An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis had become known as a comedy director by the time An American Werewolf in London hit the screen. He had dipped his tow into horror with his 1973 feature debut Schlock. However, by the time this came out, he had The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House and The Blues Brothers to his credit. All at least became cult hits, and so he decided to finally film the script he had sitting around since 1968.
It just so happened that, even though slashers were becoming a popular genre, the typical movie monsters were nowhere to be seen. Dracula was really the only real throwback, and it was no surprise that even with the success of his previous films that it was touch and go for getting the budget for a werewolf film. By strange coincidence, however, the man he wanted to do the effects, Rick Baker, was tied up with another werewolf film - The Howling. After some cajoling Baker left that movie in the hands of his protegee Rick Bottin to head to England to help his old friend.
Next Landis added Griffin Dunne, who had not really had a major lead part before, and David Naughton, who was best known for doing Dr. Pepper commercials. The rest of the cast and crew were local, and what resulted was a strange mixture of horror and comedy that left some critics confused but ended up setting the standard for effects and makeup work, as well as somewhat returning the werewolf story to its roots.
David Kessler (Naughton) and his friend Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on vacation, backpacking across Europe. Much to Jack's displeasure they decided to start their journey in northern England, and on a cold, wet night they stop into the Slaughtered Lamb in a Yorkshire village called East Proctor. The locals are none too friendly, and they let the two young men go with a warning to stay off the moors. The warning goes unheeded, and they soon are attacked by an unknown creature.
Three weeks later David wakes up in a hospital, having strange dreams about running and hunting through the forest. He also starts getting visits from Jack, who warns David that he will turn into a werewolf on the next full moon. His concerns are dismissed by Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), but the doctor begins to investigate and becomes concerned that, while not necessarily becoming a wolf, some from of PTSD might cause David to be dangerous. His concern is also for his nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), who has taken a liking to David and set him up in her residence. Sure enough, Jack's warnings are true, and David's nocturnal prowling sets all of London on edge.
David's initial transformation scene in this is so groundbreaking that even after all these years it remains the centerpiece and also the most well-known part of An American Werewolf in London. While I would say that the transformations in The Howling are just as revolutionary, this one has the edge as we are seeing a man fully transform into a four-legged animal rather than a bipedal creature.
The scene is such that it overshadows much of the other work Baker did in the movie, largely with Griffin Dunne as he rots a bit more every time he comes to visit David. The initial makeup on Dunne after the attack on the moors is nothing less than superb, as is Dunne's performance with mostly improvised lines, and the chaotic chain reaction that ensues when the werewolf breaks out of the porno theater and into Piccadilly Circus is a sight to behold as well. Along the way we even have a dream sequence involving Nazi werewolves. While there are many violent scenes the movie does hold back when needed. We only see the aftermath of David's first rampage, although we get a great sequence of him stalking a businessman (Michael Carter) through an empty tube station at night.
Much of the comedy in the film comes from David's interaction with the Jack's ghost, and Naughton and Dunne have a good best-friend chemistry going that pulls it off. This is probably Jenny Agutter's most recognized role in a feature film other than as Jessica in Logan's Run, and she is much more memorable this time around, even if Alex is virtually helpless when it comes to what is happening to David. .
I remember the first time I saw it I was upset that there wasn't as much werewolf activity until it got toward the end, but over the years I have enjoyed it more every time. I think that the slow buildup may be off-putting after so many current movies that can't be bothered with taking the time to give us characters that we care about before bad things start to happen to them. Even though it is still definitely a movie of its time, it is one that has endured due to being a unique take on the old werewolf story, and one of the few before digital effects to show the creatures as they are supposed to be. It was a great achievement at the time, and remains a fun experience all these years later.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Time: 97 minutes
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine
Director: John Landis