Craig J. Clark — Aug. 12th 2011
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I saw my first serious werewolf movie (a distinction that allows me to set aside the likes of Teen Wolf and The Monster Squad), but I do know it was sometime in the early ’90s that I was scanning the Horror section at my local Blockbuster and picked out a movie with the intriguing title An American Werewolf in London. While I had never been that big into horror growing up, I was a fan of John Landis’s comedies, having made Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos! and Amazon Women on the Moon staples of my movie-watching diet during my formative years. Plus, I had heard that there was some comedy in the film, but since it never came on television I had to make the effort to seek it out. And I’m glad I did because what I saw that evening blew my mind and subsequently inspired me to seek out other films of its type. (Alas, the only other werewolf movie my Blockbuster had on its shelves was Joe Dante’s The Howling and their tape was inexplicably missing the entire pre-credit sequence, but that’s a story for another day.)
It’s strange to think that I’ve been watching lycanthropes lope across TV and movie screens for two-thirds of my life (I’ll even cop to having taken in a few episodes of the Teen Wolf Saturday morning cartoon), but what’s stranger still is the fact that I have yet to tire of them — and the tragic plight of American backpacker David Kessler (as embodied by David Naughton) has a lot to do with that. No matter how many times I’m disappointed by substandard makeup effects, by-the-numbers plotting or the genre’s current overreliance on digital creatures and pretty-boy leads, all I have to do is go back to the Scottish moors and pay a visit to the Slaughtered Lamb to be reminded of where I was bitten in the first place. This is why I’ve chosen American Werewolf as the subject of my inaugural column for Werewolf News. Of course, it also helps that Sunday the 21st marks the 30th anniversary of its theatrical release. Timing, as is often said, is everything.
I used to maintain that The Howling and American Werewolf in London — which were released just four months apart in the spring and summer of 1981 — were tied for the title of Best Werewolf Film of All Time, but when I watched them back to back a few years ago I had to concede that the latter definitely has the edge over the former. It’s not just that Rick Baker’s makeup/transformation effects are better — that comes from having a larger budget — but the human story is that much more involving thanks to the central performances, not just by David Naughton, but also Griffin Dunne (as his best friend Jack, who dies and returns as a progressively rotting corpse to warn him about his curse) and Jenny Agutter (as the London nurse who loves him fangs, fur and all). Shoot, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I tear up every time the film draws to a close because I know there’s no happy ending forthcoming for any of them (although presumably Dunne is released from his hellish afterlife right around the time the credits roll).
Another reason for American Werewolf‘s longevity is that John Landis had harbored it as his dream project from his early days in the industry, even going to so far as to recruit Rick Baker back when they were collaborating on 1973’s Schlock (which, incidentally, contains Landis’s first “See You Next Wednesday” reference). In fact, Landis wrote the initial draft of the script in 1969 when he was on location in Yugoslavia working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes. The twin successes of Animal House and The Blues Brothers a decade later gave him the wherewithal to do whatever he wanted, and what he wanted to do was make the first modern comedy/horror hybrid. There had been previous films that alternated between scenes of mirth and fright (the Abbott and Costello Meet _______ series chief among them), but American Werewolf was the first with some real teeth. Sure, there are funny gags aplenty, but this is a film where the laughter really sticks in your throat. And it also has some incredibly well-crafted scenes of suspense (the chase through the London Underground being a particular standout).
The film is also helped immeasurably by an able supporting cast, including John Woodvine as the skeptical London doctor who looks into Naughton’s wild stories, Lila Kaye as the barmaid at the Slaughtered Lamb, Brian Glover as the Northerner intent on keeping their werewolf problem a secret (with Rik Mayall as the chess player he handily beats in the opening scene), and Frank Oz as the tactless embassy official who’s present when Naughton first comes around. There’s even an amusing parallel with The Howling since that film starts with an encounter with a werewolf in a porno store and this film ends with a werewolf passing his last few hours in a porno theater before transforming one final time. And while the pandemonium in Piccadilly Circus that follows may seem like overkill (you’d think The Blues Brothers and its plentiful pileups would have satiated Landis’s car crash fever, but apparently not), it’s only a minor distraction. (On the other claw, the less said about An American Werewolf in Paris — a film I’ve taken to pretending doesn’t exist — the better.) Thirty years on, the Best Werewolf Film of All Time retains its crown.
artwork by Tandye Rowe