Directed by John Landis, 1981 (97 min.)
Best werewolf transformation ever. (Best werewolf movie ever? Probably not.)
* * *
American backpackers David and Jack are backpacking across the Yorkshire moors when they are attacked by a vicious animal. Jack is killed, while David is grievously injured and spends three weeks in a coma, regaining consciousness at a London hospital. The information he’s given about his attack doesn’t add up—he’s told he was attacked by an escaped lunatic, not an animal. That’s when he starts seeing apparitions of Jack, who tells him that the monster that attacked them on the moors was in fact a werewolf, and that David himself will become a monster at the next full moon…
An American Werewolf in London has a lot of problems. The dialogue’s clunky (especially Jack’s posthumous exposition). There’s too much coincidence and contrivance amongst the plot points (the romance between David and Alex, the nurse who treats him at the hospital, develops way too quickly). There’s a strong implication of tragedy in the story—on more than one occasion, Jack implores David to kill himself—but by and large it’s very thinly developed. None of the rural locals have the same accent (there’s a weird mix of Yorkshire and Manchester), and I’m not entirely clear on why David was shipped to London after the attack. (If it’s a question of hospital resources, hospitals in Leeds and Sheffield, which are closer than London, should have been equipped to treat him.)
It’s not so much of a story as a series of set pieces strung together very tenuously. There are several sequences, most notably the “Nazi stormtrooper” dream sequences, that have pretty much nothing to do with the main plot at all. The film’s ending seems less like a natural climax and more like writer/director John Landis ran out of ideas. (Considering how much he packs into the final five minutes, it’s not surprising.) It’s hard to shake the idea that the whole werewolf thing is a bit of a means to an end for Landis—he wanted to make a comedy with great makeup and effects, and the best way to go about it was to make a monster movie.
That being said, American Werewolf ultimately works because those set pieces are, in a word, fucking awesome. David’s first transformation is the centerpiece of the film in this regard, and rightly so. It is, quite literally, makeup lead Rick Baker’s masterpiece, and even 30 years later it’s still the greatest werewolf transformation in cinematic history. Most of the rest of the makeup is similarly impressive; the only exception is Jack’s last appearance (Jack’s physical appearance deteriorates as the film progressive, to the point where he’s eventually played by a dummy and not Griffin Dunne).
The transformation is the most iconic and impressive sequence in a film filled with them. Landis lets his sense of absurdity run free here, and any given ten minutes of the movie will feature at least one or two moments of greatness. Personal favorites include a conversation between David and Jack (and others) in the porn theater (See You Next Wednesday: A Non-Stop Orgy); there’s also a scene in which David calls his family in the States, intending to say his final good-byes, but he ends up arguing with his kid sister instead. It’s a horror-comedy that really is hilarious.
David Naughton (as, um, David) isn’t always the most natural actor, but his likability more than makes up for his lack of skill, and he has an easy chemistry with the other two principals, Dunne and Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run, Walkabout) as Alex. Even though it’s clear that he’s not taking any of this seriously, Dunne still puts in a brilliant comic performance (so much so that anything he says that’s not funny tends to fall flat). Agutter brings enough charisma and charm to Alex, the underdeveloped love interest, that it’s easy to ignore that the character is a bit surplus to requirements. The supporting cast is also strong, with memorable performances by John Woodvine as David’s doctor and Brian Glover (Alien 3) as a chess-playing Yorkshire local. Keep an eye out for Rik Mayall of The Young Ones playing darts at the “Slaughtered Lamb,” and for Muppeteer Frank Oz as a representative of the American consulate.
Between the comedy and the effects, it takes a conscious act of will to dislike An American Werewolf in London. Sure, it’s uneven and lacks a coherent narrative, but so what? It may be rarely scary but it’s never not fun.Have You Read...?