An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #85


Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: August 21, 1981
Sub-Genre: Werewolf/Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States/United Kingdom
Budget: $10,000,000
Box Office: $61,973,249
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: John Landis
Producers: George Folsey Jr., Jon Peters, Peter Guber
Screenplay: John Landis
Special Effects: Rick Baker
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Score: Elmer Bernstein
Editing: Malcolm Campbell
Studio: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, The Guber-Peters Company, Lyncanthrope Films
Distributors: Universal Pictures, Producers Sales Organisation, PolyGram Video (UK VHS)
Stars: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Lila Kaye, Frank Oz, John Landis, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Rik Mayall, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Linzi Drew and Miss Piggy as Herself


Suggested Audio Candy

Elmer Bernstein “An American Werewolf In London”


Team Edward or Team Jacob? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips nowadays since the Twilight series made both vampires and werewolves current once again. Personally, I have mixed emotions about the franchise and they range from exasperation to aggravation. However, back in the early eighties, neither were exactly romping it home. I guess vampires probably had their fangs in front, thanks to George A. Romero’s wonderful Martin, Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, and Werner Herzog’s masterstoke in casting Klaus Kinski in his modern retelling of Nosferatu. Meanwhile, werewolves were suffering a torrid time with precious few people taking notice of their nocturnal howls.


Then, in typical fashion, two buses turned up at pretty much precisely the same time. Joe Dante’s The Howling hit the silver-screen in May 1981 and, three months later, John Landis offered a little healthy opposition in the form of An American Werewolf in London. Of the two, the latter performed better, to the tune of over $60m in box-office receipts, over six times its initial outlay. However, with regards to critical response, the cleft between them was considerably smaller. Just like Edward and Jacob, folk seemed to believe that they had to elect an outright victor but, while Landis edges it for me, I offered both my full and undivided endorsement. Why choose beef over lamb when the neither taste rancid? It seems awfully counter-productive to me.


Anyhoots, I vividly recall my first time with Landis’s cult classic and how could I possibly not? It seems almost cliché now to mention that opening stroll in the moors as it has been one of the most fondly revisited openings of the past half century. However, I find cliché a little cliché and simply cannot go a step farther without marveling once more at its majesty. First though, I should introduce our backpacking Americans as I would imagine they’re suffering from the harsh English climate and they’ll catch their death on these here moors.


David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two awfully nice stateside fellows trundling across the British countryside in the hopes of furthering their bromance. Both in lofty spirits, these two have clearly broken in their hiking boots and fatigue is invariably starting to set in. Thus, to avoid any unnecessary cramps, they decide to take sanctuary in a small village pub with the inviting title The Slaughtered Lamb. Sensing this will be a decent enough place to witness some good old British hospitality, they make their way inside full of the customary American vim and vigor.


A hundred beady eyes all fixed on them intently is not the welcoming either man craves. It’s as if they can smell their stateside perspiration and outsiders are not something that patrons of The Slaughtered Lamb take to particularly kindly. However, once they’ve suitably sized up the elephants in the room, the locals offer some kindly advice by advising they “stay on the road”. It has to be said, this intelligence is a tad cryptic and a little more information wouldn’t have gone amiss one feels. Maybe “stay on the road or you’ll be torn into rump steak by the hairy nasties lurking in the quagmire.” Just a thought.


Needless to say, our two weary travelers promptly ignore the warning the moment they vacate the premises and take to the moors. It’s not as though they can be expected to remember every tiny detail of their long chat with the locals after such a protracted pilgrimage. Bum move guys. The prologue of An American Werewolf in London is pure undistilled horror. Not a solitary laugh in sight, just sheer unbridled terror. Indeed, as a young whippersnapper their ordeal made me think twice about marshland expeditions, particularly Jack’s as he comes off decidedly worse from the inevitable ambush that lies in wait.


Once David awakens from his slumber, he is delighted to be greeted by Jenny Agutter dressed in full nurse get-up and who can blame him? Ever since watching her stroll naked through the Australian outback for Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout, I have been hoping to have my temperature taken by her and there is only one place for that thermometer. I’ll give you a clue, the taste of mercury in my mouth makes me wretch. Instantly hoping to be afforded some of nurse Alex Price’s bed-side manner; all the blood in David’s body flows into one southward spot.


Alas, he soon gets a flop on when he starts receiving impromptu visitation from his old hiking buddy Jack; complete with face flaps and a drafty midriff. While Jack is still a little bummed over having his life snuffed out so unceremoniously, he’s getting used to his new-found between realm existence and is more than happy to shed some light on his pal’s strange carnivorous craving as that’s what good friends do. Of course, a little help wouldn’t have gone amiss when being mauled by famished fur balls, but there’s no point crying over spilled lifeblood and bygones are best left as bygones so he throws David a bone, even though his instinct is to retrieve it himself and bury it in the back yard.


But the worse is yet to come and David soon discovers that bagging a nurse is scant consolation for the agony of morphing daily into a hungry wolf. Events escalate rather rapidly as Londoners begin showing up mutilated with increasing regularity and he starts waking up in some rather odd surroundings, minus his clothes. Thank the heavens above for small children with balloons.


He resists the urge to lick the marrow from their skull caps and conceals his python instead, while making the swift exit one does when butt naked in the monkey enclosure. Those gibbons love nothing more than to point and David realizes that he may have a hard time explaining this one to the local law enforcement so slinking into the shadows appears his best option.


It’s not all bad as that nurse is a decent sort and, moreover, she is determined to help her new bed fellow in return for her morning oats each morning. She even offers to install a man-sized cat flap to enable him to continue his nocturnal pursuits while not waking her between long shifts at the infirmary. Actually, that last statement is not strictly true but, as fuck buddies go, he could do a darn sight worse. Christ, he needs all the friends he can get right now and it’s an added bonus that this one possesses a working vagina and a pair of perky chest bullets to help him fire off his rounds before that inevitable full moon. They do say you should never leave home with a loaded weapon after all. You see, David Kessler has shit all worked out.


Naughton perfectly encapsulates the little boy lost and it’s baffling why his career never took off after his impressive turn here as our beleaguered hero. His exchanges with the always exceptional Dunne are beyond priceless and his travel companion proves a valuable ally through the treacherous turn of events, supplying belly laughs unbounded in the process. I was dismayed to see him decimated at such early doors but, thanks to his stubborn refusal to play dead, Dunne proves that being devoured in the first fifteen doesn’t mean you can’t make an impact.


As aforementioned, once the film hits its stride, it fast becomes blatantly clear that this is as much a comedy as it is horror. Landis is a dab hand at humor after cutting his teeth with frivolous spoofs such as Kentucky Fried Movie. To Landis’ eternal credit, while it seems his movie will have no place to go after such an iconic opening, he packs in sufficient grue alongside the jet-black comedy to ensure the story never once sags. It’s a balancing act for sure, but he spins these plates with confidence and is aided by his own script, which strikes the ideal balance between joy and pain, walking the line with fleetness of foot. Robert Paynter’s photography is also noteworthy, particularly during our entrée banquet, where the mist-laden marshland feels suitably inhospitable and ever destined to play host to a sneak attack.


All other pluses aside, it’s the transformation scenes that have assisted An American Werewolf in London in becoming renowned the world over and with damned good reason too. Rick Baker plumped for working on this as opposed to Dante’s effort and, while the work of his understudy Rob Bottin is exemplary, Baker’s creations edge those of his young protégée for sheer attention to grisly detail. Even now, they hold up brilliantly, providing some of the most emblematic imagery of eighties cinema.


An American Werewolf in London is arguably a slightly better overall movie than Dante’s. As for Landis, his 1985 Jeff Goldblum/Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Into the Night will always be my personal darling but he proves without question that he can turn his hand to horror effortlessly. Interestingly, in 1992, he decided to see how the other half live, with Innocent Blood delivering him firmly into vampire territory but, while receiving a fairly positive critical response, it couldn’t quite repeat the feat. However, this kicked the modern werewolf craze off in some style and while there have been some stellar entries into the genre since (The Company of Wolves, Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers), none have quite managed to match the majesty of his delectable dark delight.


Which brings us back to my primary poser: Team Edward or Team Jacob? Neither. They’re both vaguely pathetic when you think about it and that Renée’s just a moody menstrual bitch, which makes them little more than a pair of hormonal wannabees. Give me Nurse Alex any day of the week and leave that teenage dirtbag for the date rapists I say. I’m Team David all the way.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: After the flavorsome entrée, things slow down somewhat and, while occasionally the deep red commences flowing once more, splatter is always destined to play second fiddle to those remarkable body morphing effects. I’m running out of superlatives to lavish upon Baker’s creations here as, to this very day, I’m still yet to see them bettered. As for Agutter, well let’s just say that she can milk my prostate anytime she desires. We are provided a vague flash of her beacons and, one thing’s for sure, she’s a lot more appealing in the buff than mid-transformation Naughton.

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Read The Howling Appraisal

Read The Company of Wolves Appraisal

Read Dog Soldiers Appraisal

Read After Hours Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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