FLASHBACK: An American Werewolf in London (Landis, 1981)

It’s so different from the rest of John Landis’ classic comedy work, and yet many could argue that, despite such an uneasy shift, it might be his greatest work. At the same time, despite its reputation as an early form of the horror-comedy genre, inspiring such other pictures as Shaun of the Dead (Wright, 2004) and Scream (1996), Landis himself argues that the movie is never meant to be comedic and is a straightaway horror. I don’t necessarily agree to both (I leave that best Landis title toThe Blues Brothers) but I can definitely say that, so far that I’ve seen, An American Werewolf in London is the blackest and most tragic of the black comedies I’ve ever seen.

I have just seen the movie for the first time last month after buying it. It’s not usual for me to buy a movie before seeing it (I don’t want to waste my money), but it was cheap and I was certain I’d get my money’s worth. I’ve got that much and more.

Quite possibly the funniest tagline I’ve seen

The story follows, as the title suggests, two Americans who are backpacking across England. After moments of fish-out-of-water status of the most dreadful kind, the two young men are attacked by a werewolf who is promptly killed after the attack. Unfortunately, one of them (Griffin Dunne) does not survive the attack. The other (David Naughton), in a worse state, is having his Dunne’s character’s ghost appear to him to warn him of the werewolf curse. Naughton’s character at first tries to dismiss these as delusions and nightmares, but soon finds out these nightmares are very real…

This is great, ain’t it? Just two best friends, cursed as walking dead.

Not too much of the humor comes from the curse of being a werewolf. I mean, there are some shocks that elicit laughs, like a very gruesome decapitation and a vividly graphic and bloody family massacre that, if it were the only scene in the movie with violence and no language or nudity were in the picture, would still get the movie it’s R-rating. But those laughs are from a discomfort, a genuine reaction that tells you ‘Oh this is where the horror really starts.’ The laughs are from Griffin Dunne’s character reacting, the quirky situations Naughton’s character discovers after his rampage, he steals a balloon from a toddler and the only things the lad has to say for it is ‘That naked American man stole my balloons.’

That’s like a WTF? I don’t mean to tell you about your own movie, Landis, but this is definite comedy. One could justify it by explaining that Landis was only 19 when he wrote the script. Well, that’s certainly a point, there’s an adolescent streak in the movie, namely along Jenny Agutter’s character. She’d certainly fail the Bechdel Test. She not only talks about how many lovers she’s had, which is a surprising amount, but she immediately has sex with Naughton’s character. Adolescent script, I tell ya.
And yet there’s some factor about the movie that doesn’t allow us to fully enjoy the humor. Keeps that laugh stuck in our throats. It’s the fact that David Naughton’s character is doomed, no matter what. While most allegorical products of the werewolf story are abandoned in this picture, he has a sword of Damocles hanging above him. I have no qualms about explaining the ending later on, not just because there’s more to the movie than its plot, but because the idea is that once he gets bit, his life is over, there is no way he’s coming back from it and it’s not just sad, it’s absolutely dreadful. To watch this movie knowing he’s going to die sooner or later is to have the full effect the movie had on me. And that’s not even feeling bad from the gory scenarios, like the couple being ravaged or the final rampage in Piccadilly Circus.
But on the bright side, he can always come back as a vampire! Vampires are cool, right?
We got out of that Twilight/Anne Rice phase, right? Right?
As a genre picture though, and a script that Landis wrote so early in his life, it has some flaws. David Naughton’s character, I haven’t even remembered his name. I have the movie and I’m not even bothering to check. It’s because he was a bad actor. Overall, the acting was not that good in the movie, but Naughton is most notable is that he had some hits and misses. The scenes of fright and horror were the hits, everything else is pretty much a miss. My favorite scene is where Naughton’s character is approached by the ghosts of Griffin’s character (who at this point has decayed to outright human jerky) and the victims Naughton has killed so far in a porno theater. But Naughton doesn’t really carry this scene so much as Dunne (who isn’t even physically in the scene, it’s a corpse puppet voiced by him) and the victims. It could be better, but it is what it is. 
Dunne’s character is a unique one. He’s a down-to-earth dead guy. He’s only been dead a couple of days and he’s so casual about it. It’s not that he doesn’t make a big deal about it. It’s that it’s now who he is, so he’s going to roll with it but he’s still going to have that dry personality he had in the ten to fifteen minutes of the movie he was alive.
Now, the ending. The ending is really a tragedy in itself. The movie doesn’t have any closure for the creature, it doesn’t have any chance to say good bye. It just ends. Naughton is shot and killed and that’s it, go on to the credits with the happy music ‘Blue Moon’ (By the way, the soundtrack is just to die for). And the thing is that you feel cheated but it just fits with the movie. You saw this horrible thing happening to the lead a million miles away and yet you still needed that shock, that sadness to happen, so instead of giving you a sort of epilogue or scene to let the mood die down, the movie just decides ‘Fuck closure, we gotta better things to do, like listen to the Marcels.
On a very final point, I want to mention that this movie is also a horror movie landmark for being the first movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Make-Up. And my, what make-up it is by horror movie legend Rick Baker, up there with Tom Savini’s work. In case you readers have not noticed I did not include any clips or photographs of the movie’s titular beast for two reasons, 1) The transformation scene – if you have a chance to see the movie without anybody ever telling you about this scene, do it. It’s going to come as a shocker, you’re not going to see it coming and, even for this day and age, it is a scarcely gory scene and yet to hard to watch and incredibly well-done.You will not just actually see this person turn into a werewolf in light (unlike most shadowy transformations), you will feel his pain and it’s awful. It’s probably the best work Rick Baker has ever done.
2) The monster itself is distinct and realistic that I think it should also come as a surprise to the viewer the way that, say, the appearance of the Transformers or Freddy Krueger came out. It’s a work of movie art and should be admired as such, in the context of the movie.
All said and done, I give the movie a 7.5 out of 10. It has a classic sense, something that will resonate in you, but it’s not a perfect picture.
The making of horror movie history right here.
One more thing: The phrase in London is more than just a title. This movie really is a picture belonging to England, no matter how American it feels. The locations, the supporting characters, the atmosphere is one that is uncannily British, despite being an American director and writer and I find that a perfect accomplishment for John Landis. If I ever have a chance to go to London, I will be searching everywhere for the locations of the movie: namely Piccadilly Circus, the porno theater, the tunnel train station… They’re all locations that will forever be ingrained in the legacy of this movie.
Is it really a wonder with the work of this picture why Landis went on to create one of the best music videos ever?

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