An American Werewolf in London Review
The comedy/horror film has always faced a rather unique problem; namely, if it's too funny, it won't be frightening at all, whereas if it's too frightening, the laughs simply won't come. Of course, to succeed at one of the two genres is an achievement in itself, with the more likely result being that an uneasy and unnatural blend of two disparate types of film will simply cancel each other out, leading to a tiresome and bloody mess, as with John Landis' Innocent Blood. However, 10 years before that, he made An American Werewolf in London, which, if not a classic, is comfortably in the top drawer of cult films, due to its being one of the few films to be both funny and scary.
The basic plot owes a debt to the classic Universal Lon Chaney Jr werewolf films, albeit with a modern twist. David Kessler (Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Dunne) are two American hitchikers, who accidentally wander into a pub named 'The Slaughtered Lamb', where the locals are hiding A Terrible Secret. Sure enough, David is attacked, and Jack killed by a werewolf. David wakes to find himself in London, under the tender care of Nurse Alex (Agutter). However, as he suffers terrible nightmares, as well as the minor inconvenience of Jack refusing to stay dead, he begins to realise that, perhaps, his fate is to become the eponymous werewolf.
John Landis has been largely forgotten these days, partly because his career was damaged by an accident he was involved with on the set of the Twilight Zone film in which three people were killed, but also because his best work, such as this and Trading Places, was made in the 1980s. However, his direction and script here are of a very high standard indeed, successfully moving from comedy to horror and back again. The two most famous scenes in the film are probably the initial werewolf attack, and Naughton's transformation; both are as intense and visceral as anything made by John Carpenter or Wes Craven, and are still unpleasant today. On the other hand, there are countless great comedy moments; my own favourite is when Naughton, trying to get arrested, starts shouting random anti-English abuse in Trafalgar Square, including 'Shakespeare was French!' It's a very fine line that the film walks, and there are certainly moments where, in attempting to combine the two, Landis stumbles slightly; however, the hits are far more numerous than the misses.
The performances are all pretty good, although nothing outstanding. As the slightly nerdy hero, Naughton is fine, managing to convey the human side of David's anguish and despair very well. Dunne (who has achieved greater success as a director and producer) is fun in a wry part as the steadily decomposing Jack, and Agutter is almost iconic in(and, indeed out of) a nurse's uniform, as well as giving the film's best performance by some distance. Further down the cast are fun cameos from Brian Glover (as an all-purpose rustic) and Rik Mayall (as a chess-playing rustic), contributing to the very British atmosphere in the film, which even stretches to a lovingly filmed pastiche of British porn, called 'See you next Wednesday' (Landis' favourite phrase).
I wouldn't try and argue that the film is some sort of milestone in cinematic history, or even that it's flawless; for a start, it's too short at 98 minutes, and, as mentioned before, some of the moments that attempt to combine horror and comedy don't really work. I also find the climax and denouement somewhat unsatisfying, because the key emotional moment is tossed away, whereas a more experienced director might have allowed it to reach its full pathos. Of course, there's an equally strong argument that pathos doesn't really belong in a film like this, but it's a credit to the skill with which the film is made that a viewer can even begin to be moved by such an absurd situation.
Universal have done a nice job with this restored 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Colours are bright and clear, there is little evidence of grain, the film is largely blemish-free, and there is no sign of edge enhancement. It's not as stunning a restoration as a 'proper' one, such as North by Northwest or Spartacus, but it's a more recent film, and therefore less in need of one; however, kudos to Universal for doing a good job here.
Here we have a remixed DTS and Dolby soundtrack. While there will always be purists who demand the original mono track, I'd always prefer that I see and hear the film in the best possible state, and if a remix is necessary to do this, then I would prefer that. This is actually a far more sympathetic and useful remix than some of the others I have heard; while the dialogue is still located in the front speakers, there is some good use of surrounds for the effects, which only adds to the film's success as a horror piece in the various werewolf attack scenes.
Universal, once the guiding light of the DVD industry, have largely been relegated to the second division recently when it comes to extras, being accused of relying far too heavily on promotional material and re-releasing films in 'Ultimate editions', which are, of course, nothing of the sort. However, they have done a pretty good job here, although some of the extras leave a little to be desired.
The main extra is the commentary with Dunne and Naughton. The question here is why Landis wasn't involved; it's always annoying to hear a commentary where the participants can only speculate on the director's intentions, although the banter between the two of them makes this a mostly entertaining listen, albeit with some periods of silence. Landis' absence is partially made up for with a 15-minute interview with him, in which he briefly outlines the film's genesis and production. As you'd expect, he's very funny, and it's a shame that the segment isn't longer. For those more interested in the technical side, there's also a 10-minute Rick Baker interview in which he talks about the werewolf make-up and movement; the best part of this is the chance to see some unused effects shots.
The other extras are all 'vintage', but still fairly interesting. The original featurette is a 5-minute promo piece, albeit with some quite interesting behind-the-scenes footage, and a short sequence showing Naughton's hand being cast for the transformation scenes. There's a short outtake reel, unfortunately without sound, but made up for by a truly bizarre moment at the end, which is certainly worth waiting for. A storyboard-to-film comparison (interesting, but too short), a photo montage, and the usual round of production notes and biographies round off the extras. Surprisingly, no trailer is included.
A very entertaining (and surprisingly scary) film is finally released on a decent DVD, with good picture and sound quality, and some useful extras, albeit slightly short ones. Certainly recommended for fans of the film; certainly not recommended for fans of the weak sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which managed to miss the point of the original entirely. The first is, as so often, the best.