August 21, 1981
David Naughton as David Kessler
Jenny Agutter as Nurse Alex Price
Griffin Dunne as Jack Goodman
John Woodvine as Dr. J.S. Hirsch
Two Americans, David and Jack (Naughton and Dunne) are on a backpacking trip through Europe. Against Jack’s better judgment, they’ve decided to wander the soggy English countryside before moving on to the more tourist friendly mainland Europe. After being warningly turned away at the local pub, “The Slaughtered Lamb”, the pair head out into the rainy, frigid night and getting lost on the moors after losing the path. Suddenly, under the full moon, they hear a feral animal howl stalking them. Try as they might, they can’t escape as Jack is brutally murdered by the giant creature and David suffers injuries of his own.
David wakes up in a hospital in London three weeks later recuperating from his injuries. He’s informed by a doctor (Woodvine) that the police report pins the attack on an escaped madman. However, that doesn’t explain David’s strange dreams or his own memories of the attack. As he nears release into the care of Nurse Price (Agutter), the visions he has of a mauled, decaying Jack aren’t exactly helping either… especially when Jack starts telling him that he’ll “change” when the moon is full.
Among the other themes seen in the great new feature-length documentary included on the most recent release, I saw just how much An American Werewolf in London‘s initial release was hamstrung by John Landis’ prior comedies. Watching the film itself again after the fact, I was struck by just how much dark comedy is actually in this very unique spin on the werewolf mythology. The key is that Landis deftly balances those “light” pieces so that they never become too overbearing or out of place. For example, the initial scene in The Slaughtered Lamb switches from a great joke to intense creepiness on a dime. Any discussion David has with post-attack Jack is brimming with comedy in addition to Jack’s dire warnings. Nurse Price is comically visiting with a young patient… at the same time David’s about to transform for the first time. Landis then has the presence of mind to follow the transformation and attack up with one of the most well-known scenes of comedy in a horror movie (the “zoo scene”). Many horror-comedies currently released, while they may be good or great in their own right, usually don’t fully nail down the fickle balance that Landis’s script does here.
Handling the humor so well is only part of the success of An American Werewolf in London, though. The other half is well-filmed horror scenes featuring practical effects work so effective they created the “Best Makeup” category at the Oscars that year and gave it to Rick Baker. David’s initial transformation into the werewolf is easily one of the most iconic horror effects sequences ever. It’s memorable for the unique appliances and film techniques people hadn’t really seen prior and how brilliantly David Naughton sells the pain of the transformation that Landis was adamant had to be present. A testament to the sequence’s success is that, to this day, it holds up just as well as it did when it was first screened.
In addition to the classic transformation, An American Werewolf in London features werewolf puppetry work that is almost as good as it stalks its prey and attack aftermath make-ups that are either brutally violent or well-handled puppetry. Possibly the only moment when it stumbles is a single shot in which the werewolf is seen running, but its back legs don’t seem to have the same motion. However, that one shot by no means degrades what basically is a showpiece film of practical effects done right.
In terms of the acting in An American Werewolf in London, most of the cast delivers great performances. The only exception is probably Frank Oz in a cameo, but, since he’s Landis’s good luck charm, it can slide. Naughton and Dunne are easily believable as two best friends, making their scenes on the moors that much more entertaining and the later scenes where Jack is less “intact” retain that same feel of two friends having a discussion. Woodvine’s character has depth as he goes beyond being a no-nonsense doctor to a person willing to follow up on suspicious situations when the facts don’t add up. Finally, Agutter’s Price is a little tougher to pin down. On the one hand, she gives a believable portrayal of a caring nurse. On the other hand, I’m sorry, I love this movie but you will never get me to believe that Nurse Price falls for David THAT hard THAT quickly and with no resistance. That said, I freely admit that, by the movie’s end, their relationship is very believable, and you feel the pain of her situation in the movie’s climax.
Overall, An American Werewolf in London stands 30 years later as one of the best werewolf films and most effective horror-comedies ever. It combines innovative effects with a balanced script and great performances. Admittedly, the initial pacing of David’s relationship with Nurse Price is kind of jarring, but it doesn’t hold the film back from making their overall relationship believable in the end. It wasn’t critically acclaimed at first… but the truly great films are always found sooner or later.