Friday, 17 September 2010

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Country: UK/USA

An American Werewolf in London now holds such a position of cherished fondness within the annals of the horror genre that its easy to overlook a myriad of structural and tonal faults. Part of the problem is that the film is so keyed in to the emotional receptors of the horror fan that its nigh on impossible to be objective about it. The reason for the close proximity between the film text and horror fandom is that the writer/director John Landis is himself a horror fan. This was Landis’ tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930’s and 1940’s - most specifically The Wolf Man (1941), and he lays on a sense of nostalgia with a thick brush. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and if one can successfully harness it within a film you’re on to a winner. The nostalgic quality is evoked through an extended prologue set on the inhospitable moors of England (Landis isn’t afraid to throw almost every cliché in the book in) and a series of 1950’s and 1960’s pop songs, all of which comment on the action, sometimes in an ironic manner, in a way similar to that other ‘classic’ of nostalgia cinema American Graffiti (1973). We forgive Landis the cliché, we forgive the structural faults, we forgive the wildly uneven tone which veers from horror to comedy without any sense of purpose. We forgive him, because Landis knows what it is to be a horror fan, and we embrace his film because of his infectious love and enthusiasm for the genre.

In this respect An American Werewolf works along the same lines as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981). Both films are highly self reflexive with a number of in jokes specifically aimed at historically minded horror fans. The weakness of Raimi’s film is its total exclusivity to the horror fan, Landis instead concocts a film with genuine mass appeal and a high entertainment factor that is still quite unusual for horror. Landis’ film followed rapidly on the heels of Joe Dante’s The Howling (1980), and both are marked by their attitude of total conviction and belief in the Werewolf as a cinematic icon. The result of this belief were a series of groundbreaking visual effects the like of which have not been seen since. But its far too easy to get dragged into a discussion about Rick Baker’s brilliant efforts (on both films) and neglect some of the other pleasures offered up. The eerie but beautiful cinematography by Robert Paynter of the Welsh Breacon Beacons that opens the film gives Landis the requisite gothic sensibility he was no doubt after. This is further compounded by the harsh elements and the clichéd encounter with the rural folk of The Slaughtered Lamb - one of whom stares in cold fury at a missed dart, after the tourists raise a question about a pentagram on the wall.

When the film switches to the hustle and bustle of London, it begins to slowly grow out of its clichéd skin into a much more rounded examination of guilt, love, and the emotional and psychological cost of bodily transformation. David Kessler (David Naughton) is constantly having his guilt piqued by the period appearances of his mauled mate Jack (Griffin Dunne), whose increased stages of decay is one of the best running gags in the film. Eventually Jack is nothing more than a talking skeleton! If becoming a werewolf isn’t enough Kessler also has to contend with Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter) whom he is falling in love with. These interesting moments of characterisation are punctuated by some startlingly effective horror set pieces. The most notable is the nightmare within a nightmare sequence. The first part of which hints at Kessler’s Jewish insecurities and sees his family slaughtered by a pack of Nazi werewolves. Another sequence sees Kessler running naked through the woodlands as he comes to terms with his newly found blood lust and savagery. In both these sequences Nurse Price is present, confirming that she has already staked a prominent place in Kessler’s fantasies.

When Kessler transforms for the first time (this astounding sequence needs no further comment from me) the film is just as concerned with Kessler’s psychological make up, as it is the victims he leaves behind. One such victim meets his fate at a deserted subway station. This for me is the best moment in the film. Landis creates a palpable sense of menace with a two shot choices - the first is a POV shot from the werewolf’s perspective, and the second is a reaction shot from the terrified businessman. The film reaches an apotheosis of self reflexivity in a scene inside an X rated cinema. Kessler must face all his victims, several of which offer helpful suggestions as to which method of suicide is the best, as a porno film custom made by Landis plays on the big screen. The final poignant moments offer the merest indication that Kessler in werewolf form still possess human consciousness, but the animal instincts win through with tragic results. The finale is surprisingly downbeat, and one of several moments in which the tone of the film diverges from our expectations. This is by no means a horror masterpiece, but it is a groundbreaking tour de force of visual effects, and self reflexive fun. It is possible to ‘get’ the film without a knowledge of horror history, but to fully understand its historical place within the genre a knowledge of the horror production of Universal Studios in the 1930’s and 40’s helps.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. I love this werewolf classic!

    Like many werewolf films, the transformations on this one are symbolic of sexual desires, its no surprise then that he transforms for the first time after having sex with the nurse, and then again while inside a porn theater.

    Funny you mention the Evil Dead, because American Werewolf in London end credits start with an awesome song that is kind of up beat in tone and not expected for a horror film, same as Evil Dead did.

    Love this movie! Great review.

  2. Cheers Franco!

    I was tempted to write more about the soundtrack and about the incredible transformation sequence, but the latter has been covered in so much detail. I think Landis must have had 'American Graffiti' in mind when he started assembling music for the film. The manner in which pop songs offer ironic counterpoint to the action was certainly an innovation for the horror genre. I think 'The Evil Dead' owes a considerable amount to 'American Werewolf.'

  3. This one just didn't quite work for me.

  4. Thanks for stopping by Doom - fortunately I'm not enamoured so much to this film that I cant see its faults and weaknesses, and I can fully understand an alternative appraisal.

  5. Shaun this is my single favorite film. Period. Not just in Horror. I love An American Werewolf in London, and I think it is THE defining werewolf film, even over The Wolf Man. I have never found the tone to be uneven, but rather a perfect balance of dark comedy and horror. My grandma watched this one with me the last time I saw it (mind you an 89 year old woman with a dispassion to match my love of Horror), and she laughed and jumped at all of the right moments. That was a really powerful moment for me as a fan, to see someone that was entirely out of their element truly enjoy a film for the first (and only) time. I think that Landis hit all the right notes, and created a masterpiece in this one!

  6. I also am partial to a good Lycanthropic tale and always enjoy re-visiting this movie. Aside from the obvious excellent transformation sequences created by Rick Baker, I alway's enjoy the eerie countryside set pieces. I also agree the ending is a little downbeat and therfore lacking punch. The Sequel American Werewolf in Paris was a complete let down also! At least they didn't trying running away with it like the Howling, was it 6 sequels?

  7. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS was dire, but that was only to be expected. I think THE HOWLING series has exceeded 6, but I'd have to look it up. The best Werewolf film of recent memory is probably DOG SOLDIERS, a film which the director Neil Marshall has singularly failed to live up too...thanks for stopping by Feore!


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