An American Werewolf in London has left a lasting legacy far beyond what you’d expect from a horror comedy of its ilk. It won the first ever Academy Award for Best Makeup (hardly surprising, if you’ve seen its transformation sequences), and it’s been often cited as having shaped the future of the horror genre’s approach to effects, as well as inspiring several other ’80s classics like Beetlejuice, Evil Dead 2 and Gremlins.
An American Werewolf in London is the quintessential werewolf movie. It opens with two young American backpackers hiking across the Yorkshire Moors, and the back and forth between the two has that distinct John Landis flavour, evoking Animal House even as the mists roll in and the pair encounter a small rural community, in which the hostile locals warn them to “stay off the moors”. Naturally, they don’t listen, and are attacked by a werewolf, who kills one and bites the other before be shot and killed by locals. The last thing protagonist David (David Naughton) sees before passing out is the wolf returning to human form.
David wakes up in London, and visits from his dead (and decomposing) friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) alert him to the fact that he’s either a werewolf or he’s mad. While struggling to make sense of it all, David strikes up a relationship with nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter), as her boss, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) attempts to get to the bottom of David’s “delusions”.
The film’s plot is well-covered territory, and is a fairly straightforward retelling of the traditional wolfman story, but An American Werewolf thrives in the details. With acutely self-aware dialogue, a strained relationship between the werewolf David and the undead Jack, and the mounting anticipation of David’s transformation(s), it’s enough to keep you on the hook from the very beginning.
In fact, An American Werewolf blends horror and comedy with such subtlety that it lends it an air of realism – not easy to do when you’re making a film about werewolves – something which no doubt contributed to the film’s lasting success.
It almost goes without saying, but the makeup and effects on display are truly incredible. It’s now been 40 years since the film’s release, and it still looks excellent throughout. Rick Baker’s work as the film’s makeup artist is absolutely outstanding, and even earned him and Landis a job working on Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller (you might have heard of it). There’s something refreshing about being shown every agonizing moment of the transformation, and it adds a layer of intrigue to the film that’s missing from the horror movies of today.
Summary: Between its groundbreaking effects and occasional ridiculousness, An American Werewolf in London is one of the most uniquely entertaining films ever made. An absolute must-see for fans of cinema that seamlessly fuses horror with comedy in a way that’s not been recreated in the forty years since its release.