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An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Directed by: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne
Running Time: 1 h 37 m
TMM Score: 4 stars out of 5
STRENGTHS: Visual Effects, Writing, Atmosphere
WEAKNESSES: Weak Character Writing in One Major Scene
Two American college students on a European holiday are attacked by a werewolf.
Since my first time seeing this movie in my senior year of high school, I think I’ve watched this movie half a dozen times. I have a hard time believing anybody could really hate this movie- the visual effects still look great more than thirty five years later, it’s got some sort of emotional moments in it, but more than anything, this film is incredibly fun. This is truly a horror classic; one that almost perfectly balances comedy and horror in a way that makes this film a wild ride.
“I will not be threatened by a walking meat loaf!”
The film opens on two college boys hiking through the moors of northern England, joking about and all around having a good time, though David (David Naughton, Detroit Rock City) seems to be having a better time than Jack (Griffin Dunne, After Hours). The two boys happen upon a small hamlet and wander into a local pub, where they immediately sense their presence is unwanted. The locals tell them to clear off, and they do, only to be attacked by something on the morgue. Three weeks later, David wakes from a coma in a hospital in London to find that he is covered in scars. At night he begins experiencing strange and violent nightmares that make him believe he might turn into a werewolf on the next full moon. Is David going crazy, or is some sort of supernatural phenomena really happening in London?
What this film is most well known for- what it won an Oscar for- are the spectacular visual effects. The most impressive of which are during the infamous transformation scene (no need for a spoiler tag- it’s a werewolf movie- how many werewolf movies have you seen without transformation scenes?). The scene is brutal and disturbing, and it’s all done with practical effects and makeup. The werewolf himself looks pretty great (though it’s face isn’t as articulated as some other parts of the body, so there are some up close parts that look a little dated). The scene is made even more jarring by the song played in the background: Blue Moon by Same Cooke, a pseudo-melancholy ditty that sounds like something from a jukebox in a 50s diner. Prosthetics stretch and bend, bones snap, hair sprouts- the sound effects are just as grueling as the visuals themselves. There are some really cool choices as far as cinematography goes too- scenes when the monster is barely shown but the angles of the camera still make the scene intense. Perhaps the best example of this is during the chase scene in the subway; the walls and ceiling are low and claustrophobic, making the victim both look and feel trapped.
But beyond the effects, the writing behind this movie is actually really great too. This is not by any means a straight horror film- in fact I’d go so far as to call it a horror comedy. The primary reason for this distinction is the dialogue, which is frequently snappy and full of little quips. The film was written and directed by John Landis (the writer and director of The Blues Brother). While the film isn’t as zany as The Blues Brothers, you can certainly see some similarities in the way the dialogue is written. For one thing, David and Jack’s relationship is absolutely hilarious- we get the feeling that these kids have been friends for quite a long time; they share inside jokes, horse around with each other, and seem to understand each other on a different level than most other relationships in the film. Their relationship provides a lot of laughs, but it’s balanced quite well with the horrific elements that happen in this movie. Perhaps where this is best illustrated is during the attack on the moors; while there is a bit of tension, the boys still laugh and joke about as if nothing bad will happen to them. Then, when the wolf finally comes, it completely shatters the lighthearted atmosphere and thrusts us into a world of terror. That sort of jarring shock works perfectly in this film, and there are many times when Landis reestablishes a comedic tone before completely destroying it again with violence. I also like how Landis works in moments of real emotion into the film. There’s a scene near the end of the movie, when David isn’t sure if he’s loosing his mind or changing into a monster, where he calls home and talks to his ten (and a half) year old sister. The scene is simultaneously funny and heart wrenching. There are also some creative ideas that Landis worked into this movie, the best of which, in my opinion, is to have the wolf’s victim’s ‘ghosts’ follow David around, constantly telling him that he has to kill himself. Throughout the movie, David wrestles with whether or not he’s crazy or if he’s actually turning into a werewolf- by adding these ghosts that follow him around, it makes David’s mind look unstable; plus we get more wonderful makeup effects. If there were one real problem with the writing, it would be with Nurse Alex Price’s character (Jenny Agutter, Logan’s Run). As I watched this again (this time accompanied by my roommates, Michael, and his wife, Katie), we all remarked on how slightly ridiculous the decisions Alex makes really are. David suspects he is going crazy, and had told Alex this multiple times, yet Alex invites him to stay at her house because she feels sorry for him, and because she finds him attractive. Okay, look… If I were a nurse in a hospital, and an attractive looking woman found me attractive, but she also kept telling me about how she thought she was a werewolf, I don’t think there would be any way I would invite her back to stay at my place. If you think you’re a werewolf, you’re crazy. So why would Alex invite a crazed lunatic back to her place? That’s easy to answer: it advances the plot. I suppose you could argue that Alex has a sort of fetish for crazy people, but I find that unlikely. More likely is the idea that Landis wanted to throw in a love story (and a very lengthy sex scene) to appeal to a wider audience. While I like Alex’s character, and Jenny Agutter herself does a fine job, the logic for her motivation to invite David to stay with her is largely flawed.
Overall this is a very good movie- besides one ridiculous character choice I’d say this is one of the more intriguing horror scripts from the early eighties. Griffin Dunne’s performance never fails to make me laugh, and there are plenty of lines in this movie that will stick with you for a while (“You have very lovely sheep”). This film is both thrilling and delightful, and it’s a perfect Halloween film.
This is part of our 31 Nights of Thrills Series. Not all of the movies we review for this series will be strictly horror, but all will have something to do with the spirit of things spooky or scary. If you like those types of movies, be sure to check back throughout the month of October!
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