If you ever get the chance go to Greenwich Village in New York, check out the Slaughtered Lamb pub. Quite awesome and obviously thematic. This film is widely considered one of the best Werewolf movies in existence. It’s not a huge genre like the ghost story or the even insanely more popular vampire. The films that do exist here are largely junk and partially that lays on the feet of the nature of the creature itself. You see Vampires are easy, their anatomy isn’t that difficult to do make up for. Werewolves have a few ways you can go. There’s the classic Lon Chaney-esque wolf man, which is more of a man wolf. The human anatomy doesn’t change at all, aside from pointed ears and a slightly pronounced jaw that makes for an almost muzzle. The more difficult and more commonly used – and abused – is the wolf head on a humanoid body. It doesn’t work, the bone structure isn’t there. The skull shape is too alien and unusually to effectively morph *and* have the actors effectively emote through and perform. Speaking is right out without ridiculous effects that take most people out of it while they laugh. A handful of films get this effect right, Underworld, Dog Soldiers and of course An American Werewolf in London.
I want to talk technicals right away. This movie won an Academy award for make up effects. Rick Baker who has a handful of credits in the few years prior to this, such as a little film called Star Wars, did an amazing job in designing and creating the practical effects. One of the scenes in the film is hands down the best werewolf transformation scene done without the use of CGI ever filmed. It’s a little ironic that nearly thirty years later he would be the senior make up artist on the remake of The Wolfman. Baker is one of the best in the industry and this movie was just at the start of his career. The raw amount of practical effects that hold up to this day are in a word – astounding.
Lets talk about the other aspects of the film, such as the fact that it was written and directed by the same man, John Landis. That seems to be a trend in the horror industry a written and directed by Credit. Landis is best known for his comedic work such as Animal House, The Blues Brothers and Clue. Those kinds of influences are clearly shown in the comedic and campy elements that make up the non horror elements of the film. While not the first campy horror, this one may be one of the finest blends. Landis brought beautiful dark and somber moments that are highlighted only by quiet music and saddening dialogue where moments before it had been embracing an almost ridiculous schlock and corny dialogue.
The story itself is around two best friends, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne); Americans backpacking their way through England. While trying to get a bite to eat and a drink they enter the Slaughtered Lamb pub and stick out like a gangrenous sore thumb. They are quickly encouraged to leave and travel across the moor’s not heading the warning to stick to the road. The pair is attacked by a creature in the dark and Jack is killed. David severely wounded watches his friend die before him, only to wake up in a hospital three weeks later. Everyone questions David’s sanity, including himself, as he talks about what he saw. Then Jack shows up clawed face, torn throat and all telling David he is one of the undead, a sort of ghost in this film that cannot find peace. He tells David he is a werewolf and the only way to prevent more death is to kill himself. Of course, no one else can see Jack which makes David question his sanity even more. The rest of the movie centers around David trying to fight what he is to become, ever being tortured/tempted by Jack to do what must be done.
Aside from Landis direction much of the power comes from the performances of the two main actors. Both men have had relatively extensive, but not significant careers since the film. It’s unfortunate, but as movies to have a gem this is a good one. Even as a progressively rotting corpse Dunne’s performance as Jack retains human elements that keep him relatable and also humorous despite the message he is trying to convey to his best friend in the world. David for his part runs the gambit of emotions and lets you feel his pain as the curse drives him to the brink. His performance two thirds through the movie with the rise of the full moon is one that set the stage for nearly every werewolf film to come. He, Landis and Baker made the transformation painful, horrific and as realistic as possible.
Other performances such as Jenny Agutter as Alex Price, Davids nurse and caretaker after the accident, and John Woodvine as Dr. Hirsch help push the story forward while David languishes. There’s also a certain charm to the interactions David has with his other victims as the body count rises in the film.
The end of the film is also one of the few that you will find in Hollywood that ends on such a note. While this form of ending has increased in recent years, few do it so well and end so suddenly.
An American Werewolf In London is an absolute must see camp/horror classic. Nearly every other Lycanthrope film since then is but a pale shadow of this one. The need for CGI over the practical only diminishes newer films further.
Tomorrow will likely come a bit late as it’s a double review. It’s twelve has been twelve for a long time.