AnAmericanWerewolfInLondonThis werewolf classic, from writer/director John Landis, remains a groundbreaking combination of comedy and balls-out horror. The crummy ending aside, it’s one of Landis’ signature films, and among the eighties’ standout horror movies.

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, from 1981, was released around the same time as THE HOWLING, another comedic werewolf movie. I feel AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF is the superior film. The script was written back in 1969, and, according to John Landis, got him quite a few jobs in the ensuing years—yet the film still took over a decade to get made.

Starring David Naughton (at the time best known for headlining Dr. Pepper commercials), Griffin Dunne and Jenny Agutter, the film was genuinely unprecedented for its time, and remains a startling achievement. It’s the primary reason Landis is now identified as a “Master of Horror,” and also cemented the reputation of make-up artist Rick Baker, who won an Oscar for his amazing work.

Landis followed AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON with INNOCENT BLOOD (1992), a vampire comedy that wasn’t nearly as successful, and an in-name-only sequel, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, appeared in 1997. It’s best forgotten!

As AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON opens two Americans, David and Jack, are hiking in the Welsh Moors. One night they happen upon a rural pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb” whose patrons act suspicious, and sternly caution David and Jack to “keep to the road.” They disregard this advice…and pay for it when Jack is gored by a large wolf. The monster bites David but is shot by locals before it can do any more damage—upon expiring the creature promptly turns into a naked man.

While convalescing in a London hospital David is attended to by a way-cute nurse with whom he quickly starts up a relationship. But he’s also visited by the undead carcass of Jack, who informs David that he’s been bitten by a werewolf and will become such a critter himself during the next full moon.

As predicted, David becomes a werewolf the following night. As such he runs around London and kills a bunch of people, eventually waking up the following morning in the wolf pen of a local zoo.

The undead Jack, now a rotting corpse, visits David again in a Piccadilly Circus porno theater. This time, though, Jack has several companions: the ripped-up corpses of the people David killed the previous night. They’re all fated to walk the earth as the living dead until David commits suicide and so breaks the curse. More killings are imminent, of course, as David is about to become a werewolf once again…

Nearly all of John Landis’ cinematic trademarks are present in this film: pointed and uncluttered visual compositions, carefully timed comedy and assorted nerdy quirks (notably the words “See You Next Wednesday,” a line from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY that turns up in all Landis’ movies, here on a porno marquee). Also present is the love of excess that informs his early films (and would get him into big trouble during the production of 1983’s TWILIGHT ZONE THE MOVIE). It’s evident in an early werewolf transformation that drags on a bit too long (severely undercutting the brilliance of Rick Baker’s make-up effects) and a gratuitously violent nightmare sequence that has no bearing on the narrative. The climactic pile-up in Piccadilly Circus is similarly overdone, harkening back to the auto mayhem of Landis’ previous effort THE BLUES BROTHERS.

Yet for all that the film really works, as a horror movie above all. The werewolf killings are timed and edited with the same precision as the gags of ANIMAL HOUSE—particularly effective are the quick cuts of the wolf biting peoples’ necks, and a wide shot of the thing slowly emerging from an underground tunnel. And while the violence may be gratuitous, it’s undeniably effective, presented in short, contained bursts without any fancy lighting or sound effects.

What ultimately makes the film is the unfailingly witty and imaginative script. However, it bears one of Landis’ career-long problems: an abrupt and unsatisfying ending!

Vital Statistics

Polygram Pictures

Director: John Landis
Producer: George Folsey, Jr.
Screenplay: John Landis
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Editing: Malcolm Campbell
Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye, David Schofield, Paul Kember, Fran Oz, Don McKillop