An American Werewolf In London (1981) An American Werewolf In London (1981)
"An American Werewolf in London" is a classic- but does it really succeed as a horror comedy? Asimov_Lives wants to know. An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Hello, AsimovLives here.

For the Halloween month, I bring another horror film review. It was first published at Talkbacker. It has been re-edited for the purpose of this article.

This review was supposed to kick off a series of articles where I would review horror-comedy hybrids, but besides this one nothing else come out of it as it was sidetracked by other articles and movie reviews that caught my interest instead.

So, for your enjoyment and pleasure, here’s my review of…

An American Werewolf In London.

The subject of this article is An American Werewolf In London. Considered by many to be the pinnacle of the hybrid horror-comedy genre, the ultimate example of how the merging of the two genres can be achieved, it was a tremendous commercial success at the time of release, became a cult classic, and it’s considered by many to be the pinnacle of director’s John Landis career both commercially and artistically. And I don’t think too highly of the film. Oops!

Boring credits stuff:

Title: An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Studio: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Writer and Director: John Landis

Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne

Running time: 97 minutes.

What’s the story about? Well, here’s a short…

SYNOPSIS:

Rural England, early 1980s.

David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two American backpackers decide to avoid the warnings of the local innkeeper and risk crossing the moors to reach faster to their intended destination. Full moon shines in the night sky and on cue they get attacked by a large canine-like creature. Jack is mauled and killed but David survives.

At the hospital, David is immediately struck by the beauty of his nurse Alex Price, whom he manages to woo. After his discharge from the hospital he has little immediate prospects to return to his homeland. Alex  allows him to stay at her flat and quickly a relationship grows between them. But David keeps having very violent and bizarre nightmares and hallucinations where he sees the dead and an increasingly decomposing Jack warning him about the new full moon and that he should kill himself before he turns into a murdering beast. Things get more and more bizarre, until, starting with the next full moon, David turns into a werewolf every night at full moon and goes on a murderous rampage, which he has no recollection of when he wakes up the next morning. But he slowly clues himself in to what is happening, while the ghost of his victims appear to him and reinforce Jack’s pleas to commit suicide before be becomes a murdering werewolf for good, without a possibility to return to human form ever again. But David’s reluctance to die wastes too much time and eventually he goes full werewolf and attacks at the very heart of London, where mayhem ensues. It does not end in laughters.

And now to the…

OPINION PIECE

For so many years I have heard of how awesome this film is. How successful it is in combining both  horror and comedy genre, the perfect marriage made film. I always had a problem with this opinion. Because I don’t share it.

I find it to be a very successful horror movie. The horror is truly horrific, and it was unusually gory for a wide release film at the time. The movie leaves little to the imagination when it comes to the consequences of a werewolf attack on its victims. And then there’s the unusual touch of having the decomposing Jack’s ghost, who gets worse and worse each time he reappears to David. The werewolf transformation scene was a watershed in special effects history, as for the first time a movie decided to portray said change as much as possible “in camera”. While a lot of editing trickery is used, each shot is unusually long for the time. Also, the transformation itself is unusually long in its full depiction. And it might have been one of the first films to depict the transformation as very painful for the cursed, something which is now taken for granted in all werewolves stories that came afterwards. The horror element are suitably horrific and very successful.

But it’s the comedy elements where things do not work so well for me. Yes, the movie is funny in moments, but I never had a truly laugh-out moment while watching it. There is an idea of comedy there, which I recognize in theory. But the humour, while often happening in moments where gore is present, or during some of David’s stranger dreams, still goes for light-hearted. The movie is confusing in that on one hand it goes for horrific horror while on the other hand the comedy is so light and easy. Landis, in creating the comedy element of this movie, couldn’t dissociate from one of his preceding films, Animal House (1978), and goes for the same easy target comedy. The comedy in An American Werewolf in London never goes for a dark, harsh, crossing-the-line dark comedy one would assume would be in tune with a film like this.

There is some inspiration from British horror in this film. Some nods to Hammer films here and there, and also to British humour here and there as well. The movie was made by one of the first filmmakers who were heavy in homaging their forerunners, the baby boomer filmmaker generation that included artists such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese… to name a few. Small wonder, all those were at the time close friends, often collaborating on each other’s works.

Some words should be said about Elmer Bernstein’s score, which is surprisingly old school for the movie, as if it takes the horror aspect of the story very seriously and forgets there’s comedy in it as well.

The special effects, by Rick Baker, are still referential. While the technology has improved in the interim, the werewolf transformation is still seen today as the watermark where make-up special effects came of age. This and “The Howling” are the two films where creature special effects took it to another level never seen before, and later next year in 1982 with John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, a level of excellency was achieved that became the bar by which all other works have been judged since.

FINAL VERDICT

I do not dispute that An American Werewolf In London is a successful film in its entertainment qualities. It’s a fun time while it last on the screen. It was an achievement in special effects that changed the game forever. It’s very effective as horror, not so much as comedy. There’s some good comedy, but sometimes it feels forced. It’s a mixed bag film, as far as I am concerned. My final statement is, that while the film deserves to be seen as a classic, it’s also overrated. A certain nostalgic factor informs this film that can make people over-appreciate it. It’s a fine film, it’s an important film, but it’s not great.

As always, thank you for reading.

This is Asimovlives, signing off. Be well.

Author Image

AsimovLives

Hailing from the atlantic lusitanian shores, AsimovLives is a native of Portugal (it's in Europe). An enthusiastic fan of Science Fiction and Cinema, together with varied interests in Science, Astronomy, History, Arts, Gastronomy, Wines & Spirits and all things Beauty. Unshakable convictions of humanism, secularism and rationalist kind. Tireless supporter of intelligent and honest-hearted entertainment. Staunch enemy of superstition and all dumbed down shallow hack made cynical cash-grabbing cinema and tirelessly calling out on their supporters, no half-measures. Passion is the game.

  • I love this film. All the upvotes:
    http://i.imgur.com/3AwmbHI.gif

  • Mr Nick Nightly

    I love this film but I have opposite feelings on it. I think it’s weak as a horror film, but works best as a black comedy. While there aren’t any real laugh-out-loud moments, it maintains a light, jolly tone throughout that keeps me chuckling. Also, this is the first R-rated horror movie that my parents let me rent when I was 9.

  • Mr Nick Nightly

  • Stalkeye

    80’s Fuck da World!!!!

  • Stalkeye

    I always saw it as a Black Comedy and less scary unlike Return of the Living Dead which contained a few shit in your pants moments.

  • Stalkeye

    LMMFAO@the featured image./pic

    Looks like David is really giving it to Alex. O:

  • CoolHandJuke

    This is one of those movies I can’t see the appeal of, outside of the transformation scene. Maybe I’ll rewatching later…

  • Toruk_Makto

    For me, The Howling will probably always be the greatest werewolf movie ever made. Ginger Snaps a close second with Dog Soldiers coming in 3rd.

  • Mr Nick Nightly

    I do believe you are correct.

  • CoolHandJuke

    Fuck it, spinning if now, but also working…

  • KilliK

    I have to agree with Asi, I find the movie uneven and never got the appeal of it. there are some awkward, sudden moments like the bath sex scene and the ending was more dramatic than scary, which is a contradiction to the previous comedy/horror tone of the film.

    I find Return of the Living Dead to achieve a better balance between scares and humor than this movie, but maybe that’s just me.

  • KilliK

    braiiiins. more braiiiins.

  • I rewatched The Howling recently and i was surprise by how ADULT the movie is. Certainly not one made for the kids.
    I loooooooooooooooooooooooooooove Dog Soldiers. That mvoie and The Descent made me a fan of Neil Marshall for life.

    I haven’t seen Ginger Snaps yet, but i heard nothing but good things about it.

  • Blame Dee for that i had another in mind but it could run with copyrights infringements problems.
    Jezz, blaming others, i’m starting to sound like JJ Abrams!!!

  • In the ass!!!!

  • My problem with the movie is precicely because of the light tone. It just sits wrong for me given the inerently dramatic nature of a werewolf story.
    I think the original 1940’s The Wolf Man managed to be more sucessful in ballancing the light and darker tones of the story.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    This is a weak and short-sighted assessment of a truly masterful movie. I’ve never seen a genre film that balances macabre humor and genuine horror so effectively as AWIL, with the one element strongly reinforcing the other. The likes of Return of the Living Dead and Re-Animator are fun, but too campy by comparison.

    AWIL is also an extremely witty movie, and cleverly sends up a multitude of horror conventions, which is why it’s been endlessly parodied itself in return. Even the great Stanley Kubrick – no stranger to black comedy and visionary genre mixing with Dr. Strangelove – rated this movie as one of his favorites, and with good reason. He recognized it as one of his own.

    The Howling is a solid werewolf flick, but cannot come close to this movie’s achievements. AWIL is John Landis’s finest hour – before he became a helicopter-dropping asshole!

  • KilliK

    well, if Kubrick liked it, then it closes the deal.

  • Stalkeye

    Stop hatin, you!

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    It doesn’t close the deal, but it does say a lot about the movie’s cleverness if you know the kind of things Kubrick looked for and appreciated in movies.

    Honestly, I think this movie may be a bit over some people’s heads. Not due to a lack of intelligence, but due to cultural differences. Landis is, of course, American, but the humor in this movie is extremely dry and droll, and very British.

    Yes, Asimov did, in fairness, point this out, but it’s one thing to understand this academically, and another thing to get it. The language barrier probably leaves a lot of things lost-in-translation, as well. There are subtle things in this movie that are very funny yet not signposted at all, and delivered dead straight. Someone not attuned to the movie’s wavelength could completely fail to pick up on them.

    AWIL is not a typical Hollywood movie at all, nor – hehehe – a typical 80s middle of the road one (so it should be safe for Asimov to confess to fully admiring it, if that was his impediment to doing so). It’s astonishing that a major studio bankrolled this movie (Universal, I think) and that an American mainstream director could write such a perceptive cultural narrative.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    He doesn’t like this movie because it came from the eighties. I am absolutely certain of it.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    You clearly don’t get this movie at all. This is not intended to be some heavy-handed treatment of the werewolf parable a la Christopher Nolan. Nor is it some superficial eighties lighthearted horror movie.

    I should add that, in addition to the perceptive British kitchen sink social realism context of the movie, this movie is also heavily informed by Landis’s wry and arch (cultural not religious) Jewish outlook. Another reason why the movie perhaps struck a chord with Kubrick.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    LOL, good work.

  • Be as it may, i think the film is a classic and meritedly so, it did mch to further the SFX technology of the time and it brought a new public to the horror genre, and i’s suces helped the making of other werewolf themed movies like my much eloved A Company of Wolves, so for that laone im’ very thankful of AAWIL for existing.

    But the style of the movie just doesn’t groove with me. I have seen better mi of horror and comedy before and after. If you ask me, and in the werewolve genre itself, i found DOG SOLDIERS to be much more sucessful.

  • Nice.

  • It’s the facts, m’am!

  • KilliK

    he is getting it, he just doesnt like it. I am with him on that.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    If he’s viewing the humorous aspects of the movie as mere extensions of Animal House and Landis’s previous silly comedies, he clearly isn’t. This is a much subtler beast.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    How can you not find humor in a man sitting around having a casual conversation with the decaying corpse of his best friend, who’s imploring him to kill himself? The movie is a riot.

  • That scene is funny, yes. I appreciate that kind of humour. But the movie is not a riot for me.
    I did liked the ending being so dark and dramatic. however. I did liked that whiplash.

  • Did you even read my review? Tell me where i say i don’t like the movie. There is a world of diference between not rating it a masterpiece and hating it. The world is not that black and white. You got to be more careful with such exalted statements like that.

    As for the eighties stuff, that’s a subject for another time. Not here, not now.

  • No, it’s not like Animal House indeed. No disagreement on that.

  • To understand it academically is to get it. But just because i get it doesn’t mean i have to love it.

    For example, i think Casablanca is a masterpiece, but i don’t love it. That movie dodn’t click for me the same way a movie made at that same year, Citizen Kane, does.

  • I do agree this movie is Landis’ finest hour.

  • Tarmac492.1

    The Makeup work on Griffin Dunne in the hospital might be the most beautifully disgusting thing i have ever seen.

  • Tarmac492.1

    I like the quick, in the shadows, 2nd transformation over the first. All due respect to the genius of Mr. Baker.

  • Tarmac492.1

    The werewolf loose in Picadilly Circus is a blast.

  • Tarmac492.1

    Really a great flick.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    You said “And I don’t think too highly of the film.” That doesn’t exactly strike me as a ringing endorsement, or even that you consider it good at all.

  • It’s not a ringing endorsement, yes. Not it is a hate speech either. It is what it means, i do not count it among the great. but nor i am calling it a piece of shit. Hell, i don’t even say it’s banal or forgetable. I think it’s overrated, yes, and personally the movie doesn’t do all that much besides some occasional inspired mometns i enjoy and appreciate. This is hardly a call to burn the movie at the stake, is it? Not every movie is either a love of hate. In fact, the majority are inbetween those two opinions. I’m not of the disposition to merely hate or love a movie and nothing in between, there’s more shades to it than just two extremes. In fact, a movie needs to have done something truly spectacular in eithe way for me to end up loving or hating it. American Werewolf might not have set my world on fire, but it certainly didn’t do anything wrong that would make me dislike it.

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    There are many senses of the phrase “getting it”. It doesn’t mean simply “I understand the joke” on an intellectual level.

    Humor is not so robotic – it’s informed by cultural understanding, perspective and counter-intuition. Remember the scene in Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman fails to understand a gag because it’s not logical? Exactly that.

  • Well, Rain Man is not very good at representing autismm in fact it was heavily cirticised for that. As a drama is pretty nice, but as a depiction of the desease it’s almost a disgrace.

    Actually, you can make humour of logic. The Monty Pythons crakced a lot of jokes on that subject. So it has to do with how good you are at humour, not about absolutes of the rules of comedy, whatever that means.

    I have often find humour funny from cultures they are not my own. There is a level to huour that can transcend that barrier. So this has nothjg to do with that in regard to this movie. The humour of it is just not that persistently funny to me, that’s all. It doesn’t completly connect with me. It’s neither as subtle nor as surreal or off-beat as i would had prefered. But if others enjoy it more than i do, more power to them.

  • Dr. Geiszler, Kaijuologist

    I still feel like Rain Man is a good flick. Dated but still a good flick.

  • Dr. Geiszler, Kaijuologist

    So who is on first then?

  • Yes it is. Surprisingly brutal, even with all the gore that had went before.

  • It is. Not one of the greats and hadly deserving of the oscars, but it’s a solid good movie. I do realy like the score that Hans Zimmer did for it, especially the main theme.

  • I might be misremembering, but i do think that at first Baker hated the idea of the first transformation happening in a very well lit conditions. In fact, most SFX guys of those times, working with those protestics, they rather have the photography hide the SFX then to show them off in bright light. Their thinking was the shadows and low light condtions would help disguise the artifice. It’s a reasonable concern, as they as a bunch of perfectionists feared the ridicule of a bad show of their work.

    Something like that also happend with Rob Botin and his work for Robotcop, where he insisted that the titular character wa sonly shown in shadows precisely because he feared in bright light photography his work would look silly and fake.

  • And he only gets worst.

  • Since when Cameron needs anybody to protect him?

  • KilliK

    I dont think this is the case here, I am not a big fan of the movie either. besides, nobody has to love all the great movies from the 80s, does he?

  • KilliK

    since never, but he is preoccupied with his Avatar sequels, so somebody needs to do the dirty work for him.

  • I’d be preocupied if i had hired Shane Salermo to write one of the sequels.

  • I can see your point and I partially agree, but overall I really love that film.The oddness often works in its favour.

  • KilliK

    LOL! good one. 😉

  • Turd Has Escaped The Gravy

    I don’t understand what you mean.