An American Werewolf in London
directed by John Landis
starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter
One of the most delicate balancing acts in narrative fiction is the horror-comedy. You have to allow both of these seemingly disparate elements work on their own and work together to create something wholly unique. If it is just a horror movie with comedy sprinkled in, it dilutes the tension and undermines the fear and just dropping some gory murders into a comedy shatters the tone. When it is done right it is a glorious thing and everyone remembers titles like The Cat and the Canary, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, Evil Dead 2, and An American Werewolf in London.
Fresh off his comedy blockbuster The Blues Brothers, director John Landis was finally able to secure financing for his long dormant werewolf movie. The wait was certainly worthwhile because it allowed Landis to grow and mature as a director. If this has been made after Schlock or Kentucky Fried Movie it would have been a very different film. After back to back films (National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blue Brothers) with the biggest star in comedy, John Belushi, Landis went in a different direction casting virtual unknowns instead of comedy stars. One could imagine the temptation to cast Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd or reunite Tim Matheson and Peter Reigert from Animal House in the project, but David Naughton, who was best known for Dr. Pepper commercials and Griffin Dunne, who was best known for being the son of author Dominick Dunne, were cast as the doomed college backpackers who didn’t heed the warnings and strayed from the road and into the moors on a full moon.
College friends David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are college buddies backpacking around England who stop into a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. It could be any pub in any number of horror films where the room is full of the chatter of the patrons until the strangers enter or say the wrong thing and the entire place drops into silence. This trope has been going since at least 1932 when James Whale used it in The Invisible Man. The Universal connection is made even clearer when Jack and David notice a pentagram on the wall of the pub and being to discuss it in terms of the werewolf lore from the 1940 Universal monster classic The Wolf Man. Yes, characters in a horror movie discussing the rules and lore of horror movies a generation before Scream. Jack’s indelicate query into the five pointed star gets them the needle drag in the bar and they are soon headed back out into the cold night. The pub’s landlady warns the pair to keep to the roads and stay off the moors. There wouldn’t be much of a movie if they heeded her warning and soon the duo are off the road, lost, disoriented, and attacked by a large wolf. Jack is killed and David is injured before the beast is shot dead by some of the Slaughtered Lamb’s regulars. Instead of a wolf, David sees a dead man laying next to him before he blacks out.
Weeks later David awakens in a London hospital being cared for by Doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine, The Devils) and the lovely Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter, Logan’s Run). While David convalesces he begins to be plagued by strange dreams of himself that culminates in one of the scariest sequences, dream or otherwise, in any horror film, the Nazi demon dream. The dream starts with a TV showing the Muppet Show we zoom out to see David and his family enjoying a typical suburban evening when the doorbell rings and the family is besieged by a horde of demonic, sub-machine gun toting Nazis. The dream ends as David’s throat is sliced and he wakes up. Nurse Alex is at his bedside and tell him he’s safe and goes to open the curtains in his room when another Nazi demon comes through the widow and stabs her to death, and David wakes up again. Things get weirder for David as Jack begins to appear to him warning him about the werewolf curse that is on David and how he must die to break the curse and all Jack to rest in peace. With nowhere to go David moves in with Alex, but Jack still visits with his dire warnings, and despite his increasingly rotting flesh her retains his smart ass personality from life. The next day brings the full moon and David does indeed transform into a werewolf in a gruesome bit of body horror set to Sam Cooke’s version of “Blue Moon”. The transformation created by Rick Baker set a new standard for special effects that won him the very first Academy Award for Best Makeup. Post transformation wolf David goes on a killing spree across London before finding himself naked in the zoo the next morning. The longest comedy sequence of the movie involves the nude David trying to get himself across the city and back to Alex’s flat. The next night a distraught David encounters Jack again in Piccadilly Circus. They go into a porno theater where Jack introduces David to the ghosts of his victims. They all offer their advice on the best suicide methods for David. Nightfall comes and David transforms in the movie theater and in wolf form wrecks havoc in Piccadilly Circus. Eventually the police corner David in an alley. Alex arrives and tries to reach David in his wolf form. Momentarily it looks like it works, but the beast lunges for her and the police open fire, killing him. Alex breaks down over David’s dead body and the screen cuts to black to the incongruous doo-wop sound of Marcel’s “Blue Moon” in one of the more deliriously jarring endings in cinema history.
1981 was the year of the werewolf with three very different takes on werewolf movies in the same year. Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen and Joe Dante’s The Howling arriving in theater’s ahead of Landis’ film, but American Werewolf has proven to be the most influential of the trio. The Howling has a rabid fan base and has produced a number of middling or worse sequels, but never dented the cultural consciousness like An American Werewolf in London. The tone of the film with its quippy, irreverent humor mixed with striking gore and make-up effects would infect and overtake the horror genre for a generation. Quirky pop music needle drops are omnipresent and often cringe in current films but were all but unheard of, especially as an ironic counterpoint to the action on the screen before Landis.
The sheer volume of extra material on this disc is nearly overwhelming. There are two audio commentaries, one is the older DVD track from actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne and new track from Paul Davis. Davis is the director of the feature length documentary Beware the Moon: Remembering An American Werewolf in London which is the ultimate document on the creation and legacy of film. Beware the Moon is included in this release along with the feature length doc Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf.
One of the more curious pieces is I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, a 12 minute video essay from writer/documentary filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976). The essay is a compelling read of the film as a reflection of the realities and identity of modern Jewish life. Spira further links links the use of werewolf mythos in the Nazi party and how Curt Siodmak’s script for The Wolf Man (1941) can be read as an allegory of the plight of Euopean Jews in the 1930’s. When you consider that John Landis based his werewolf rules on the rules Siodmak laid out the thesis gains even more traction and adds another level to both films.
After all that you still have interviews and featurettes with director John Landis, make-up artist Rick Baker, trailers, still, storyboards, outtakes, and a terrific booklet featuring new essays from Travis Crawford and Simon Ward.
On top of all of that the film has never looked or sounded better. The transfer Arrow is using is gorgeous and doesn’t over polish the image. It manages to maintain the integrity of Rick Baker’s effect work and the early ’80s feel of the film which is not always the case with films of this era, or this film in particular. With the improved picture quality and the huge amount of extras (including those from earlier releases) there is no reason to hesitate to buy or re-buy this disc. It is a film to treasure and this Blu-ray is a treasure as well.