As with my recent review of Czech oddity I Served the King of England, classifying this review of John Landis’ 1981 classic An American Werewolf in London as a ‘Just Watched’ feature is a bit of a gip, but this is MY blog after all, so I’ll keep my continuity of movie review-titles thanks very much. Anyone who doesn’t like it should really get out more. And stop doing that, it’ll make you blind.
Anyway, juvenile wanking jokes aside, I saw this excellent movie about two weeks ago thanks to the magic of DVD rental, and boy am I glad I did. Heralded as a horror classic by many, Landis’ movie is at once a wonderfully zeitgeist early 80s cult film, a truly harrowing psychological thriller, a dark-as-coal comedy and a special effects masterclass. But despite juggling several different genres, Landis’ direction is masterful and it’s somewhat of a surprise that the guy who directed comedy classics like Animal House and Trading Places has managed to make such a wonderful horror movie.
The plot follows American student tourists David Kessler (David Naughton, who is brilliant) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne, also brilliant) as they backpack around the north of England’s moor towns. After stumbling into an unwelcoming pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, they are turfed out after being harangued by the locals, who tell them to “stick to the roads” on the dark night they venture into. Obviously, this is a horror movie, so they don’t, and are set upon by a huge wolf who disembowels Jack and leaves David brutally scarred. David re-awakens in a London hospital, and begins to feel a bit odd…
So, as you can probably guess, we soon discover that David is now a werewolf, and his first transformation from man to beast is one of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve yet seen. The suddenness and brutality of the change is relished by Landis (and SFX guru Rick Baker, whose work here is utterly amazing), and a number of cuts show different parts of David’s body gruesomely mutate – his feet and hands elongate, he grows a snout and fangs, and becomes a truly terrifying spectacle. The use of makeup makes this so much more visceral than today’s CGI, and the realism of the transformation is gloriously unflinching, providing the best scene in what is a superb film.
The transformation scene gets a lot of the movie’s glory, and that’s fair game because it’s truly astounding, but Landis’ movie (which he also wrote) delivers on so many other levels. The interplay between Naughton and Dunne is easy and witty, although when Kessler begins seeing his dead, decomposing friend in hallucinations its humour is always undercut by much darker tones. Similarly, when romance develops between Naughton’s David and Jenny Agutter’s beautiful nurse Alex, it’s very believable and creates fully-blooded characters outside of the movie’s gory core.
The attack scenes (which culminate in a spectacular climax in Piccadilly Circus – Landis himself cameos as a bloke being knocked through a window so keep an eye out) are similarly enjoyable, with real tension created before the sheer ferocity of the violence itself comes to the fore. And when it does, it’s hard not to enjoy a well-created disemboweling on a movie screen.
As with the japery between David and Jack’s ghost, there’s elements of comedy in the post-attack scenes as David suddenly feels much better after an evening of killing. Landis’ comedy background clearly influenced the script, but the comedy is as dark and as funny as a Coen Brothers movie and adds to the film’s overall style rather than detracting from it.
Overall, Landis’ movie is one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen and stacks up really well when compared to another small-cast, special-effects driven early 80s horror in The Thing. Both movies deserve all the praise they get, and Landis’ movie can make a strong case as one of the great movies of this (or any) genre. Mixing comedy and horror in such a skilled manner it makes Shaun of the Dead look like a shitty student movie, An American Werewolf in London is a stunning piece of cinema which should be regarded by all movie enthusiasts as essential.
10/10: Seriously seriously good. Three excellent lead performances, some of the best effects you’ll ever see and a wonderful script make this one of the best movies ever, and a surefire contender for ‘Greatest Horror Movie Ever’ status. Beguiling, disgusting and inspiring in equal measure, An American Werewolf in London should be included in any movie canon. Wonderful.