An American Werewolf in London Review
An American Werewolf in London is a wonderful oddity. Deservedly a horror comedy classic, but an oddity all the same. Directed with gusto by John Landis, it's genuinely funny and scary, sometimes at the same time. You can’t accuse it of being one genre without contradicting the other.
The ever-changing tone might unsettle new viewers, especially if they’ve been told it’s one thing or another, but it rewards repeat viewings and anyone well versed in horror mythology; this movie works best as a love letter to horror nerds. Landis takes nothing seriously except character, plays the whole thing with a tongue wedged firmly into his cheek, and treats everything with respect and affection. It could easily dip into sentimentality; a frightened David (David Naughton) phones home at one point and it could have been mawkish, but it’s funny, in the way that real families can be.
The characters are a touchstone while the rest of the film has fun playing up to stereotypes like bumbling coppers in a rather quaint view of London, or The Slaughtered Lamb pub, populated with a typical 'Hammer Horror' group of superstitious locals. We don't give traditional pubs names like that and the moors aren't populated by such folk keeping terrible, murderous secrets with Satanic symbols on the walls. Well, I hope not anyway! As the inquisitive doctor (John Woodvine) says, "we'd have seen it on the telly".
It works so well because Landis is having as much fun as us, channelling his inner child who probably sat up too late watching horror movies when he was a kid. An American Werewolf in London sits in a sadly little-used sub-genre along with Joe Dante's werewolf flick The Howling, also Gremlins, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead. It's little-used because the entries have to be good and horror audiences are fickle. Dante and Landis' work were the first decent traditional monster flicks for decades.
The daft story also doesn’t distract from some of the best effects ever put on film, courtesy of Rick Baker, a recipient of an Oscar for his trouble. Like the straight-laced The Thing, the work holds up to this day, with gore often part of the absurd comedy. Visits from Jack's (Griffin Dunne) corpse are freakishly fun highlights, but when it wants to be scary, it pulls no punches especially that early sequence on the moors, and the random attacks in London. Though not so much the final rampage. It's great, but it's Landis cutting loose, not trying to scare us but using lots of blood, bouncing heads, and car crashes. He did the scary stuff earlier to great effect on the Underground; London's tube system can be lonely and full of echoes anyway, without a sodding werewolf wandering around. Of course, in keeping with the ever switching tone, the victims confront David when he meets what's left of Jack in a porn cinema, with hilarious results.
It's all held together with the central performances of David and his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter) who run straight and true throughout. That's right, you get horror, comedy and even a genuine (sorry) romance too.
This is a wonderful transfer. It still looks like a typically muted British 80s genre flick - exactly the look Landis would have wanted - but now the colours stand out. So do the shiny entrails. No, really; Griffin Dunne points out in the commentary that they were so confident in Rick Baker’s effects, they filmed them fully lit. That’s always been the case of course, but this new restoration from the original negative makes it feel fresh and very raw.
You have the choice of original uncompressed mono or 5.1 DTS-HD. The former is excellent, but the remix is a gift. This film lends itself to a cartoonish, playful presentation. The attack on Jack and David is a perfect example; without a score, dialogue is clear without any reverb, perfectly recreating the uniquely oppressive silence of the moors, while separating the effects of the unseen wolf into the surround. It’s terrifying.
A still very enthusiastic John Landis pops up several times in the latest material for this release, including a new introduction in which he explains his love of British cinema. Arrow clearly share that enthusiasm and have pulled together an extraordinary package of archive material and superb new productions. There’s a good couple of hours of material and the vast majority of it is worth diving in; there’s even an excellent video essay about Jewish identity. No stone has been left unturned.
Paul Davis’ classic documentary is included and he now provides a commentary too, full of his extensive production knowledge. A second commentary with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne is a very enjoyable listen, albeit with gaps.
For fans of the genre, a new substantial documentary on the history of the Universal werewolf is wonderful and features contributions from Joe Dante.
- New audio commentary by Beware the Moon filmmaker Paul Davis
- Audio commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne
- Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, newly produced, feature-length documentary by filmmaker Daniel Griffith, featuring interviews with John Landis, David Naughton, Joe Dante and more.
- An American Filmmaker in London, a newly filmed interview with John Landis in which he reflects on British cinema and his his time working in Britain.
- I Think He's a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret, new video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976) about how Landis film explores Jewish identity.
- The Werewolf s Call, Corin Hardy, director of The Nun, chats with writer Simon Ward about their formative experiences with Landis film.
- Wares of the Wolf, new featurette in which SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store look at some of the original costumes and special effects artefacts from the film.
- Beware the Moon, Paul Davis acclaimed, feature-length exploration of Landis film which boasts extensive cast and crew interviews
- Making An American Werewolf in London, a short archival featurette on the film s production.
- An Interview with John Landis, a lengthy archival interview with the director about the film.
- Make-up Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London, the legendary make-up artist discusses his work on the film.
- I Walked with a Werewolf, an archival interview with the make-up artist about Universal horror and its legacy of Wolfman films.
- Casting of the Hand, archival footage from Rick Baker's workshop as they cast David Naughton's hand
- Original trailers, teasers and radio spots
- Extensive image gallery featuring over 200 stills, posters and other ephemera
- Reversible sleeve featuring original poster art and artwork by Graham Humphreys
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- Six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions
- Limited edition 60-page book featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and Simon Ward, archival articles and original reviews