An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Written & Directed by John Landis
I don’t think I have ever been able to put my thumb on John Landis. He is such an enigma of a director to me. He makes fantastic comedies like The Blues Brothers, The Three Amigos, and Coming to America in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he churned out crud like The Stupids, Blues Brothers 2000, and stopped directing films in 2010. I would never say he’s my favorite director, but I don’t hate his work as a whole either. It just wholly stumps me when I think about his career building potential in one decade only to ultimately flounder in another. Right in the middle of his seemingly impervious series of hits came this horror-comedy that is much more horror, in my opinion, An American Werewolf in London.
David Kessler (David Naughton) and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across the U.K. As they cross the moors in Yorkshire, they find a pub where they are met with disdain and dirty looks from the locals. This pushes them out into the dark of the night, where the howls of a beast make them pick up the pace. It is pointless, though, as Jack is mauled & killed, and David is left scarred by something horrific. David comes to in a London hospital where he’s watched over by Alex (Jenny Agutter), a young nurse. The two share a mutual attraction, and he comes to stay with her after being released from the hospital. However, David has not escaped from his attack unscathed. He now bears the curse of the werewolf, and when the next full moon arrives, his life will change forever.
Like John Landis’s career, I don’t quite know what to make of this movie. At times it leans into the comedy pretty heavily and in others, the horror. There’s a lot of tonal inconsistency, but I do think both elements work in tandem at certain moments. The ending is an utterly jarring mess, and the tragedy of the final scene is entirely undercut by the music over the credits. As a result, I don’t know what I am supposed to feel about the protagonist and his story. Landis seems almost dismissive in some ways. I would go as far as to argue that An American Werewolf in London is an incomplete film, the product of a script that needed a few more drafts before it became something worth filming.
When I think horror comedy, I go to Young Frankenstein, a picture with elements of an auteur production with both Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s shared vision coming to life. It savors its horror elements but leans into the comedy. I was genuinely confused while watching American Werewolf. Am I supposed to laugh at the dream sequences? Am I supposed to be horrified? One minute we are in a gag about the ghosts of David’s victims politely encouraging him to kill himself. Then suddenly, we are watching Alex have a horrific emotional moment.
The pub in the Yorkshire moors is played so oddly. It feels like a slight parody of other movies but then deadly serious. Are we meant to laugh at the character types represented in the clientele, or should we take the overtures of doom seriously? I never felt like I got to know any characters that well, including David. They don’t seem to have enough screen time to amount to anything. However, Griffin Dunne as Jack makes the most of his supporting role, allowed to return to the story as a decaying corpse of his former self. Jack is the best balance of tones in the entire picture, wisecracking and not pulling punches about David’s cruel fate. I think if the rest of the film had been as well written as that character, it might have been something special.
The special effects are still quite spectacular. They have aged a bit and are obviously puppets and makeup, but they always look great. I don’t think they hit the mark and John Bottin’s visionary work in The Thing that would be released the next year, but they are some of the best werewolf transformation scenes ever put to film. I imagine someone only familiar with Lon Chaney Jr.’s werewolf change would have had their mind blown by Rick Baker’s detailed sculpting and puppetry. Overall, American Werewolf is a pretty mediocre movie, not Landis’s best, and one that you could enjoy but likely won’t feel the desire to return to.