Oh, horror movies. You always succeed in making me completely terrified to leave the country. There was the kidnapping and murder that took place to Americans in Hostel; there was the kidnapping and murder that took place to Americans in Touristas; and there was kidnapping and sex slavery of Americans in And Soon the Darkness. Hmm I think I’m seeing a pattern here: Americans are pretty much screwed whenever they leave the country, probably because they stick out like a sore thumb, but even more so because they are completely vulnerable to the unknown surroundings. John Landis’s 1981 horror, An American Werewolf in London, is no exception to the rule. The movie is a clever take on the werewolf genre and is possibly one of the best werewolf movies of all time.
The movie opens with two best friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who are backpacking through Britain. They stop at a sketchy pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, where they notice a 5-pointed star drawn on the wall. When Jack asks what the star is for, he receives a less than warm response and the two friends are asked to leave, but not before being told to “Beware of the Moon” and stick to the road.
After the young men leave, the barmaid insists to the bar patrons that they can’t let the boys go, however, the men brush her off. Right away, the audience is aware that the individuals in the pub know something that the boys do not and the results will be horrible.
Meanwhile, David and Jack are just trying to find a warm place to stay when out of nowhere they hear a loud howl. They realize that the moon is full and they have strayed from the road, essentially getting themselves lost. In a panic, the friends try making a run to somewhere safe when they are unexpectedly attacked.
Jack is killed on site and David is saved mid-attack by the bar patrons who shoot the beast off. David awakens from a coma three weeks later to discover that his best friend is dead and that he was apparently attacked by a crazy person. However, David begins experiencing weird, vivid dreams, and he knows that what attacked him was not a person.
Along his journey, David meets a nurse named Alex (Jenny Augutter), and they fall in love. Alex allows the young man to stay in her home during his time in London and soon things go awry. Alex tries her best to stand by her love, completely oblivious to her role in his fate.
Simultaneously, David begins seeing his dead friend, Jack, who deteriorates more and more each time he is shown in the film. His dead buddy informs him that he will change into a werewolf during the full moon and the only way to kill the curse of the wolf is to die. David brushes the warnings off because he figures that he is just going crazy, however, when he wakes up in a wolf’s den after a full moon and hears of 6 people’s deaths, he realizes that he truly is turning into a monster.
The film is most notably known for its transformation scene which never pulls away from the actor. Naughton’s character is shown on screen for at least five minutes as he goes through the excruciating pain of changing form, and the effects looked amazing considering the time in which the film is made.
The scene is obviously one of the best werewolf transformation scenes to date due to its realism and overall brutality; it definitely showed the audience the pain one would feel if their bodies changed form into a beast. It’s clearly not as easy and fun as taking off your shirt and running into the woods–ahem, Twilight.
The film is not only scary but it also has humorous elements to it and a self-awareness as well. The scenes when Jack would show up, becoming more and more of a skeleton, were probably some of my favorite. His rotting appearance was funny and the character was also comical too.
What I found most interesting was that Landis made his characters self-aware of the werewolf myth and movie, a la Wes Craven’s Scream. His characters often made references to the 1941 film, The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. David keeps referencing the classic throughout the movie, even foreshadowing his inevitable death at the end of the film.
Overall, An American Werewolf in London is one of the best werewolf movies ever made. It’s a clever, funny, and intelligent take on the genre that still stands the test of time. This is a must see and a definite buy for any diehard horror fan, especially if you love werewolf movies.