My obsession with werewolves began at a very early age, when my father first introduced me to the 1941 Universal classic The Wolfman. Something about watching Lon Chaney Jr. transform into half man, half beast on screen triggered something in me. As a kid, there was no movie monster cooler than the werewolf. Heightened senses, wolf-like appearance, strength, claws, teeth. Werewolves had it all. It wasn’t until I was older that I grew to appreciate werewolves as a metaphor, the realization that we all have an animalistic side that we keep hidden, that we all secretly fear the moment when instinct overrides logic and we become more beast than human.
One of the earliest werewolf movies I’d seen is also among my favorites. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s a close race between The Wolfman and the movie I’ll be reviewing tonight: An American Werewolf In London.
Year Released: 1981
Written By: John Landis
Directed By: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter
David Kessler and Jack Goodman are a couple of typical good natured American college students on a backpacking excursion through Europe. Their next stop: England. We meet David and Jack by way of a truck transporting sheep across the Yorkshire moors, after disembarking the sheepmobile they continue their journey on foot. Day passes into night and the light hearted dialogue between the two boys betray the violence that lay before them. They come across a small tavern, the hang sign of which displays an illustration of a bloody wolf head on a pike, called The Slaughtered Lamb.
“Where’s the lamb?” asks Jack.
“Probably inside getting cold.” is David’s reply. The two boys enter the pub and suddenly the mood changes, both in the pub and in the story itself. The inhabitants of the Slaughtered Lamb make it obvious that the boys are not welcome, yet they are offered a cup of hot tea and they accept.
Jack and David quietly argue over who will ask about the five pointed star painted on the pub wall that is surrounded by candles and Jack, in both wisdom and foreshadowing, says “That’s the mark of The Wolfman.” After asking about the five pointed star and a chilling exchange between the boys and some bar patrons (which includes the famous lines “Stick to the roads, keep off the moors.” and “Beware the moon, lads.”), Jack and David are asked to leave.
While walking into the night and discussing the odd scene from which they had just come, it begins to rain on Jack and David and they lose track of their surroundings, venturing off into the moors. If you ever find yourself in a creepy English pub and before kicking you out into the darkness someone says things like “Keep off the moors” and “Beware the moon”, you should really try to keep off the moors and beware the moon. I’m just saying.
Of course, this being a horror movie and all, it doesn’t end well for either of them. There’s no moment where they realize they’re treading off onto the moors and into the waiting jaws of their doom and decide to turn back. They don’t notice they’ve set foot onto the moors, under the blinding light of the full moon, until they hear the inhuman growling coming from the shadows. They try running, to no avail. The beast closes in and attacks. Only David survives. When he finally wakes up in a London hospital, David is given some bad news by the hospital staff.
And even worse news from his dead friend Jack.
With An American Werewolf in London, director John Landis accomplishes something that had never really been done before: He successfully crafted a film that is not only funny, but also terrifying. It’s a formula that has since been used with films like Edgar Wright’s fantastic Shaun of the Dead and more recently Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s equally fantastic Cabin in the Woods, but American Werewolf in London is arguably the first use it.
The makeup effects in this film are phenomenal and they hold up even today. Rick Baker won the very first Academy Award for best makeup for his work on the practical monster effects in An American Werewolf in London, and rightfully so. Baker also worked as a consultant on another genre defining werewolf movie released in 1981, The Howling. But that’s a story for a later review…
The acting is good by 80s horror movie standards, decent by any other sort of standard, and the direction is great. But it really is the writing and makeup that set this film apart from others in the sub-genre of werewolf movies and makes it one of my favorites of all time. Not just horror movies, not just werewolf movies, but movies in general. This is one that I have to watch every few weeks or so and it never gets old.
Should You See It:
If you’re a fan of werewolf movies, if you’re a fan of well made horror/comedies, if you’re a fan of John Landis, I would say absolutely watch this movie. If you’re not a fan of any of those things, I would still tell you to watch this movie, but as I said above, I’m rather biased toward it.