Well folks, Halloween is here. And since we’re among the sites who believe that topical content resorts to better traffic, we’re joining in the fun and offering you a fresk take on the 1981 John Landis classic An American Werewolf In London. I have seen the film more than once before but had not revisited it in a while. Then, I remembered how Edgar Wright considered it to be a major inspiration for his Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto trilogy and I wanted to see how it relates. From the opening scene involving unfriendly townfolks to the gratuitous amounts of desensitized violence, I could not only see the correlation but also how the film created a genre of its own in the 80’s: the light-hearted horror flick.
John Landis penned the first draft of the script at the tender age of 19, and from the very first scene, you can sense the energy and the excitement of a young up-and-comer trying to prove himself. The characters are hopping around on the roads of the Yorkshire moors of Northern England and they have conversations about a childhood female friend who has grown up into an attractive woman. They walk into a pub named The Slaughtered Lamb, where the patrons are about as unwelcoming as they can be. From that very scene, you get a sense that every part of the movie has been carefully planned to be entertaining and special. The characters are colorful and the setup is wonderfully crafted.
And then a copious amount of gore gloriously shows its muzzle. The lead character David manages to barely escape a viscious werewolf attack at the detriment of his best travelling pal Jack who gets mangled like a mix of berries in a blender. It’s the kind of buckets of red paint that will make you believe the human body might be 99% filled with blood. The skin is cut loose and pieces of it remain half attached. Though practical effects do look dated from the perspective of younger generations, everything you see in An American Werewolf in London is the finest display of make-up and prosthetics you’ll witness from that era of filmmaking.
Following the Spielberg rule established in Jaws, Landis understands the importance of not showing the werewolf too clearly on the screen in order to retain a sense of threat and only revealing its clearest angles towards the end of the movie. And then something wonderful happens – a mesh of genres within the horror realm. The victims of the werewolf – mainly one of the two lead characters Jack – reappear at random moments and provide key pieces of information regarding the transformation that the lead character is about to experience.
We jump from one scene to the next and the tone refuses to stay the same. One dream sequence involving Nazi monsters with machine guns is incredibly immature and unexpectedly silly. Another scene where a late night commuter starts to hear suspicious noises in the London underground is effectively suspenseful and brilliantly paced. While one would expect that such inconsistencies might disengage the audience, the complete opposite seems to happen. There is so much originality and cleverness presented on screen that the movie almost plays out like a series of vignettes on the recurrent theme of werewolves. Considering that more than one movie based on short stories appear on Landis’ filmography, perhaps we can assume he has a taste for that style of production.
I find it most fascinating that when movies are praised upon release for featuring groundbreaking special effects and cinematography, all the attention get focused on that and the general consensus is that the movie was mediocre but benefited from groundbreaking technical achievements. However, time goes by and allows us to look back and realize that in almost every case, these movies had much more to offer than that starting with an inspired script, tight character development and the resolve of an uber-confident director. Jurassic Park would be the quentessential example, but I also feel that An American Werewolf in London strongly qualifies in this case.
The editing is a bit choppy at times and you get a sense that it was put together in a hurry. Irrelevant, however, are the fine details of filmmaking polish when you enjoy such a juvenile piece of pop culture entertainment. Rick Baker’s makeup is so well-conceived and scary looking that its award wins lifted the movie from the obscure B-shelves and onto the Oscar spotlight. Regardless of its production values (positive or negative), An American Werewolf in London excels in keeping audiences engaged, surprised and astonished at every turn.
Fun movies all share one thing in common: they fail to have a single moment that doesn’t trigger some sort of emotional reaction. An American Werewolf in London is the textbook definition of a fun movie. There is no filler, no superflous character development, and no stretched out plot points. It’s a concentrated can of pure fun, and a prime example of how to create effective mainstream cinema.
– The Sleepy Skunk