We’re gonna skip right past the two AVP films (more sci-fi than horror, according to me, a guy with an opinion on things), which lands us on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.
Let’s open with talking about the writer/director of the film, John Landis. Every time I see a John Landis film I go back in my mind and remember all of the stuff he’s done that were incredibly popular. He did this film, BLUES BROTHERS, THREE AMIGOS, KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, one of the mini-movies in THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, ANIMAL HOUSE, TRADING PLACES, two episodes of Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR, and there are still more! However, when I think of my favorite John Landis, it always comes back to a tie between this film, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and THREE AMIGOS (the combination of Chevy Chase, Martin Short, and Steve Martin? That’s a dream team!!!). Only one of his films has won an Academy Award, but we’ll get to that later. From the list of films above, it’s easy to state that his comfort zone is comedy, and he branches off a bit into horror-comedies occasionally. This was not his first, and it would not be his last. He also directed MICHAEL JACKSON’S THRILLER (directly because of this film, actually) and MICHAEL JACKSON’S BLACK AND WHITE. So it’s safe to assume he knows what he is doing.
The 80s saw a HUGE explosion of werewolf movies, including the first three installments of THE HOWLING, WOLFEN, TEEN WOLF, and TEEN WOLF TOO, just to name a few. Some of them attempting to ride the coattails of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which was released the year of my birth, good ol’ 1981. It should also be said that this film has a sequel of sorts, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS. I say ‘of sorts’ because it didn’t really involve any cast or crew from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. It starred Tom Everett Scott (THAT THING YOU DO), and Julie Delpy (BEFORE SUNRISE).
The script is great, a wonderful balance of humor and horror. All the songs reference the moon in one way or another. The score is good, but you wouldn’t believe me if I said there’s only seven-ish minutes of it (no joke). The performances are…well…David Naughton would not have been my first choice because he can’t really carry a film, but Griffin Dunne is great, but can we get to the thing I really want to talk about? The transformation scene.
Used to be that if you wanted to show a man transforming into a werewolf you had to keep them still, film them briefly, and then start applying the werewolf makeup in phases, filming briefly each phase. There was a time when this was actually pretty awesome. But by the 80s, someone finally stood up and said “I can do it differently”, but most importantly they said “I can do it better”. That man was Rick Baker, and what he accomplished was nothing short of absolute, jaw-dropping, amazement. Its ripples were far-reaching. It’s the reason the Academy Awards added an Oscar for Best Make-up (which Rick Baker, of course, won its first time out). His idea was instead of keeping the actor still and applying in phases, let’s show the pain of it and let the actor writhe around as the phases are applied in front of multiple camera angles. Instead of hiding the process that takes Naughton’s character from phase-to-phase, he wanted to show it. No easy task as it required precise cinematography, puppetry, make-up, and several skin applications. The most impressive of which was a side shot of Naughton’s head where a snout grows and begins protruding from his head. What happened when all the separate pieces were put together is the greatest werewolf transformation ever. Past, present, or future.
Also, John Landis understood one of the biggest things about horror, don’t show your monster right away, do it a little at a time and let the audience imagine what they will. When you show it right away you’re not letting your audience fill in the blanks, and those blanks will be scarier than anything you can show on the screen, no matter how terrifying it turns out to be (and the wolf is fairly terrifying to look at).
One of the funnier bits in the film that appealed to me was the investigator and his fresh-faced partner from Scotland Yard. The fresh-faced partner was constantly overstepping his bounds, little things like asking a question or requesting a cup of tea when it’s offered. The investigator always puts him in his place with nothing more than a glare. To watch that hold up throughout the film is very funny.
Also very funny is the porno SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY (which, if you are familiar with John Landis, you’d know there’s meaning behind that title) is playing at the porno theater near the climax of the film. Sure there’s sex, but there’s a lot of manners for a porn film. A guy bursts in and accuses one of the two of sleeping around on him, but as it turns out, he was in the wrong room. Later there’s a phone call that the girl answers and politely says that the person they’re trying to call is not in that room. It’s very funny to watch the most polite porn film ever made, juxtaposed with the horror that occurs inside the theater.
Also, the slow decay of his friend, Jack (Griffin Dunne) is pretty funny to watch, especially after David (David Naughton) has gone on a six person killing spree the night before, all of whom appear to him in the end, asking him if he’d be so kind as to kill himself so they can rest in peace. I love when they’re all chiming in with suicide ideas for David to try.
Jack appears after his death and says that he is undead, and everyone killed by the werewolf’s bloodline will be forced to exist as undead until the werewolf’s bloodline is destroyed, which means David would have to die. However, I take some issue with this plot point because when he is a wolf at the end of the film, I find it hard to believe that all those people got through the situation unscratched.
I have one other problem with this movie that annoys me every time I see it. Oddly enough, it’s during the transformation scene. The scene opens on David reading a book, and seconds later he starts grabbing at his forehead in pain, signaling the beginning of the transformation. This always felt too rushed for my taste. Had I been the editor of the film, I would have given us at least ten to twelve seconds before he starts to get down with his wolf self.
Nope, I lied, there’s ONE more problem, and again it’s an editing issue. During the chaos of wolf David running all over a very busy area of London, with people getting run over and cars crashing into each other (a LOT of cars crashing into each other), it quickly cuts away to the nurse napping, and being woken up by the doctor, who tells her that the werewolf is on the loose.
But those are seriously just tiny bothers in what is a very entertaining and good horror film all around.