Thirty-six years ago, director John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) terrorized audiences with its curious blend of horror and black comedy. Time has yet to diminish the impact of its narrative or grotesque visual storytelling - a testament to the way all truly great horror movies are made. Horror, it should be noted, done correctly, is a psychological byproduct of the mind and not the fallout sustained by having one’s artistic sensibilities or even basic human decencies desecrated with an assault of visually repugnant special effects. The late director, Jacques Tourneur once pointed out that in an era liberated of censorship any artist toiling in the cinema must be wary of pushing the boundaries too far simply because he can. Rob Zombie…are you listening? Tourneur did go on to suggest that so long as the ‘true artist’ had ‘good taste’ – even the most repellent ideas could be made palpable – even titillating, to test the exquisite perversity of the mind without actually berating it into submission. Rob Zombie…are you listening?!?!? Probably not; decidedly not. If ‘31’ is any indication, then Zombie’s taste is all in his feet, or rather, knee-deep in the bloody stool-sampled excrement of someone who ought never have been let near a budget, much less a movie camera to disseminate such gruesome pulp as (choke!) entertainment. Hey, Bobbie, it’s not. Just so we are clear…but I digress.
There is, to be sure, a very fine line of distinction; one director, John Landis’ comes dangerously near to transgressing on several occasions in An American Werewolf in London, but even more miraculously, never entirely crosses. Landis’ here, I think, is especially adept at combining the sort of moderate ‘gross out’ appeal of his prior adolescent comedies (Kentucky Fried Movie 1977, Animal House 1978, and, The Blues Brothers 1980) perhaps even drawing upon elements from his own all but forgotten B-grade horror foray, Schlock (1973) in which a ‘banana killer’ (an overstuffed ape) is on the prowl for human flesh in a small town. By now, ‘American Werewolf’ is, or rather, ought to be, renown for Visual Effects master, Rick Baker’s superb ‘transformation’ sequel; still the absolute all-time best lycanthropic mutations illustrated in cinema history; poor David Naughton, via a series of brutally convincing latex applications and various other sundry trick illusions skillfully edited together, transformed into the hump-backed and harry beast set to terrorize unsuspecting Londoners from the posh heights of their affluent neighborhoods to the bowels of the Underground tube.
An American Werewolf in London is the sort of perversely creepy ‘good scare’ that has continued to hold up remarkably well in the intervening decades, primarily owed to Landis’ restraint rather than his verve for show-and-tell; also, the naughtily glib repartee in his screenplay; the conversations between Naughton’s terrorized American exchange student, David Kessler, periodically haunted by the otherwise grotesquely mutilated remains of his best friend, Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) who, despite having half his head and intestines blatantly ripped apart and left dangling as half-encrusted entrails, nevertheless, provides the darkly wicked ‘humor’ of the piece as he casually ‘encourages’ Kessler to do everyone a favor by committing suicide before it is too late. It is the irony that is so gosh darn appealing here; the idea their boyhood friendship, prematurely turned asunder after a routine walking tour turns brutal and deadly for Jack – David, narrowly escaping with a few wounds and his life…such as it is, or rather, is about to become: a nightmare – can nevertheless endure beyond the surreal boundaries of time and space because both now share in a lineage, centuries older than their own. An American Werewolf in London does not cheat the viewer of its bone-chilling and cringe-worthy frights. But it does expertly temper and spread them out - and apart - throughout an hour and thirty-eight minutes.
Far too many ‘horror’ movies merely set up their premise thirty-seconds into the plot and then spend the bulk of their run time chasing after every clichéd and reviled way to dismember and disembowel the various cast members. Personally, I have seen enough exploding heads, chopped off limbs and red dye #9 indiscriminately splashed about to last me a lifetime. And the older I get, the less impressed I am by the knee-jerk pseudo ‘cleverness’ of these audio-animatronics, latex puppetries, CGI and the likes to extend such absurd and overtly brutal killings into even more heinously vivid depictions of butchery and bloodshed. Besides, Landis and ‘American Werewolf’ have a better – or rather – more tragic narrative to pursue; Kessler, the unwitting, emotionally scarred and thoroughly scared ingénue, steadily coming to terms with the fact his life has been unceremoniously cut short by this freak encounter on the moors. Incurably contaminated, young David now must sacrifice himself or face the perpetuation of the cult of the werewolf, bringing about the same death and destruction to others similarly brutalized by his newfound and uncontrollable impulses. And, there is love at stake here too; in this case, that of a truly good woman – Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), whom David clearly loves and is loved by in return.
At its core, An American Werewolf in London endures as a masterful and memorable horror classic because it introduces a strain of moral repentance into its fitful fright-fest. David does not aspire to commit such blood-thirsty carnage. That alone is refreshing. Rather he is driven by animal instincts he cannot control or even stave off; the cliché of the heavily tread upon ‘full moon’ encounters, heightened by a very empathetic performance from David Naughton as the ‘put upon’ human sacrifice. Virtually all the cinematic retellings of ‘the wolf man’ have, at least to some extent, relied on the notion that such villainy is imposed rather than a perversely pleasurable ‘release’ perpetuated by a psychotic mind. Unlike most horror villains, the killer here does not wish to kill; rather, he must, is driven, and taken over by certain unearthly impulses to react as a rabid animal would under similar circumstances. Perhaps, it is the concept of not being in complete control of one’s own body or mind that truly terrorizes at the crux of the real ‘reel’ horror in An American Werewolf in London; the steady erosion of David’s sanity as he discovers he cannot resist these bleaker stimuli that have poisoned his system and, in time, will thoroughly come to dominate it. The tragedy of the piece is made complete when Alex, having only just begun to understand the man she has restored back to health must now be the one to take the life she helped to save, of course, utilizing the ‘silver bullet’ to end the misery, though never the memory of this all too human love, supernaturally denied.
John Landis came up with the concept for An American Werewolf in London after witnessing a curious burial by gypsies in Yugoslavia in 1970. Reportedly, the gypsies were performing rituals to prevent the deceased’s rising from the dead. Over the next decade, Landis wrote his draft(s) of the screenplay, shelved briefly to direct his debut movie 'Schlock' - a passable first effort. From here, Landis launched into a trilogy of box office successes (Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers); his ever increasing popularity with audiences lending cache and clout to his respectability within the industry and thus affording him carte blanche on subsequent projects. Landis secured the $10 million dollar budget necessary to begin pre-production on An American Werewolf in London. But the monies were hard won. Backers concerns fell into two categories; either the horror was too gruesome for a comedy or the comedic elements threatened to offset and diffuse the horror. Acknowledging the real star of his movie would be the werewolf, Landis commissioned master effects creator, Rick Baker to design a groundbreaking and believable 'transformation'. Remarkably, until An American Werewolf in London, virtually all such ‘transformations’ had been achieved using conventional lap dissolves; the actor undergoing the process of conversion, strapped into an apparatus to keep head movements to a bare minimum while make-up artists gradually applied hair and latex, ‘building up’ the prosthetics, layer upon layer, until the desired effect was achieved. Baker’s transformation would be ‘different’; utilizing hand-crafted latex puppetry, its mutations created in-camera. The sudden growth of body hair (nee, fur), or emergence of fangs from the mouth, as example were shot in reverse; the actual hair and teeth receding through poked holes in molded latex skin. Decades later, Baker's superb SFX continue to hold up under the closest scrutiny – even in hi-def; maintaining their stomach-churning grotesqueness.
Better still, Landis, while possessing the clearest understanding audiences have come to his movie to bear witness to such pivotal ‘hot spots’, never entirely relies on them to sell the rest of his plot; gradually building upon increasingly complex ‘relationships’ between characters, while mining cinematographer, Robert Paynter’s moodily lit craftsmanship to heighten his sense of dread between these thirty-second scares. A ‘dream/nightmare’ sequence, as example, in which a recuperating David imagines returning home to America, only to witness the slaughter of his entire family by a sect of deformed mutants, leads to an extreme close-up: David’s eyes turned hellish green, his visage transformed into a hideous grimace; so ‘in-your-face’ that even when entirely prepared for this moment upon repeat viewing, one still cannot help but lean away from the screen with unease and a modest jolt of repulsion. The sequence is far from gratuitous, despite its perversity; tinged with a bit of sadness, obvious amounts of fear, and just a touch of foreshadowing. This is not going to end well for David Kessler; Landis knows it. The audience knows it. Alas, and perhaps for the very first time, David is suddenly aware of what the future holds; this seemingly ‘toss away’ moment given its payoff much later on when David, now fully aware of his fate, telephones home to bid the family he realizes he can never see again, a cryptic and very bittersweet farewell.
An American Werewolf in London begins innocuously with our protagonists, David Kessler and Jack Goodman, backpacking American college students having lost their way along the brooding and boggy Yorkshire moors. Landis takes his time setting up the somewhat sophomoric camaraderie between these two old friends. It’s the sort of good-natured buddy/buddy friendship we can relate to; just two guys out on a lark and so cruelly unaware of the destiny in store for them just around the corner. Although neither is as yet aware, they will soon inadvertently find themselves the victims of a werewolf. The locals at a nearby pub are skeptical of David and Jack’s impromptu arrival; thoroughly unfriendly towards them. Venturing back into the misty night, Jack is instantly mauled to death by the beast. But David survives the attack, thanks to a last minute rescue intervention by the nearby townsfolk. Regrettably, his ordeal is just beginning. Jack returns as 'the undead' - a zombie in an ever-advancing state of physical decomposition, informing David he must kill himself with a silver bullet or face turning into the very creature that attacked them whenever the full moon rises. David is, of course, skeptical. But he cannot rid himself of terrible nightmares depicting the slaughter of his entire family. Psychologist, Dr. J. S. Hirsch (John Woodvine) assures David his visions will subside with the passage of time. He also assigns Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) to stay with David while he recuperates in hospital. Regrettably, Alex develops a crush on her patient. After David is discharged, she invites him to live in her London flat and the two become romantically involved.
Dr. Hirsch decides to pay a visit to the town David and Jack visited on the moors before their terrible ordeal. Even though David insists he was attacked by a wild animal, the story provided to Hirsch by the town's folk suggests David and Jack were the victims of a deranged madman. But this story does not wash at all, particularly after Hirsch discovers a proper police report was never filed and David's wounds were dressed by the town's folk before he was allowed to be taken to hospital. Armed with these facts, Hirsch races back to London. He is too late. David has turned into a werewolf and set about his bloody rampage; murdering a young couple as they are returning to their fashionable flat. The next morning, David awakens naked in the wolf pavilion at the London Zoo. After some truly hilarious skulking about in the raw, stealing clothes while quietly observed by a young boy with great curiosity, David makes his way back to Alex's apartment. David confides his suspicions to Alex; that something extraordinary and terrifying has occurred. She tries to quell her lover’s anxiety but to little avail. Sometime later, in Alex’s absence, David is reborn as the werewolf yet again, this time pursuing an unsuspecting businessman newly exited the subway and casually strolling down the tight underground passages en route to street level. He will never make it out alive.
Both Landis’ screenplay and David Naughton’s performance provide us with the psychological complexities afflicting the character; Kessler suffering something of a nervous breakdown from extreme survivor’s guilt; yet, powerless to express it as he is being driven by unseen demonic forces to become his harry/hellish alter ego, mercilessly set to brutalize the London citizenry. It cannot go on. And yet, Landis and Naughton provide the audience with a template for Kessler’s internalized scuffles. The werewolf is thus neither purposely evil nor without his soul; a similarly realized Jekyll and Hyde-like struggle for the supposedly ‘inherent goodness’ in man, supplanted by a fitful and un-containable need to destroy one’s self as well as others in the process. At its crux, and particularly during its third act, An American Werewolf in London is almost Shakespearean, gussied up in the blood-thirsty trappings of the ‘traditional’ horror movie. This symbolism begins to crystalize for the audience as David, now thoroughly haunted by the evil he has committed, encounters Jack near an adult cinema in Piccadilly Square. Lured inside the theater, David comes face to face with the walking dead his previous night's carnage has created. Terrified, though unwilling to entirely accept he is responsible for their murders, David is once more transformed into the werewolf. He terrorizes the patrons inside the cinema before breaking free to wreak havoc on Londoners who have gathered outside. Dr. Hirsch and the police trail David to a dead end alley. Having figured out her lover’s fate for herself, Alex now tells David - still in wolf form - she loves him. It can make no difference now, as police rain down a small arsenal, killing the beast, transformed back into his dying human form. The last act of An American Werewolf in London is a romantic tragedy; a sort of ‘beauty and the beast’ fantasy gone horrifically awry. The weight of conflict between David and Alex and roiling terror preparing to burst forth from within elevates the narrative from just your ‘run of the mill’ shock and schlock fest. We feel for David and Alex. We even feel for Jack – a curious, if ever so slightly nauseating empathy, not usually afforded in a horror movie.
Initially forced to cast 90% of his crew from British talent to take advantage of Britain's tax break Edie Plan, this proved a blessing in disguise for Landis. All of the local talent is magnificent, even in bit parts, everyone heightening the believability of this dark and disturbing tale. The genuine camaraderie between Griffin Dunne and David Naughton (the only two Americans in the picture) strikes a chord of lightness, both a welcomed – if brief - respite from the ‘horror’, but also, increasing the bittersweet-ness of fate. Arguably, the one element of An American Werewolf in London that does not hold up under today’s scrutiny is its soundtrack. Landis has flooded his movie with a plethora of ‘then’ contemporary pop tunes. Occasionally, these seem heavy-handedly inserted and thoroughly out of place, their breeziness in direct contrast to the bewildering spectacle simultaneously unfolding and on display. Overall, the soundtrack does not hurt the story’s impact. However, at times it does undermine Landis’ otherwise exemplary crafted level of suspense. In the end, An American Werewolf in London is a good scary movie. But in hindsight it also seems to cap off the second renaissance of horror, briefly explored to exquisite effect throughout the mid-to late 1970’s with such iconic fare as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976), and, Halloween (1978) – to name but a handful of the richly disturbing fear fests on tap.
Universal Home Video's remastered and restored Blu-ray is most welcome. An American Werewolf in London was one of the studio’s very first 1080p offerings back in Blu-ray’s launch and infancy, and, in hindsight, the old hi-def disc showed distinct signs of Universal’s rather spendthrift attitude to simply ‘dump’ deep catalog movies onto the burgeoning marketplace without much care invested in the product itself. Although An American Werewolf in London sported some impressive color saturation, untoward digital tinkering had been rather heavily applied; a lot of the image’s ‘razor-sharpness’ artificially induced; appearing very digitized and wholly unlike what audiences saw in 1981 at their local movie houses. Universal’s ‘restored’ Blu-ray is thus cause for celebration; also, pause to mark how far Blu-ray has come in ten short years – and – how much further still it has to go to catch up to the good ole/bad ole VHS days, when virtually every deep catalog title was made available on home video for consumer consumption.
The studio edict – and not just at Universal – has been to delay a good many catalog releases in favor of simply reissuing already available movies in reincarnated ‘special editions’. Generally, I am not in favor of this practice; the time and monies spent, merely to repackage already available product, at least by my thinking, far better invested getting more ‘deep catalog’ out there. But at least on this outing, we can report Universal has done their utmost to rectify their previous sins and make considerable atonement. When Blu-ray had its debut I recall so well being disappointed by a lot of what was coming down the pipeline from all of the studios. It just seemed Hollywood was so darn eager to give us anything and everything they could in 1080p, there truly was no concerted effort to first inspect the archival elements or respect the film maker’s original integrity to ensure the utmost quality control was being adhered to across the board. Worse, some studios were merely content to regurgitate the same tired digital files used to mint their DVD’s, bumped to a 1080p output. Not good, and a similar fate since befallen a lot of 4K UHD releases. Will Hollywood ever get the point and/or its collective act together? Hmmm. But again, I digress.
This time around, image quality on An American Werewolf in London is smooth and consistent with eye-popping colors, better contrast, and far more natural flesh tones. It is also free of age-related debris and artifacts. Indeed, the movie looks decades fresher. Gone is the artificial digitized look, replaced with a consistent remastering very film-like in motion and with the indigenous grain accurately reproduced. Fine details pop, only now as cinematographer, Robert Paynter would have preferred; the punctuation on his mood lighting, and also, Rick Baker’s visual SFX. This is a reference quality reissue with virtually nothing to complain about. As far as I can deduce, the 5.1 DTS audio appears to be identical to the previously issued Blu-ray: not a bad thing. Although predictably dated, with dialogue occasionally sounding tinny, the vintage-ness of the soundtrack is what is important. This just feels right for a movie soundtrack from the early 1980’s. Extras are utterly impressive; nearly 2 hours of comprehensively assembled ‘making of’ documentaries and featurettes, covering the production from every conceivable angle. There is also an audio commentary from Dunne and Naughton, deleted scenes/outtakes, an interview with John Landis, stills gallery, and, theatrical trailers to sift through. It should be pointed out these extras were previously made available on the ‘Full Moon’ reissue Universal released in 2008. Bottom line: the studio has done its homework on this reissue. Even if you already own the previous edition, this ‘restored’ edition comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)