An American Werewolf in London (97 minutes, Rated R)
When people talk about classic horror films, most individuals mention Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, The Exorcist, and rightfully An American Werewolf in London. However, this famous werewolf movie is mentioned more because of its groundbreaking practical effects than its story; but in the vain of Evil Dead 2, this horror comedy is both equally effective in getting scares or laughs. Yes, the 1980s flair of this film reflects aspects that are quite dated, yet most of the horror classics have elements that have not aged well. In the end, the audience is getting a horror classic that needs to be remembered for both its amazing visuals, as well as, its perfect mixture of tones.
The basic plot of An American Werewolf in London is while two friends are backpacking through Ireland they are attacked by a werewolf; one is killed but the other survives the attack and is taken to a hospital in London. Though it is quite simple, no one was expecting an intricate plot about werewolves. This movie is good at stripping down the werewolf belief to its most basic form, which seemingly grounds this hyper-realistic re-telling of the classic story. Yes, certain characters, like the cops, are exaggerations, but are so for comedic purposes; on the other hand, characters like Dr. Hirsch, Nurse Alex Price, or even the main character David Kessler are seemingly grounded people in an extraordinarily weird world. Perhaps, these people do not notice the peculiarities of the world around them because they have accepted the absurdity of it. Either way, this mixture of hyperrealism with somewhat grounded characters works because of the perfectly orchestrated tonal fusion.
And like Evil Dead 2, the mixture of horror and comedy separates An American Werewolf in London from other pictures. Yes, there are effective horror scenes: the jump scares and gore could be quite unsettling. However, writer and director, John Landis knows how to perfectly mix these two genres. He does not try to force comedy during the horror scenes or vice versa. For instance, during the hospital scenes, which could be considered the movie’s only lull, Landis livens up the screen with comedic quarrels of the other nurses or the polar opposite cops.
It certainly rides the fine line between a horror comedy and a farce, yet Landis’ picture remains an effective movie by completely thwarting my expectations. For instance, the nightmare sequences, which are over-done in horror films, ‘sort of’ work because of how deranged and twisted they are: not many people would have expected Nazi werewolves. And this movie comes to a crashing halt with a depressing ending that is matched with a seemingly upbeat final credits song, ‘Blue Moon’ by the Marcels. In fact, the movie’s upbeat soundtrack, which has three separate versions of ‘Blue Moon,’ perfectly displays the ‘off the wall’ descent of our main character: who coincidentally gets livelier after his initial transformation, which could be a comment about the lunacy of the world.
With that said, when one sees An American Werewolf in London it is not for the story: even if its simple plot has surprisingly withstood the test of time. One sees this movie for the Oscar winning make up by Rick Baker. As a fan of cinema, I have seen the transformation scene a million different times, however, it somehow becomes more effective with each viewing. And for the most part, the rest of the visuals deliver; the scene where David first sees Jack Goodman’s (Griffin Dunne) decomposition is both horrifying and satisfying. And while his later appearances could be considered comedic, I think that was what Baker was going for.
However, the same cannot be said for some of the dated make up effects: such as the Nazi werewolves in the nightmares. Their masks and costumes scream 80s and are quite passé by today’s standards. And one can say the same about the actual werewolf; though the transformation scenes look amazing, the werewolf, like Jaws, looks its best when shown briefly. This technique leaves more up to the imagination of viewer, thus making it scarier; however, when the werewolf is fully shown it seems unintimidating and quite robotic, which is how I felt about Jaws’ reveal in Spielberg’s classic.
And this is not the only dated aspect of the movie; the acting is what one would expect from a 80s horror film. The stiff performances at the beginning were quite distracting, which resulted in the missing of jokes. And the acting is not saved until the Jenny Agutter’s Nurse Price enters the picture: she seemingly forms chemistry with the less talented David Naughton, which ultimately saves the narrative of An American Werewolf in London.
Last, David’s dreams about his primal state ‘toe the line’ between effective and downright cheesy. For instance, the music playing as he awkwardly runs naked around the woods and eats a deer reflects the scene, which can be described as unintentionally hilarious. But at the same time, the following woods sequence has one of the most effective jump scares as his face transforms into a hideous ‘vampire-like’ creature. So the movie certainly has its problems, but the overall fun with the final product, can help one forget the clearly evident flaws.
In the end, An American Werewolf in London successfully attempts to update the werewolf lore; there is no such thing as silver bullets or other silly plot points from previous werewolf movies. This horror classic attempts to simplify this lore and the fact that it is funny does not hinder the scary elements or the impact of the creature. Because what does the werewolf lore represent? It represents the idea of stripping someone of their humanity and leaving them at their most primal state: something that seemingly happens in everyday society. And I am not saying that Landis’ classic is in the grander scheme criticizing the world through werewolves; I am just saying that the werewolf-phobia or lupophobia stems from the fear of humanity at its most basic form. And that is why the darker tones of An American Werewolf in London mix perfectly with the absurdity.