AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)

an american werewolf in london
Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.
5 out of 5 stars

John Landis made his name in comedy (directing The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, and The Blue Brothers), which earned him enough clout to get a decade-old script made called An American Werewolf in London. The story was inspired by an incident when Landis was a production assistant working on Kelly’s Heroes (1970) in Yugoslavia. He witnessed a group of gipsies performing a funeral rite so the corpse of a murderer wouldn’t rise from the dead (the body was wrapped in a garlic shroud, buried feet-first, at a crossroads). Seeing the spectacle, the idea of someone being confronted by an undead ghoul stuck in young Landis’ mind…

The script was written in 1969, evolving into something that also riffed on Universal’s Wolf Man pictures, but it wasn’t until Landis became a success in the late-1970s that PolyGram Pictures gave him $10M to make An American Werewolf in London on location in the UK (for tax break reasons). And that’s despite widespread feedback it was “too scary to be funny, or too funny to be scary”, according to the director himself.

Regardless of the studio’s concerns, Landis shot the movie over the winter months of February and March in 1981, which he hoped would add to the atmosphere of dread he wanted hanging over events. The Black Mountains of Wales stood in for the story’s bleak Yorkshire Moors, and the tiny Welsh village of Crickdarn became the fictional “East Proctor” hamlet, although its iconic Slaughtered Lamb pub was, in reality, a cottage (with interior scenes shot hundreds of miles away in the Black Swan pub in Surrey, England). The real coup for the production was getting permission to shoot in London’s busy Picadilly Circus, which hadn’t been allowed for 15 years, by inviting 300 police officers to a screening of The Blues Brothers. Landis was rewarded with a two-night shoot lasting a total of eight hours, during which time he managed to only stop traffic on three occasions for a couple of minutes each time.

An American Werewolf in London concerns amiable New York backpackers David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), who are on a three-month tour of Europe. They make the fatal mistake of starting their trip in the chilly north of England, specifically Yorkshire, where they’re introduced literally being deposited on the outskirts of a village in the back of a truck transporting sheep. Like lambs to the slaughter, they even find shelter in a pub called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ (its ominous sign a wolf’s head on a spike), where they’re made to feel uncomfortable by the local drinkers. The landlady’s a battleaxe who won’t fill their bellies, there’s a pentangle etched on a wall, and when things turn hostile the Yanks are forced out with a warning ringing in their ears: keep to the road, stay clear of the moors, and beware the moon…

It makes little difference, as Jack and David soon find themselves wandering onto the moors and getting lost, just as a strange howling fills the air and they sense the presence of an enormous predator circling them. Both friends are attacked by a large fanged animal, which savages Jack to death and almost kills David before the villagers manage to shoot the beast dead.

Three weeks later, David awakens in a London hospital (it’s never explained why the villagers didn’t kill David to save a lot of bother, or why David was taken to a London hospital five hours south instead of locally). Of course, David was bitten and is now cursed to transform into a werewolf at the next full moon, which means he also has to suffer occasional visitations from the ghost of his buddy Jack, imploring him to commit suicide so he can prevent himself from murdering innocent people and let victims of the werewolf’s bloodline rest in peace. Come to think of it, why is David being visited by the ghost of someone his lycanthrope predecessor killed? And if it’s seemingly part of the lore that the current werewolf can see every victim of his bloodline, theoretically David should be seeing lots of northern strangers with a grudge against him too?

an american werewolf in london

The story is actually very straightforward. David recuperates from his ordeal by starting a relationship with an attractive young nurse, Alex Price (a delightful Jenny Agutter), and believes he has a form of PTSD with the sudden onset of frightening and bizarre dreams. And that’s before Jack appears to him with a torn out throat, undergoing a slow physical decay each time they meet. There’s also a smaller subplot for Dr Hirsch (John Woodvine), the man in charge of David’s recovery, who takes an interest in this foreigner’s peculiar story and investigates the northern village to see if it holds water.

In essence, An American Werewolf in London is a tragic romance about a likeable young man who goes to Europe looking for adventure, only to find death and possible madness instead, but clutches to the promise of true love to get him through… which is ultimately doomed because he’s a monster that can’t possibly have a happy ending because his existence puts everyone in danger. Even his girlfriend.

The movie now has a huge reputation in horror, and particularly the horror-comedy sub-genre, but I’ve never found American Werewolf especially funny. There is a certain gallows humour to a few moments (certainly the sequence when David meets his bloodsoaked victims in a porno cinema, sitting in seats like paying customers), but there aren’t many actual jokes or moments that stand out as being hilarious. I think expectations based on Landis’ background in comedy perhaps tricked 1981 audiences into thinking this was meant to be funny, so the occasionally amusing moment got exaggerated in people’s minds. And then it seems to have been accepted as being a horror-comedy in the ’80s and it’s never shaken it. But I’m not sure a horror that alleviates tension with a wry moment or silly physical gag (like the cop who almost walks face-first into a closed-door) is enough to justify American Werewolf being stocked alongside Evil Dead 2 (1987).

Whatever your reaction to its tonal mix (and I know some people find it more funny than scary), this is a cult classic that’s withstood the rigours of time. I can scarcely believe it’s almost 40 years old now, at time of writing. Speaking personally, it’s also one of a handful of movies I heard about in lurid detail by an older friend when I was too young to see it for myself. And just hearing a blow-by-blow account of the story had me gripped as a ten-year-old, so when I first saw the movie it was like witnessing someone’s crazy pitch come to vivid life.

Universal distributed American Werewolf across the US at the time of its release, and they’re the studio that gave Hollywood all of its classic-era monsters, including the iconic Wolf Man. And thanks to the film’s British setting and a mostly English cast, the whiff of Hammer Horror isn’t too far away - particularly in the opening scenes with the suspicious pub-goers (one played with scene-stealing relish by the late great Brian Glover). As an Anglo-American production, this movie combines both country’s strengths. It has a thick atmosphere and tonal oddness of a Hammer picture, with an American attitude and game-changing SFX.

Now let’s talk about Rick Baker. Arguably the most enduring thing about An American Werewolf in London is its remarkable werewolf transformation. Landis and Baker (who met each other on Landis’ 1973 debut Schlock) wanted to bring something modern and cutting-edge to the screen, as the classic werewolf movies were limited in what they could achieve with make-up and simple filmmaking techniques. There was a lot of static shots with fades and transitions in classic wolf-man movies, nothing realistic and visceral. Baker designed a metamorphosis for David that was incredibly ambitious, not least because it takes place indoors under bright lighting. There’s nowhere to hide the seams and the imaginative ways David’s body contorts from man to wolf are still imitated to this day, albeit with slicker CGI.

Each time I watch An American Werewolf in London, particularly when it undergoes restoration or debuts on a new higher-resolution format, I worry that Baker’s SFX will suddenly look antiquated and unconvincing. This never happens. It’s certainly easier to tell the elongating wolf’s head is rubber and more noticeable a few of the werewolf’s limbs are false, but the overall illusion continues to work. But even knowing how it was done doesn’t undermine the magic, because of one unavoidable truth: what you’re seeing is happening on camera.

There’s still something mesmeric about seeing practical effects, as you’re simultaneously impressed by the ingenuity that’s happening to create the appearance of what’s happening. I’ve seen slicker and more “realistic” werewolf transformations done with CGI in the decades since 1981, but they never carry the same weight and emotion. And a lot of that is also down to the performance, as David Naughton communicates such a lot of pain and confusion as he’s going through this horrendous change. Rick Baker deservedly won the Academy Award for ‘Best Make-up’ that year, which was the inaugural trophy created specifically to honour what he achieved here. Yeah, it’s that good.

While being a straightforward movie in many ways, there are hidden depths. It’s mentioned in a jokey moment about a nurse sneaking a peek at David’s circumcised penis that he’s Jewish, which adds depth to the nightmare sequence where David’s family home is invaded by gun-wielding Nazi demons. The historical persecution of Jews, most infamously under the Third Reich, is undoubtedly a subtext in American Werewolf. John Landis himself is Jewish so perhaps subconsciously put some of those feelings into the movie. The scene in the Slaughtered Lamb thus gains another level, as the villagers’ inhospitality toward David and Jack might be seen as them intuiting their religious background, not just the fact they’re foreigners.

I’ve seen An American Werewolf in London many times over the years and it remains one of my favourites, particularly on a dark winter’s evening, preferably around Halloween. The SFX are remarkable and will always keep this film in people’s minds (even those who don’t care for the surrounding content), but I found the love story more effective this time around. Age does that, I guess. The fact it doesn’t deliver a happy ending and, indeed, concludes so abruptly, always leaves me gasping for more… with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that poor David found love with a woman he was cursed to never be with for long. But I guess he got a few days sightseeing in London, went to Trafalgar Square, travelled on the Tube, and had passionate shower sex. It just came at the expense of several innocent people’s lives. The moral of the story is to take heed of whatever scary villagers say to you, particularly regarding moors.

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Limited Edition Blu-ray Special Features:

An American Werewolf in London has been on Blu-ray before, but Arrow Video have spruced things up with a 4K restoration using the original camera negative. It’s a shame Arrow (or any boutique labels, even Criterion) haven’t embraced the 4K Ultra HD format yet, probably down to expense and the limited audience right now, but this is still the best the movie’s looked. It’s not a night-and-day difference over the existing Blu-ray, but it’s more natural-looking and details looked a bit clearer.

  • New 2018 4K restoration from the original camera negative supervised by John Landis.
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation.
  • Original uncompressed 1.0 mono and optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio.
  • Optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • New audio commentary by ‘Beware the Moon’ filmmaker Paul Davis.Audio Commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne.
  • ‘Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf’, a newly produced feature-length documentary by filmmaker Daniel Griffith, featuring interviews with director John Landis, star David Naughton, director Joe Dante, and more. (HD, 1 hr 20 mins.) Here’s the crown jewel of Arrow’s new release of An American Werewolf in London, to tempt those who already own it on Blu-ray and don’t think a 4K restoration is enough of a reason to double-dip. Landis talks about the origins of the film’s concept; there’s background on the werewolf mythology in cultures through the centuries, and early attempts to fictionalise the werewolf mythos (which only succeeded when cinema brought the idea to life, with 1913’s The Werewolf); discussion on the establishment of the classic Universal movie monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man), with professional thoughts on Jack Pearce’s trailblazing make-up for The Wolf Man; a retrospective on Lon Chaney Jr.’s storied Hollywood career (which included playing The Wolf Man multiple times); discussion about Universal’s proto-‘cinematic universe’ with its horror icons co-starring together in other movies; thoughts on how Hammer Films took the werewolf myth forward with The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) and its more elaborate makeup on Oliver Reed, and how Rick Baker pushed the envelope for American Werewolf’s iconic man-to-wolf visuals (which inspired a rush of body-horor transformations in the ’80s); and even some talk about Rick Baker’s later work on The Wolf Man (2010) which merged his practical make-up with CGI. It’s interesting to see Joe Dante contributing to this documentary, as his own werewolf movie The Howling (1981) got overshadowed by American Werewolf at the time (certainly in terms of the transformation VFX), but he clearly bears no grudge and expounds with enthusiasm about the classic wolfman pictures. A wonderful documentary for anyone who appreciates the Universal classic horrors, or wants to be inspired to give them a try.

  • ‘An American Filmmaker in London’, a newly filmed interview with John Landis in which he reflects on his time working in Britain and British cinema (HD, 12 mins.) Landis is a self-confessed Anglophile and here shares his love of British film (particularly the Ealing comedies), and his experience making American Werewolf after first visiting the UK in 1969 (where he saw the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus). He hired a lot of British crew he’d worked with during the 1970s and talks about the concerns over getting permission to shoot in Picadilly Circus, working with “camera savvy” actors, how the film’s porno theatre changed from originally being a cartoon cinema in the original 1969 script.

  • ‘I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret’, a new video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976) about how Landis’ film explores Jewish identity (HD, 12 mins.) A fascinating essay about the movie’s Jewish lead actors and how Landis surreptitiously used the movie to comment on the post-war experiences of Jews. Spira looks at the werewolf myth and how the German Pagan tradition instead saw the creature as a protective force for good (ironically, “Hitler” means “noble wolf”). It specifically talks about screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who fled Nazi Germany and wrote Universal’s classic The Wolf Man as an allegory for good people who feel like outsiders and become persecuted as animals, and how Landis took some of Siodmak’s ideas into American Werewolf.

  • ‘The Werewolf’s Call’, Corin Hardy, director of The Nun, chats with writer Simon Ward about their formative experiences with Landis’ film (HD, 12 mins.) The English director of The Hallow (2015) talks about seeing the film on BBC TV while on holiday in Exmoor National Park as an 11-year-old, which will resonate for people of a similar age.

  • ‘Wares of the Wolf’, a new featurette in which SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store look at some of the original costumes and special effects artefacts from the film (HD, 8 mins.) American Werewolf is a notable effects movie and this featurette sees Martin and Lawes look at some of the remaining props, as most have sadly been lost—including one of the Nazi demon masks (once owned by Rick Baker), David’s iconic red puffer jacket (the only one of six remaining), and one of the mechanical werewolf transformation heads (now skinless).

  • ‘Beware the Moon’, Paul Davis’ acclaimed feature-length exploration of Landis’ film, which boasts extensive cast and crew interviews (HD, 1 hr 37 mins.) If you haven’t seen this 2009 fan-made documentary already, it’s an essential watch for any American Werewolf in London fan. It’s a one-stop-shop for an exhaustive look behind-the-scenes and the movie’s enduring appeal, made by fans for fans. Featuring interviews with John Landis, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, David Naughton, John Woodvine, David Schofield, and Paul Davis even visits some of the movie’s locations 26 years later.

  • ‘Making An American Werewolf in London’, a short archival featurette on the film’s production (HD, 5 mins.) Brief but always interesting to see marketing material produced at the time, with a young Landis interviewed about the movie’s cinematic pedigree and his intention to push things forward with Rick Baker’s make-up effects. There’s also footage of David Naughton undergoing a full head mould and of the production’s nighttime shooting in Picadilly Circus.

  • ‘An Interview with John Landis’, a lengthy archival interview with the director about the film (HD, 19 mins.) More anecdotes and explanations from the director (shot in 2001), but by now some of these will have become slightly repetitive.

  • ‘Makeup artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London’, the legendary make-up artist discusses his work on the film (HD, 11 mins.) The legendary Rick Baker talks about this professional background with John Landis and his time on American Werewolf. Interestingly, he was a proponent of the traditional biped Wolf Man design of Lon Chaney Jr., but Landis was adamant he wanted a four-legged creature - which was achieved by having a man lay on a ‘wheelbarrow’-style contraption wearing a wolf costume. And did you know most of the six-man team working on the film alongside with Baker were fans he had to train up?

  • ‘I Walked with a Werewolf’, an archival interview with make-up artist Rick Baker about Universal horror and its legacy of Wolfman films (HD, 8 mins.) This is another interview with Baker, produced a little more recently, this time focusing on the classic horror movies and how they inspired him to become an Oscar-winning make-up artist.

  • ‘Casting of the Hand’, archival footage from Rick Baker’s workshop as they cast David Naughton’s hand (HD, 11 mins.) Cool behind-the-scenes footage from 11 October 1980 with Rick Baker preparing David Naughton for a cast of his arm, overseen by John Landis.

  • Outtakes (HD, 3 mins.) The usual larking around and gaffes, but unfortunately without sound. More interesting for its glimpses of behind-the-scenes shooting than anything that’ll make you laugh… although there is “Mysterious Footage” of Landis presenting to camera, only for the set to fall apart and reveal an orgy happening behind him.

  • Storyboard featurette (HD, 2 mins.) A comparison between the storyboards alongside finished shots from the porno cinema attack sequence.

  • Original trailer, teaser, and radio spots.
  • Extensive image gallery featuring over 200 production stills, behind-the-scenes photos, posters, lobby cards, storyboards, and the shooting schedule.
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original poster art and artwork by Graham Humphreys.
  • Double-sided fold-out poster.
  • Six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions.
  • Limited 60-page booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and Simon Ward, archival articles and original reviews.

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: John Landis.
starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne & John Woodvine.

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