image Movie review: ‘An American Werewolf in London’

awilI really enjoyed the late 1970s and early 1980s horror films starting with John Carpenter’s instant classic “Halloween” with Jamie Lee Curtis (click here for my review). It was the heyday for slasher films and one seemed to arrive every week trying to out-gross the last. The best of them had horror generated from fear and surprise – not the gut-churning special effects that filmmakers ultimately turned to in order to continue to one-up each other in the horror department. One 1980s effort that was excellent for both its special effects (effective, but not non-stop gut-churning gore) was “An American Werewolf in London.” It had a great story, had some lighter moments and, for the day, really outstanding special effects that earned it an Oscar for best makeup. “An American Werewolf in London” has the hallmark of the best horror films: It will scare you when you expect it as well as when you don’t.

‘An American Werewolf in London’
(1981; 97 minutes; rated R; directed by John Landis and starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne and Jenny Agutter)

HE’S A WEREWOLF BUT CAN’T DEAL WITH IT

(NOTE: I expanded this review April 25, 2016, with some additional opinion; I updated links; and I cleaned up a few typos.)

Few were hotter in Hollywood in the early 1980s than John Landis. After the spectacularly funny hit “National Lampoon’s Animal House” in 1978, he backed it up with “The Blues Brothers” in 1980 and “Trading Places” with Dan Akyroyd and Eddie Murphy in 1983 (click here for my review). However, you might not remember that he dipped into the horror genre with “An American Werewolf in London” in 1981 and surprisingly it’s nearly as good as the others.

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An American Werewolf in London” set a new standard in special effects with its werewolf transformation scene and you didn’t get to see the entire creature until, as they said back in the day, the final reel. The look of the monster and the decaying body of the main character’s reanimated friend earned “An American Werewolf in London” an Oscar for makeup but was only a wonderful touch to an outstanding film. “An American Werewolf in London” did OK at the box office and became an almost instant cult favorite.

In “An American Werewolf in London,” two young Americans (David Naughton as “David Kessler” and Griffin Dunne as “Jack Goodman”) are backpacking in England and wind up in a lonely village pub called the “Slaughtered Lamb.” It’s a pub with an eerily moody patronage and the guys notice a pentagram on the wall. They ask about it and are cold-shouldered out of the pub amid warnings about the moon and that they should stay on the road. Of course they wind up lost in the nearby moors, hear ever-closer howling and are finally attacked by a beast. The villagers arrive, kill it and it becomes the shape of a man but not before Dunne is killed and Naughton wounded by the beast.

Later, Naughton awakens in a London hospital. He begins to have strange dreams from just the creepy to a full-fledged assault on his family by Nazi-dressed monsters wielding submachine guns. He becomes the amorous attraction for a nurse and his doctor does his own quiet investigation and turns up some mysterious behavior by the villagers. Naughton begins staying at the nurse’s flat and his emotional discomfort continues.

Naughton finally begins being visited by Dunne, who now shows the horrible rips in his flesh done by the werewolf. Dunne’s physical appearance continues to decompose (just like the corpse he is) on each visit with Naughton. Along the way we get to see the centerpiece of special effects and makeup: the transformation: Naughton turns into a werewolf. It’s a great transformation and will make you squirm a bit.

After a night out in the moon, Naughton awakens a human again. Dunne continues to visit and reminds him that all his victims will live in an undead state until he is dead. Naughton ponders suicide, meets Dunne and some of his victims one final time in a porno movie house off Piccadilly Square and the film explodes to its violent climax and delivers a brief denouement.

Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:

  • Naughton is very solid here as the American who’s attacked and becomes unstable with his emotional dreams and visits from a dead friend. However, I would have liked to have seen a bit more from him to elevate the character. Naughton was in his second film here and, although you might believe you’ve seen him everywhere, he has only 79 credits in a career spanning five decades. He’s done films such as “Hot Dog… the Movie” and a lot of TV (including shows such as “Seinfeld” and one of my favorites: “The Love Boat” – click here for my look at that series).
  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Dunne is the actor doing the best work here. He does the offhand, sarcastic dead best friend with aplomb and you know he’d have his own TV spinoff if “An American Werewolf in London” was coming out today. Dunne keeps popping up looking worse and worse, yet he still has a soft spot in what’s left of his heart for Naughton. Dunne, whose nomination was for the short live action film “Duke of Groove,” was nominated for a Golden Globe for “After Hours” and has been in films as varied as “My Girl” and “Quiz Show” and has also been on TV in such series as “L.A. Law.”
  • Primetime Emmy winner Jenny Agutter plays nurse “Alex Price” and becomes enamored of Naughton. Agutter does a good job as the skeptic who wants to believe Naughton’s fears but cannot accept the logic or turn away from him. Agutter did a wonderful turn in two films in 1976: “Logan’s Run” and “The Eagle has Landed” (click here for my review). She was also in the wonderful and little-remembered “Walkabout” and more recently “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” She won her Emmy for “The Snow Goose.”
  • John Woodvine is an actor with a prolific resume (171 credits over seven decades through April 2016) and plays “Dr. J.S. Hirsch,” who becomes convinced of Naughton’s status as he does his own investigation separate from police. Woodvine appears as the consummate British physician and is a solid presence amid the chaos of Naughton’s life. He was also in the TV movie “Fatherland” and a long string of TV roles.

All of the songs on the “An American Werewolf in London” soundtrack have the word “moon” in them (“Blue Moon,” “Moondance” and “Bad Moon Rising” just to name a few). However the most iconic song that could have been used – Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” – isn’t on the soundtrack. Both Dunne and Naughton have been quoted as saying they do not know why it wasn’t included and would have fitted perfectly, according to IMDb.com. I guess that Landis (or the musical director) didn’t want it because it might be too obvious of a pick. Sorry, Mr. Landis, but that was a big mistake.

An American Werewolf in London” was the 23rd ranked film at the box office in 1981 with ticket sales at $30.5 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It had a budget of $10 million, according to Wiki. Thankfully audiences had the intelligence to put this horror film ahead of the crap called “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (27th with $26.8 million) and “Atlantic City” (55th with $12.7 million). The No. 1 film of the year was “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with $212.2 million. Here’s a list of films from 1981 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Director John Landis has an uncredited role as a man knocked through a window during the Piccadilly Square violence.
  • An American Werewolf in London” winning an Oscar for makeup was in the debut year (1982) for the award. Hence, it is the most veteran film to win that honor. It also won top honors in the makeup category from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (and as the Best Horror Film), where it was also nominated for Best Actress (Agutter) and Best Writing (Landis).
  • Studio officials hoped Landis would cast Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi as the two American hitchhikers, but he chose Naughton and Dunne instead. Good move. At the time, the Aykroyd-Belushi influence would have given it too light a touch no matter the drama of the film.
  • British authorities initially were not going to give a work permit for Dunne. They said there were enough British actors available that his character could be played by one. Landis replied that he could retitle the film “An American Werewolf in Paris” and the authorities gave Dunne permission to work on the film. Ironically, a sequel (without the original filmmakers or actors) was made and called “An American Werewolf in Paris.”
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “John Landis wrote the screenplay for this film following an incident while shooting Kelly’s Heroes (1970) (while he was a go-fer) in the countryside of Yugoslavia. While driving along a country road with a colleague, Landis encountered a gypsy funeral. The body was being buried in a massively deep grave, feet first, while wrapped in garlic, so as he would not rise from the dead.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “When trying to call home, David Kessler gives the operator a phone number (516-472-3402) that contains a Long Island, New York, area code. It is also an unusual case in which an actual phone number is used.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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