An American Werewolf in London (1981)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Genre: Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 37 min.

Release Date: August 21st, 1981 MPAA Rating: R

Director: John Landis Actors: Griffin Dunne, David Naughton, Rik Mayall, Jenny Agutter, Anne-Marie Davies, John Woodvine, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember

 


 

“K

eep off the moors, stick to the roads,” recommends a truck driver to the backpacking hitchhikers he drops off on a desolate byway in northern England. Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) and David Kessler (David Naughton) make their way to the nearest town, where they stop at The Slaughtered Lamb pub for a quick bite to eat. They’re greeted with awkward silence and unfriendly stares, but the momentary warmth and thoughts of hot tea are worth the discomforting company. A wall decorated with candles and a pentangle are similarly disquieting – and when Jack inquires about it, the two are promptly kicked out.

Journeying back into the fog and looming downpour, the duo unsuspectingly wander into the realm of a mighty wolf. When it mortally mauls Jack, David flees in terror, but goes back just in time to get attacked as well. The lone survivor awakes in the care of Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), with just a little blood loss and a few bruises. The American Embassy representative Mr. Collins (Frank Oz) arrives to inform David that his parents are aware of the situation and that Scotland Yard intends to question the boy. Inspector Villiers (Don McKillop) and Sergeant McManus (Paul Kember) claim that a lunatic assaulted the travelers and that he was shot dead by men from the nearby bar. But David is certain the aggressor was a monstrous creature, not a mere man – and the scratches across his chest appear indicative of his wilder version of events.

Deceptively serene singing opens this devilishly vivid tale of lycanthropy and transformative terror. Later on, the music will remain grandly contrasting of the mutative yucks on display. Jump scares (including mirror gimmicks), gruesome otherworldly visions, and eerie nightmare sequences (one of the best of which is a nightmare-within-a-nightmare) abound, with some moments lightened by airy romance (“I find you very attractive and a little bit sad,” Alex flirts, leading to a digressing sex scene) and a touch of humor (nudity makes for laughable occasions and even during conversations with the undead, Kessler can’t manage total seriousness). But they’re somewhat stifled by startlingly graphic gore and incredibly grim subject matter. David seems doomed from the start and destined to hurt everyone he comes in contact with; expectedly strong disbelief is pervasive and the voices in his head attempt to coerce him into suicide.

Though the story is simple (and the acting average), it’s magnificently effective in its curtailed organization, allowing Rick Baker’s singular makeup effects to take center stage. Jack’s slowly decomposing, animated corpse is perfectly sinister (and, at times, comedic), and the ravenous beast itself is wondrously done up with puppet parts, masks, hair, and costuming. But it’s the prosthetics and animatronics of the initial transformation sequence that are the unforgettable (and Oscar-winning) highlight of the picture. And, of course, the bloody havoc caused by the brute is outrageously destructive. An obvious inspiration and precursor to David Cronenberg’s “The Fly” and Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” (along with a slew of rip-offs, like “Rawhead Rex” and “Bad Moon”), this early werewolf splatterfest would also influence all manner of monster movie and slasher filmmakers to come, especially with its heightened butchery, stunning makeup designs, and bizarre mix of humor and horror.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10