In this post, Jim Brymer reviews the 1980s horror masterpiece An American Werewolf in London:
In England, two young boys, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are out alternately hitchhiking and hiking across the countryside. They come across a pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb”, and being hungry, decide to stop and see if they can get some food. The pub is populated by quaint locals, including a bulky balding chess player (Brian Glover), a darts wizard (David Schofield) and a sympathetic bar mistress (Lila Kaye).
The two are eyed suspiciously by the residents, who apparently aren’t used to two Americans dropping in unexpectedly. But they let their guard down after a minute or two, and go about their own activities. Jack observes a pentagram on the wall and comments “Remember the Alamo!” which causes the chess player to launch into a hoary old joke. (Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve this old groaner done in a Brit accent).
When Jack and David ask about the star on the will, the mood becomes a bit more hostile, as the boys are sent out into the countryside, without their meal. But they are warned “Stay on the roads. Keep off the moors. And beware the moon.” It would be a very short movie if they had heeded this advice, but they don’t.They soon find themselves lost on the moors, and to make matters worse, they are being stalked. The creature attacks them both, kills Jack, and is busy trying to munch on David when the villagers show up and shoot the creature. Just before he passes out, David notices the creature has turned into a man.
When he wakes up, he finds himself in a hospital, with a sexy nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) and a concerned but doubtful Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine). David insists they were attacked by a wolf, but based on “eyewitness” accounts, the doctor tells him he is mistaken, that it was a madman.
But David is haunted by dreams, some of the most graphic ever seen at the time the movie was made. In one, a horde of Nazi inspired soldiers with grotesque faces burst in on David and his family and slaughters them all. David is unsure whether he is going mad or is just devastated by the loss of his friend. While mulling this over, Jack appears, a little worse for wear, and tells David that he will become a werewolf on the next full moon.
After David leaves the hospital, he accompanies Alex to her flat. And yes, a love scene is in the mix (including an erotic scene in the shower accompanied by Van Morrison’s “Moondance”) Afterwards David goes to the bathroom, where he again encounters Jack, getting a little more grisly as time goes on. Jack encourages David to kill himself so that the line of the werewolf will be severed, but David is still resistant.
In case you are wondering, yes David does become a werewolf (gee hope that wasn’t a spoiler for you). Rick Baker, who has gone on to bigger fame as a make-up effects guy, was still in the early stages of his career, but he received a well deserved Oscar (the first one ever given for Best Make-Up, inaugurated in 1981). Warning: Even if you decide to look at the picture below (no criticism for taking the chicken way out and closing your eyes), the transformation from David to werewolf is one of the creepiest and scariest scenes ever recorded on film.
After a rampage, David returns to normal, or as normal as is possible after being a werewolf. But it’s not over yet, because the “full moon” period for a werewolf includes the day before and the day after, so he is due to change again. And, of course, Jack shows up again, this time with the ghosts of David’s recent kills.
In the meantime, Dr. Hirsch is trying to investigate David’s story but he encounters the same stand-offish townspeople who are reluctant to talk to an outsider. But he does get some of the details from the darts player who deigns to give him some of the details.
This being a John Landis film, there is the requisite humor in it. I had fun when this came out in the theater. After having seen it the first time, I went back several times during it’s first run, finding a couple of girls, or kids to sit behind, and laughing uproariously at the funniest scary moments. These unsuspecting souls, warily, always glanced back at me, like “What the hell is so funny? This is scary!” But it’s a fun film, and if you read my introduction you know it’s my absolute favorite horror film. It was, I think, the first of its kind to ever blend pure horror and comedy into one film. (As opposed to stuff like Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, and the like, which were never meant to be taken as serious horror films).
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films. This post originally ran last year and is being reprinted as part of our Halloween celebrations.