An American Werewolf in London is a 1981 horror film written and directed by John Landis. The title makes it clear from the beginning that the movie is about werewolves, and the movie is a worthy tribute to George Waggner’s The Wolf Man which came out forty years before (so much so that the protagonist mentions the 1941 film in a dialogue).
The plot is as follows. David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), two friends from New York, decide to spend the summer visiting the English countryside. At the charming village of East Proctor, however, they are attacked by a werewolf (did I mention that the two friends enter the scene in a van full of sheep, not by chance?). Jack dies, but David is only wounded thanks to the provident intervention of the villagers. Three weeks later, he wakes up in a London hospital where he falls in love with the beautiful nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) and where his case intrigues Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine)…
Landis re-elaborates the myth of the werewolf in his own way, maintaining some elements such as the wounds that propagate the lycanthropy and the influence of the full moon, and changing others such as the need for silver bullets to kill the monstrous creatures. Joe Dante did something similar in his 1981 movie The Howling: silver was needed to kill the werewolves, but they could transform themselves at will (we’ll talk about it soon on the blog). And this is just one of the points of contact between the two films! Another one, for example, is Rick Baker, the special effects artist who ended up working with Landis (and won the Oscar for it) after leaving Dante in the hands of the young Rob Bottin.
But let’s stay on Landis’s film. It’s scary (but also funny), it’s very tense, it’s full of blood and mutilated limbs, there’s a porn movie inside (a fake one: See You Next Wednesday!), and it’s entertaining from start to finish. The beginning is dazzling, with the atmospheric scenes on the moor and, above all, with the unforgettable, least welcoming English pub in history (for the record, I lived in England for a couple of years and I visited a few pubs like that one).
The central part of the movie works great with the love story between David and Alex, with the mystery that the doctor wants to solve, and above all with the hallucinations of David who sees the (not) deceased Jack who asks him to kill himself in order to free him from limbo, in addition to various other crazy scenes like the one in which some zombie Nazis massacre people mercilessly (Landis hated Illinois Nazis, that much is clear).
The ending, then, is grandiloquent: after a series of heinous murders, David takes refuge in a red light cinema to discuss with his victims the best method to commit suicide. Then, here’s a carnage in which traffic makes more victims than the werewolf! Landis injects the movie with gore, and he had to make some cuts in order for the movie to be released with all that violence and nudity!
And speaking of gore, and therefore of special effects, it’s impossible not to mention the sequence that made the fortune of this film: Rick Baker did an incredible job to allow Landis to show the transformation of David in werewolf! It’s better than anything done in CGI: those 100% practical effects make it so… real!
To conclude, An American Werewolf in London is a classic horror movie perfectly adapted to the Eighties, in which the genre directors competed to create the most disturbing special effects and to defy censorship with as many violent (or sexually explicit) scenes possible. It’s impressive to note how Landis had just made The Blues Brothers (1980) and was about to come out with Trading Places (1983), in what was a very successful career… which hit a huge bump with the accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) which marked all the subsequent years years in Hollywood of John Landis. Ciao!