An American Werewolf In London


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

An American Werewolf In London
"Landis keeps the humour dry, the speech naturalistic, yet his keen sense of the absurd provides for some laugh-out-loud moments."

Some films mke suc an extraordinary contribution to film history that it is difficult, in retrospect, to take a clear look at how it all began. Sure, An American Werewolf In London was following in an already well established horror tradition, but it condensed its tropes so effectively as to give the genre new life. It also introduced an overt humour that, for all its oddness alongside gory deaths and a bleak central plot, gives this film a joyous atmosphere that has informed many of its successors.

David (David Naughton) is an American college student travelling across Britain with his best friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). Their cheery banter is out of place in the Gothic landscape of the moors and they're not exactly given a warm welcome at village pub The Slaughtered Lamb, but they're still enjoying their holiday right up to the point of being ambushed by a werewolf. Waking up in a London hospital three weeks later, David is distressed enough to learn that Jack is dead - still more so to see him return, as a shambling corpse, warning of a lycanthropic curse and begging him to kill himself before he kills others at the next full moon.

As in all his best films, writer/director John Landis keeps it simple, with the slight plot quite sufficient to provide tension, emotional angst and narrative energy. His straightforward characters are boldly drawn and equipped with cracking dialogue. The acting is strong throughout. Having previously played a series of ingenues, Jenny Agutter creates a forceful presence as Alex, the nurse whose sexual interest in David extends to taking on his complex problems, whilst John Woodvine stands out as the prim Home Counties doctor surprisingly capable of getting his way when he decides to investigate his patient's story. His is a character which could easily have been presented as an object of ridicule, yet he gives the man personality; the same is true for upcoming stars like Brian Glover and Rik Mayall, staying on just the right side of ham as the regulars in The Slaughtered Lamb. Landis keeps the humour dry, the speech naturalistic, yet his keen sense of the absurd provides for some laugh-out-loud moments.

Also important to the film's success at the time, though less powerful today, were Rick Baker's special effects. Considering what he had to work with, they're terrific. The gradually decomposing Jack still looks impressive by today's standards. The werewolf transformation scenes have aged less well but still look better than many more recent efforts, and are effective enough to keep viewers in the right headspace. Baker rightly won an Oscar for his work. Horror fans won't be disappointed on the gore front, though of course the real horror stems from David's sense of impending, inescapable doom.

Action fans won't be disappointed either. After the intro, the film takes its time to build but is well paced throughout, and most of the its budget appears to have been spent on the spectacular final sequence, which is gleefully destructive. It was filmed during preparations for the 1981 Royal Wedding and must have been a security nightmare for all involved, hence a note in the credits congratulating the royal couple. Nevertheless, there is no suggestion of official restraint when the fur starts flying.

With its dark wit, its upbeat soundtrack and its mischievous sense of fun, this is a film that remains very easy to like. Just don't watch it when the moon is full.

Reviewed on: 11 Jun 2012
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Fully restored version of the werewolf classic.
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Director: John Landis

Writer: John Landis

Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine, Lila Kaye, Joe Belcher, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Rik Mayall, Sean Baker, Paddy Ryan, Anne-Marie Davies, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember

Year: 1981

Runtime: 97 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

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