- Written and Directed by John Landis
- August 21, 1981
An American on a walking tour of England is attacked by a mysterious creature and now must come to terms with the curse that has been forced upon him.
An American Werewolf in London is a horror comedy that is more horror than comedy with some good drama included. That’s not a bad thing. This combination is one of the elements that helps this movie stand apart. The elements rarely mix in the same scene here but rather smoothly transition from one to the other. That is a credit to Landis who was at the top of his game here.
It is also a very good story. The characters are well done and there is an odd atmosphere through the story as the character of David (David Naughton) at first disbelieving of what is happening to him comes to the terrifying realization of what he really is. David is not that different as you or me. He comes off realistically.
One thing I found myself asking after the first time I watched it was why did the towns people not kill David after the attack? I know they had gone out to save him but once he was wounded by the werewolf they had to know he was going to change. Why didn’t they just shoot him then and there and cover everything up?
If they had then we would not have a movie so that is why, but you get what I’m saying right? They obviously knew plenty about the werewolf and had gotten up the courage to try and save the two innocent young tourists. And as I am writing this I have another thought: were there other werewolves in the area or just the one? Later in the movie when David’s doctor (John Woodvine) travels to the area to ask questions the locals are still fearful so you could draw that conclusion.
In the initial encounter the werewolf kills David’s travelling companion Jack (Griffin Dunne) and lands David in the hospital where he meets young nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter) who falls for him and takes this relative stranger into her apartment to watch this man who is tormented by strange dreams. Agutter made Alex charming and vulnerable.
It is a rather sweet romance that develops between the two. Alex takes pity on David at first while David is smitten with the British beauty. She is more than the token love interest without whom the story could function just fine. Several elements of the story could not logically happen without Alex’s involvement.
Another element that has helped this film withstand the test of time are the special effects. This was done in an era before you could whip up a werewolf transformation on a computer. Everything had to be done on the set. This was unlike anything else that had been tried before. The transformation of David is a well-executed bit of practical magic that is talked about today.
It was a little meta to have Frank Oz make a brief appearance in this film. He shows up as an individual from the American Embassy who talks to David. If you do not hear Fozzie Bear in that man’s voice you are either deaf or denying reality. But that is not the meta part. The meta part is that footage from The Muppet Show is shown in this film featuring bits involving Miss Piggy and the aforementioned Fozzie.
An American Werewolf in London created its own werewolf mythology. It borrows some from myth as well as from film with an element or two of its own. One of the things it does of its own is that the spirits of the werewolf’s dead victims will haunt the human form of the werewolf until it dies by suicide. It also disregards the silver bullet concept.
An old trope though from many older horror films is the scientist that feels something strange is going on and begins his investigation. Our good doctor simply is the one that informs David’s girlfriend of the reality of the situation. There is no happy resolution to this film. In an interesting twist David does not find a cure or find a way to live with his condition. During his second transformation in London after a rather spectacular moment of chaos he is shot dead by police with his girlfriend left to grieve.
I am not generally a fan of downer endings. Everything does not have to be all gumdrops and lollipops but more often than not an ending where the hero or everybody dies is forced because the writer or director feels like it is creative and edgy and just does not match with what was built up to before the finale.
That is not the case here. While you want David to make it out okay and have a happily ever after with Alex, his death feels like a natural outgrowth of events. It begins from the very first moments at the pub all the way up to just before he transforms. It is made clear that his beast form is something very uncontrollable. Having any authority over it or finding a compromise would be nearly impossible.
An American Werewolf in London is a great early 80s horror comedy entry into the werewolf genre. It is a little quirky and a lot odd but also very entertaining. This is definitely a must see!