewolves seen in The Howling, which Landis was not pleased about, and whilst Baker always thought of werewolves as being bipedal creatures like the ones in The Howling, Landis was determined to make a quadrupedal hound from hell that worked to perfection.
The monster is terrifying and to this day holds up because it was all made with practical effects. Technology today has improved so much but when it comes to making monsters like the werewolf, nothing ever beats practical effects, and this film is a prime example of that.
When it comes to horror films, most directors go for a creepy, unsettling vibe with sharp string instruments and tense orchestral music that sends shivers down your spine. Now, whilst this film certainly has some tense and creepy music within its soundtrack, composed by Elmer Bernstein (The Black Cauldron, Heavy Metal, The Blues Brothers), Landis also chose a variety of songs with ‘Moon’ in the title, and most of them are oddly cheery and upbeat.
- Blue Moon – Bobby Vinton’s version of this song is soft, soothing and gentle as it plays during the opening credits of the film, easing the audience into a somewhat false sense of security.
- Moondance – by Van Morrison is a cracking song that plays during a passionate scene of lovemaking between David and Nurse Alex, starting with a hot and steamy shower scene.
- Bad Moon Rising – This Creedence Clearwater Revival classic is played during the build-up towards David’s first transformation. This is a great song choice not just for the upbeat track that again, feels somewhat misleading for a horror film such as this, but also because of the timing. Landis uses the track for its title in a literal sense.
- Blue Moon – Sam Cooke’s version of this track is a soft ballad that is somewhat bittersweet sounding and is used behind the sounds of David’s screams of pain as he transforms into the monster. The backing track to the song is upbeat but Cooke’s voice and delivery of the lyrics are what really make his rendition of this track his own.
- Blue Moon – When it comes to upbeat songs, The Marcels’ doo-wop version of Blue Moon really takes the cake. It’s fast, it’s cheery and it plays right after the finale of the film, over the end credits, despite the finale itself being a sad yet fateful end. However, after seeing the horror of the film, The Marcels really helps brighten the mood again once the credits roll, which is an odd thing for a horror film to do, even in the 80s.
With a cracking soundtrack, ground-breaking practical effects, a brilliantly written story and top-notch acting along with some comedy to lighten the mood here and there, do you really expect me to say that I wouldn’t recommend this film? An American Werewolf in London is not only one of the greatest werewolf movies (if not THE greatest, but that is all opinion based) but also one of the greatest horror films of all time. It has aged perfectly fine in my opinion and still has the power to terrify modern-day audiences. Whilst there have been rumours of a remake in the works, I would say this is one of the many films in the history of cinema that DOES NOT need a remake of any kind. However, the same cannot be said for a film of a similar name but located in Paris…but I will get to that review soon enough.
Horror fans, if you have not seen An American Werewolf in London yet, then it is high time you kick yourselves up the arse and get watching it because I doubt anyone will regret viewing this all-time classic.
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