When the beast within gains the reins.
David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman are two American youths on a walking tour of Europe who find themselves in the isolated rustic Northern English town of East Proctor, the kind of place where the locals are close-mouthed around outsiders and where remnants of a pagan past are evident. Earning the displeasure of the regulars at the Slaughtered Lamb pub after Jack asks them why there's a big pentagram on the wall — a symbol that he notes to David is the sign of the werewolf (Jack's obviously seen THE WOLF MAN) — the hapless tourists find themselves booted from the establishment and, against the advice of the creepy, tight-lipped indigenous populace, wander off the roads and into the fog-enshrouded moors during a full moon, where they fall prey to…well, you have a pretty good idea if you’ve noticed the film's title. Jack doesn’t survive the attack, but David awakens weeks later in a London hospital under the care of a mouth-watering nurse (the one and only Jenny Agutter) and is visited by the mangled corpse of his best buddy. The disturbingly-mutilated Jack — who has lost none of his friendliness, charm, and sense of humor in the wake of his horrific murder — warns David that he’s now a werewolf and must kill himself before the next full moon, but if the disbelieving David had killed himself the movie would have been about twenty minutes long and pissed off an audience that came expecting some righteous monster action, so you can guess the rest.
Rearing its shaggy head just four months after the equally-classic lycanthropy opus THE HOWLING, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON upped the shape-shifting ante by having a major studio budget, a writer/director who wielded no small amount of clout in the wake of the success of his NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), picturesque UK locations, the toothsome and talented Jenny Agutter, and FX badass Rick Baker on the makeup/creature effects, so how could it lose? Frankly, it didn’t and almost thirty-five years after the fact it still vies with THE HOWLING for top position in the hearts of most werewolf mavens. (Hell, I paid to see it three nights in a row when it came out!).
A horror movie for grownups that came out during the avalanche of brain-dead and juvenile1980's slasher pictures — their gore and nudity/sex notwithstanding — and provided a welcome alternative, AMERICAN WEREWOLF fires on all cylinders, engaging its audience with likable characters, a doomed love story, and some of the most indelible moments of cinematic horror of its decade. The foreboding atmosphere during the sequences in East Proctor fairly screams old school Universal Horror transplanted to the early 1980's, a soundtrack loaded to the rafters with songs referencing the moon is intelligently handled and never grows corny or trite, and the film especially gets extra points for Griffin Dunne's unforgettable performance as Jack, the most cheerful mangled and steadily decomposing corpse you’ll ever see.
Griffin Dunne as Jack: if ever there was a supporting role that completely steals the film it's in, this is it.
The film is also to be commended for opting to depict the cinematically-rare (though more mythically-common) fully non-human four-legged variety of "Shaggy McNasty" as opposed to the usual bipedal guy with a terminal case of five o'clock shadow. Rick Baker's practical effects puppet of David's lupine form features a spectacular and original design that skews waaaaaaay into monster territory and is about as far removed fro Lon Chaney Jr. as one could hope to get. It looks more like a demonically-possessed giant wolverine than a wolf, and as such it is scary as a motherfucker. Though only occasionally glimpsed, the beast is a nightmarish creation whose stalking of innocents through the London night and later rampage in and around a porno theater are realized to maximum visceral effect.
The beast's P.O.V. of its prey.
But perhaps the element that the film is best remembered for these days is its signature transformation sequence. A masterpiece of practical effects wizardry, David's metamorphosis into a ravenous engine of death brings what would no doubt be an grueling, agonizing physical process to vivid life, with each morphing, distending, and re-structuring of the man's anatomy shown under clear lighting and with horrifying sounds of creaking bones and muscle as the icing on the visceral cake.
David (David Naughton) looks on as his body rebels.
Very entertaining and engaging from start to finish, some find AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON's blend of humor and horror to be somewhat jarring and as a result feel that film is deeply flawed by a schizophrenic tone, but I vehemently disagree with that assessment. THE HOWLING is also quite amusing — admittedly, provided you get the in-jokes that are aimed squarely at those well-versed in their horror movie minutia — but no one ever bitches about it being a mess, which leads me to wonder if AMERICAN WEREWOLF's detractors are more willing to cut a "smaller" flick a bit more slack. Whatever the case, you’ll just have to judge AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON for yourself. Me, I fucking love it. Werewolves are my favorite monsters, thanks to their often tragic and unwilling connection to nature and all of its more rapacious and unrestrained aspects, so a werewolf story of this level of quality was more than tailor-made for the likes of myself. It had a tremendous impact on me and my friends way back when and it helped me get through a particularly rough and frustrating section of my troubled adolescence, so for that I will always have a warm place in my heart and mind for its collision of the mundane with supernatural horror of the most wrenching order. Definitely my favorite werewolf movie (alongside the original THE WOLF MAN) and also one of my very favorite films of any genre, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON get my HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
A treasure: My autographed photo of David Naughton during his transformation.
Poster from the original theatrical release.