“Beware the moon, lads.”
The werewolf movie dates back to 1935, surprisingly enough with a film called Werewolf of London. This movie would go on to be overshadowed by the 1941 classic The Wolf Man, a film that is not only referenced but revitalized with an 80s retelling in John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. The greatest success of this film is not that it breaks any new ground but rather how it revives old material in a new way. The metaphor of the man-turned-beast reflecting the primal nature of humanity is still played out to perfection, but this time it has a smile on its face, letting you laugh along the way.
David Kessler and Jack Goodman are two American friends on a backpacking tour of England. The film plays like a buddy comedy for just a few minutes until the pair stumble into the mysterious Slaughtered Lamb pub where the locals give a strange impression. Forced out into the night under a full moon, the friends are attacked by a werewolf with only David surviving the encounter, but at a grave cost. He recovers at a hospital in the city but soon finds that he is, you guessed it, an American werewolf in London.
From the outset, American Werewolf has some things to say about sex, and it never hits the brakes. The first victim, Jack (Griffin Dunne), spends a good deal of time discussing how the girl in which he’s interested is going to have sex with him, and he dies shortly after. The protagonist, David (David Naughton), finds his own transformation approaching once he becomes sexually involved with a young nurse, his caretaker Alex (Jenny Agutter). The titular werewolf becomes a reflection of these primitive desires in the young men. It’s a pillar of thematic truth that keeps this zany horror-comedy grounded in something deeper than its surface.
Where the film most succeeds, however, is through its zany surface. American Werewolf takes the tropes of the werewolf genre and relishes in them to the point of laughter. The casual tone of the two male leads, particularly later in the film when the stakes are high, undercuts the tension in a nice, relaxing way. There’s a lot of thrills to be had in the movie, but it’s a fairly breezy watch due to its tone. John Landis has been known for his keen comedic presence, and this is a movie that delivers just the right amount for a balanced story.
I also find that this is a movie with a real affinity for the details. The practical special effects look incredible, even today, and they sell the tone beautifully in a way that modern special effects would take away from. This is a film of its time, and the effects solidify that. There are also story details, such as the Mickey Mouse decorations around Alex’s home that help convey theme and character development in the background of the lightning-paced story.
I had a lot of fun with An American Werewolf in London. It feels ahead of its time in a lot of ways for a film from 1981, paving the way for the best films of its decade with its lighter stab at familiar themes and its smart attention to detail. John Landis has created a brief but beautiful film that hits all its notes and its them quickly, making this a really fun watch.
Films Left to Watch: 874