An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London is a John Landis’ joint from nearly 40 years ago about Americans and werewolves and London. You read that right. John Landis. That guy who did Animal House and Blues Brothers? He also made a horror movie about what happens when you venture onto the moors of the British backcountry. This is one of the strangest horror experiences I’ve had as a first timer who knew nothing about a movie before watching. If you also fall into this same bucket read through the impending spoiler heavy review to see how it might hit you. If you have seen it many times, you should probably also read through the spoiler heavy review just to revisit your feelings from when you first crossed paths with this beautiful beast...

 Reviewed by: Mark

 
 

Plot Synopsis

The movie opens with two buddies, Jack and Dave, backpacking about the British backcountry. They bumble into a bar named the Slaughtered Lamb where things get awkward. As the two leave they are told specifically by the locals to stay off the moors, and then immediately proceed to wander across the moors like a couple of bumbling tourists. In one of the most predictable occurrences… well, ever… the two are attacked by a werewolf.

Smash cut to Dave in a hospital bed with the doctors telling him he was attacked by a lunatic. The movie makes it pretty clear that this is bunk by splicing in some utterly insane dream sequences that explain the various lycanthropic mishappenings. Dave ends up falling in love with his nurse as she heals him from the original attack. The one problem? He’s a fucking werewolf.

 

Nurse admiration of a similar magnitude.

 

Dave transforms into a werewolf and rampages around London. He wakes up the next day in the middle of the zoo, and escapes in a comical series of scenes in which David Naughton parades around London with no clothes on. He continues to be haunted by the ghosts of his friend Jack, played by Griffin Dunne, and his growing number of victims as the next full moon approaches.

The whole thing culminates in an utterly preposterous car crash scene in Piccadilly Circus, Werewolf Dave causing havoc, nurse Alex chasing after Dave, and basically every firearm in London shooting Dave into a swiss cheese oblivion. My synopsis probably didn’t do it justice, but it’s really more of a comedy movie that an actual honest-to-god horror movie.


What the Movie Does Right

I picked this movie as my “blindspot” selection, because I had somehow managed to not see it prior this viewing. Beyond that, I also knew very little about it as a whole. That being said the John Landis humor really caught me off guard. I thought this was going to be a serious werewolf movie, not a black comedy. I was way off. That realization hit me roughly around the same time as the Nazi Werewolves hit the Kessler family. Although the absurdist humor did put me a bit off-balance at first, I think it’s ultimately one of the greater strengths of this movie. I can easily see myself returning to watch this later to pick up on all the things I missed.

Another obvious strength of this film is its practical effects. They are incredible. There’s a reason that this movie won an academy award for best hair and makeup. The transformation scene (you’ll know it when you see it) is one of the best amalgamations of special effects I’ve ever experienced. Credit should go to Rick Baker, who did the “special makeup effects.” It’s a modest credit that actually means “made everything look awesome.” Even beyond the famous transformation scene there is no shortage of other shots that are simultaneously bonkers and highly detailed: you get the aforementioned nazi werewolves, you get the increasingly deceased Jack-ghost showing up in every other scene, you get a solid 30 seconds of ludicrous car crashes in Piccadilly Circus. It seems like there was no idea too extreme or impractical for the writers to include, and it pays off by making the moving a rollercoaster of unpredictability and humor.

 
 

I think you’ll find that the one item tying this whole movie together, the thread that knits the sweater, is Landis’ sense of humor. It permeates everything, including the soundtrack. They were clearly going for an on-the-nose tracklist by bringing Blue Moon, Moondance, and Bad Moon Rising to the table. Seeing the motif there? Honestly, the funniest bit is the song that is notoriously not included on the soundtrack: Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London. Perhaps it was too on the nose? Perhaps they only wanted rights to songs with “moon” in the title? The world may never know. Personally, I think it’s hilarious that it’s not included, and that Landis refuses to comment on the matter.


What the Movie Does Wrong

As I mentioned earlier, the humor really caught me off guard. This movie goes from 0 to bonkers in a single scene. Before you get into the dream sequences this seems to be a pretty straightforward film about a guy who is attacked by a werewolf. Then, all of a sudden, nazi werewolves with submachine guns. Now, I think this could be argued as being part of the charm of the movie, but slamming on the brakes that hard really pulled me out as a first time viewer. And that level of silliness persisted throughout the entire film. I don’t want to complain too much about that, because honestly on repeat viewings I’ll probably grow to love it, but it was a little much to stomach on a first time viewing.

 
Oh yeah sure, throw some nazi lizard monsters in there. That’ll help people stay focused.

Oh yeah sure, throw some nazi lizard monsters in there. That’ll help people stay focused.

 

The only other thing I can zero in on is that the movie is beginning to show its age in terms of sound editing. This has been a common thread whenever I review older movies, but the “over dubbed” audio track is a bit jarring. It’s just a little off when you sound the same regardless of if you are sitting in a hospital bed or if you are walking through the English moors. Jack commented during the podcast that, more than others, this is a movie that you need to have a max volume when people are talking, and damn near muted when anything else is happening. More an indictment of the time and technology than the movie itself, but it’s still something worth mentioning.


Ratings (1-10)

Story: 7 - The story is solid, if not a bit meandering. Ultimately I think it’s a better than average plot that is smart enough to keep the movie moving, but subtle enough to take a backseat to the immense practical effects and strange humor. Also, frankly, there just aren’t that many werewolf movies so it’s getting some points for uniqueness as well. The score would be higher if the preponderance of dream sequences didn’t bog the whole thing down a bit.

World-Building / Immersion: 5 - I’ve already discussed this above, but this is a such a significant departure from what I was expecting that I had a hard time being immersed. Granted, I think to some extent Landis and the rest of the crew were intending to pull you out a bit with some of these scenes, but that doesn’t mean they get a pass for this category.

Scare-Factor: 3 - Push comes to shove this is really more of a comedy than a horror. You have a few dream sequence jumpscares and a surprisingly solid chase scene through “the tube,” but aside from those it’s mostly just jokes.

Effects (or Judicious Lack Thereof): 9 - It’s hard to argue with the academy on this one. Jack gave this a perfect score and I can’t say I totally disagree. Ultimately I still knocked it a touch for two things: the look of the werewolf post transformation and Jack in his later stages of decay. There’s just something about that skeleton puppet that keeps me from going all the way to perfect.

Overall: 6 - The guys got mad at me for going this low. Here’s my point though: I think this movie’s rating will increase with repeated viewings. As a first time watcher there was too much happening in too much contrast to what I was expecting for me to really fully get into the movie. I would be a little weary recommending this movie to other people for exactly that reason. Still one of the best werewolf movies out there though.