An American Werewolf In London Review
There are very few films that can claim to have had a category in the Oscars created solely based on their own achievements, and An American Werewolf In London is one of them. The stunning special makeup effects, created by the now legendary Rick Baker, caused the Oscars Academy in 1981 to create the Best Achievement In Makeup category, and this helped the film to garner a massive cult following.
Written and directed by John Landis after turning in three fine films (Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, The Blues Brothers), An American Werewolf In London is either a comic horror film or a very black comedy depending on how you look at it. There are times in the film in which you are laughing at it, and there are also times in which you are compelled to look away from the screen in fear. Everyone harps on about comedy and horror not being a match made in heaven (or hell) and this is primarily because most offerings that follow this path of hybridising these genres aren't sure which side they favour most. The most successful examples however, such as the hilarious Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn stick to their guns and remain confident that the material they have is successful enough.
The plot of An American Werewolf In London is familiar - two American travellers David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are trekking through the north of England when they stop off at a local pub. The local inhabitants of the pub are less than hospitable to say the least, and after practically being kicked out with some eerie warnings, the two travellers continue their trek through the night, until they hear disturbing howls in the distance. Almost immediately, a ferocious werewolf attacks them, and Jack is killed. David is also attacked, but suddenly wakes up weeks later in a London hospital. Under the care of an attractive and kind English nurse called Alex (Jenny Agutter), David is brought back to health, despite the fact that no-one believes his 'wolf-attack' story. Soon enough however, he is visited by his dead friend Jack, who informs David that he will turn into a werewolf by the next full moon, and must kill himself unless he wants to be responsible for killing innocent people once in his wolf-man state. David is too confused to believe Jack, but come the next full moon, events become much more hair-raising...
It's quite refreshing to see a horror film that doesn't take itself seriously like The Exorcist or The Omen and yet isn't cheap trash like Troma. Full credit to Rick Baker as the werewolf transition effects are very slick indeed and certainly push the limitations of the budget. Baker's effects collaborate well with Landis' direction, which gives the film an in-your-face tone, and yet the aura of the film isn't bogged down by divine or supernatural pretentiousness. This is almost the definitive example of a Saturday-night sit-around movie in which anyone, whether they are film scholars or mainstream enthusiasts, can watch and enjoy in the company of friends. This is mainly due to the sterling directing job by John Landis, a director who has built a very impressive career for himself even if he did direct Beverly Hills Cop III. Landis has a fantastic sense of timing in both comedy and horror; he knows how to scare the audience perfectly and he knows when to deliver a humourous moment. Landis also has great fun aiming digs at the British cultural system. Notice the onlooking woman blaming hooligans for what is actually a werewolf mauling-to-death a poor fellow; or David's frustration at the three television channels (Channel 4 wasn't around then) showing the Testcard, darts and a News Of The World expose advert! However, fans of League Of Gentlemen or indeed The Wicker Man will delight at David and Jack's encounter with the Slaughtered Lamb pub, which contains the obligatory extremely-suspicious locals. Fronted by famous Brits Brian Glover and Rik Mayall, the inhabitants hide the community's hideous secret so inconspicuously that their very presence unnerves the two travellers.
Performances are very good, even if the two Americans Naughton and Dunne outshine Agutter and co, with the exception of Brian Glover who is always menacingly charismatic in whatever film he appears in. Naughton, just like Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead, is the likeable enough guy who just seems to have all of the worst luck possible, and we the audience even empathise with him when he is in pain. It's almost as if his character is the films' punchbag for horror experimentation. Griffin Dunne has most of the film's laughs as Jack, David's rotting and undead companion whose physical state degrades fiercely. Jenny Agutter is almost bemused as Alex, almost as if she isn't quite sure what she has gotten herself into.
Proving that John Landis has a sense of humour, the director has filled the soundtrack with many classic and yet perfectly thematic songs, such as Bobby Vinton's Blue Moon, Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon Rising and Van Morrison's Moondance.
An American Werewolf In London isn't an out-and-out classic such as the perfect Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, but it manages to come a close second. The fact that it managed to shake the rather conservative Oscar academy to bestow it an award is enough proof in itself as to the film's quality, and many fans across the world agree that it is one of the most fun horror films to have ever been made. Even if you don't see it, be sure to avoid the dreadful rip-off/sequel An American Werewolf In Paris which was made a few years ago.
Academy Awards 1981
Best Makeup - Rick Baker
Academy Award Nominations 1981
Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widesceen, the print is much improved from the dreadful pan-and-scan VHS versions even if it exhibits frequent grain and a few digital artefacts. Overall though, this is a fine version of the film in terms of picture quality, and is arguably the best An American Werewolf In London has ever looked.
DTS enthusiasts will be disappointed at the news that the Region 2 omits the DTS mix the film was given in the Region 1 version. Even so, a good 5.1 remix has been provided, and features excellent surround effects for the action sequences, such as winds blowing strongly and wolves howling, even if the dialogue is pressed firmly into the central channel.
Menu: An inspired menu from Universal, with a cloudy, night-time setting displaying the gradual change in image from David to a wolf, accompanied by the Creedence Clearwater Revival classic Bad Moon Rising.
Packaging: A package that looks nice but could have been designed better. The two discs are housed in a cardboard foldout sleeve that also contains a booklet of production notes. This cardboard packaging is protected by a transparent slide-on dust cover that contains the title in silver lettering.
Audio Commentary With David Naughton and Griffin Dunne: It's a shame Landis couldn't do a commentary considering he contributed a fine one with Zucker/Abraham/Zucker on Kentucky Fried Movie. Even so, the two actors here sound like firm friends and are open and hilarious about many incidents that occurred to them during the making of the film. Dunne frequently mocks Naughton over his numerous nudity scenes in the film and they both moan about the painful special effects they had to endure. There are a few long silences throughout, but the commentary is enjoyable enough to withstand this.
Behind The Scenes - Featurette: This is a brief five-minute featurette shot in 1981 that concentrates mainly on the amazing special effects for the film but still contains a few cast and crew interviews.
Outtakes: This is a three-minute role of out-takes and deleted footage that is unfortunately presented without a sound track (other than the sounds of a projection camera rolling) and is quite funny, especially the "Mysterious footage" at the end of the role which won't be ruined here for the sake of the surprise/shock.
Interview With John Landis: This is a very interesting contemporary interview with director John Landis over his thoughts and experiences on the film. It lasts for eighteen minutes and is fun to watch, as Landis is very charismatic and youthful despite his over-fifty age. Landis reveals that he wrote the script in 1969 after working on Kelly's Heroes and despite the fact the film took twelve years to make the script gained Landis many jobs.
Interview With Rick Baker: This is the same format as the John Landis interview but is slightly shorter at ten minutes. Baker reveals how he came to be involved in the film and admits that at times he (along with his young and naïve crew) didn't really know what he was doing. Considering this man has won six Oscars, it's amazing to note how a small horror film can launch a marvellous career.
Focus On Technical Effects: This is an unedited piece of behind-the-scenes footage that shows the crew at work on the film's infamous wolf-hand sequence. As the featurette is essentially a home video, it is often loose in structure, but still enjoyable.
Storyboard To Film Comparison: This is a two and a half minute storyboard-to-film comparison of most of the film's final sequence, comprised of storyboard sketches in the top left corner and shots of the film in the bottom left corner.
Stills Gallery: A three-minute roll of promotional stills from the film, backed with music.
An American Werewolf In London is a film DVD collectors would own even if it were featureless, and considering that notion, Universal have done a fairly good job. The picture and sound qualities of the film are fine (even if the Region 2 version omits the Region 1 DTS track) and the extras are very good if slightly sparse in comparison to many Special Edition releases (and where are the Region 1's DVD-ROM features and cast/crew filmographies?). In short, this is a classic and fun horror movie with a good range of DVD qualities.