“An American Werewolf in London”
Theatrical release 8.21.1981
Written & Directed by John Landis
Article by Fister Roboto (Twitter)
I was an impressionable twelve year old when my Dad took me to see this on a hot Midwest night in 1981. My Dad was a Southern Baptist Deacon and part-time pastor, so this was a major accomplishment for me; getting to see another Rated R horror flick at the theater. My classmates were jealous to put it mildly.
The film starts with a pair of young Americans, Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton) taking a short vacation in England. The pair hitchhikes across the countryside until they find a local pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. The pub sign depicts a decapitated wolf head with a sword shoved through the bloody head, a great “sign” of things to come.
The boisterous pub, filled with locals, stop their revelry the moment the Jack and David walk in. Nervous glances and palpable anxiety spreads across the pub. The pair finds a table and orders some tea as the beady-eyed locals continue to examine the foreign travelers. After a local tells an uproarious joke, Jack suddenly interrupts and asks why there is a five pointed star painted on the wall. Insert nervous glances 3.0. Clearly it’s time to go and it’s not without a warning from the locals. “Beware the moon, lads” and “Keep to the road.” Of course the pair leaves the relative safety of the road whilst discussing the weird pub behavior and they discover they’re being stalked by an unidentifiable animal.
The animal attacks Jack and David races away. As I was watching this I thought “What a pussy.” After some consideration, I realize I would have probably set a land speed record for quickest time off the moors. Jack is mauled by the huge wolf and left a steaming bloody mess. Before David can react, the wolf attacks him. The locals, apparently full of concern now, open fire and kill the wolf. David, in shock, turns his head just in time to see a bullet-riddled naked, human body dying beneath the light of the full moon.
Three weeks later, David, wakes up in a London hospital finds out that Jack is dead. The locals reported killing a lunatic that was attacking David. He finds out all his wounds were cleaned and dressed upon his arrival. As he heals up he begins to have a series of disturbing dreams. The first one involves him nude in the forest stalking a deer that he eventually attacks and begins to devour. His most terrifying dream comes in the form of helmeted “Nazi Werewolves” storming into his parent’s home and gunning down his relatives until they slash his throat. This is most likely the point in the film where my Dad wondered if it was a great idea to take his twelve year old to such an extremely violent flick. Making memories, right, Dad?
David is visited by his friend, Jack, warning him that he is going to turn into a werewolf upon the next full moon. Jack has died an unnatural death and is cursed to walk the earth in limbo until the wolf blood line is severed. He urges David to take his own life. The special makeup effects used on Jack’s character earned Rick Baker an Oscar in the new Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. Anyone having the pleasure of seeing this film has to recall the mutilated face of Jack. Poor Jack has had his throat ripped out and we see his exposed wind pipe, jagged and inflamed claw wounds across his face, and the initial start of decomposition. The little piece of dangling flesh is a hard image to forget. It might be my favorite scene from the entire film. It’s really the focal point your eyes keep returning to. It was disgusting and I LOVED it.
David piques the interest of his nurse, Alex Price, (Jenny Agutter) and she invites him to come recuperate at her flat. They eventually make love and begin a romantic relationship. Alex leaves him home while she goes to work. David, already anxious about the coming full moon, begins to look at his teeth in the mirror and even makes some comedic snarls and growls. We get the impression that he at least partially believes in his impending fate. A cat arches his back and hisses at him, moments later a neighbor kids’ dog barks incessantly at him. It’s never a good sign in a horror movie when animals react poorly to you.
David screams and falls to the ground clutching his head in misery. He rips his clothes off and begins his first painful change. Through bloodshot eyes he watches his hands stretch and elongate into paws. He falls to the floor and hair starts to sprout as does a shift in his spinal structure. His eyes turn yellow, his face distorts into a wolf, and his change is complete. I love the scene of Alex’s Mickey Mouse figurine posing impishly in the back of the shot while David completes his excruciating change. These wonderful scenes are always accompanied by music with a moon theme. Every song on the soundtrack is based around David’s lunar foe.
David then stalks a man on the subway and kills him. The next morning he wakes up in the wolf den at the London Zoo. He finds out that several murders happened overnight and he knows what has truly occurred. He unsuccessfully tried to provoke a policeman into arresting him in an attempt to save lives before his next change.
David goes to a Piccadilly Circus porno theater where he meets a green and terribly decomposed Jack along with his previous night’s victims. They urge him to take his life so they can move out of limbo and into the peace of death. As serious as the film is, Landis takes several moments to add dark comedy to the mix, and in my opinion, this helps makes this film stand out.
The film climaxes after he changes for the last time in the crowded section of London. Cars and buses crash into other automobiles and innocent bystanders. People are launched through their windshields and run over on the streets as total chaos occurs upon the sight of the monstrous animal prowling the streets.
David runs down an alley and Alex follows after him. She tells him that she loves him. For a brief moment we think the kind words are sinking into the beast’s head and heart. Wolf David lunges towards Alex and the police open fire. The film ends with a shocked and distraught Alex watching David die in the alley. A happy ending wasn’t in the cards and Landis delivers it with skill.
All in all, this is a fantastic film. Landis adheres to tradition and adds his own twists as he goes. The transformation scenes in addition to Jack’s mauled appearance were absolutely groundbreaking for 1981. The overall feel of the film flows from scene to scene and was directed impeccably. This may have passed a little under the radar, but it’s a must have for any self-respecting horror fan. It’s so good that I will ignore the shitty and completely inferior “An American Werewolf in Paris.”
Originally, the producers wanted Dan Aykroyd in the role of David and John Belushi as Jack, but Mr. Landis didn’t allow it. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I think the casting was perfect as is. If you’re paying attention you might notice Frank Oz as the representative for the American Embassy, then again as Ms. Piggy in the dream sequence with the Nazi Werewolves.
Pick this up on Blu Ray and enjoy it as it was meant to be. The underrated classic belongs in all of your homes.
Stay off the moors, kids!