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…
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…
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.
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.