An American Werewolf in London – 1981
Director – John Landis
Starring – David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne
(Guest Review by Mike Petrik)
Warning! Spoilers lie within! But, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’re silly and should stop whatever nonsense you are doing now and go watch it. It’s on Netflix, so, no excuse.
John Landis wrote “An American Werewolf in London” at the tender age of 19. I’ll say that again. He wrote this film when he was 19 years old. That’s just insane. Not only is this one of the best horror comedies in history, I’d place it as one of the best films of all time. What did I accomplish when I was 19? I was in college. I lived at my parents house. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I never went out on weekends. I never wrote a screenplay. Basically, what I accomplished when I was 19 was watching “An American Werewolf in London” again. He didn’t actually follow through with making the film until much later in life after the success of Animal House, but still, 19.
As a young writer, Landis had learned about a narrative technique called juxtaposition, or contrast in storytelling. That is two opposing ideas put right next to each other to emphasize their impact. And boy oh boy did he cram as much contrast into “An American Werewolf in London” as possible. Which isn’t a bad thing. Some may see it as a crutch, but the entire structure of the film relies on this device. And he’s not the only one that utilizes juxtaposition. To clarify, take another look at Ed’s recently reviewed William Friedkin classic “The Exorcist.” Good vs. Evil. Light vs. Dark. Quiet vs. Loud. Ascending vs. Descending. Hurricane Billy goes a’crazy with the contrasts. Another good example is Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Everyone remembers the very creepy house where Leatherface and family live. Filled with human skin lamps, and couches made out of human bones. But the outside of the house is a big white country farmhouse on a beautiful summer day. Which made venturing into the house that much more shocking. Imagine if the exterior of the house had been a spooky haunted house with clanging shutters, thunder and lighting, and skeletons rattling. By the time we get inside, the shock of meeting Leatherface wouldn’t have been as jarring. But because of the contrast, seeing Leatherface slam that metal door is still the best part of the film. I think you get the idea. So, lets see how Landis uses contrast to his advantage.
The whole story structure itself uses contrasts. A love story vs. a werewolf story. A boy meeting a young nurse and falling in love, while at the same time struggling with the reality that he is a lycanthrope and is responsible for the death of several people and must kill himself or they are cursed to walk in limbo as the undead for eternity. What’s genius about this is how the two stories run parallel to each other and how they tie together. One can’t exist without the other, but they are booth doomed. Brilliant.
The transformation scene. Arguably one of the best, if not the best, werewolf transformations ever put on film. That’s Rick Baker for you. Anyways, not only is it shocking because it’s done in bright harsh light in a small London flat, but because of the contrast of the scene before it. Our main character David is pacing around the apartment to that super upbeat and bouncy song, Bad Moon Rising. He is looks in the fridge a few times, watches tv, reads a book, and even gets locked out of the apartment. It’s really funny, then suddenly, bam! Screaming, writhing pain.
My favorite part of the film comes in the form of a nightmare. Our main character David is still in the hospital, unaware yet that he is a werewolf. The changes his body is going through are causing very vivid and disturbing nightmares. How does Landis approach the nightmares? Why, with contrasts, of course! David is at home with his family. He is at the dining room table doing homework, while his Mom cleans up supper, and his younger siblings are watching the Muppet Show. A beautiful suburban family evening. Then, bam! In through the front door storms nazi monsters, firing machine guns and cutting throats. Setting the house on fire. David wakes up from the dream and says exactly what everyone in the audience says; “Holy shit.”
I can go on and on. The humor of his friend Jack, opposite the fact that he is a rotting undead corpse. Silly bumbling London police opposite the insane climax of a massive car pile up in Piccadilly Circus. The polite gentlemen in the subway tunnels as he is attacked by a werewolf. Again, Landis wrote this when he was 19. Not bad for a kid who can’t legally drink yet.
Moving on from narrative writing techniques, the number one thing people love about this movie is the special effects. This was done in the days before computers, which makes it all that much more impressive. All done in camera, and mostly in bright lights, Rick Bakers werewolf makeup is something many consider to be his masterpiece of his career. Rivaled only by Rob Bottin’s work in 1982’s The Thing, I would agree that this is some of the best monster makeup ever put on film. Seeing a rotting Jack corpse at a young age made a huge impact on me, and most likely contributed to my lifelong horror obsession. Thanks, Rick Baker!
An American Werewolf in London has some all around amazing performances, most notably Griffin Dunne as Jack and David Naughton as our lead David. If the writing and special effects had fallen flat, these two probably could have successfully carried the movie. But, that not being the case, their hilarious performances were only the icing on the delicious horror comedy cake.
I’d say that’s about enough of me drooling over this film. It’s a great little flick for the Halloween season, so perfect timing for me to tell you it’s on Netflix. Go watch it. Thanks!