One of the first retrospectives I did for Readers Digested was The Howling, a contender for one of my favourite werewolf movies ever made. The list isn’t that long sadly as, unlike some of the other classic movie monsters, it is arguable that the werewolf hasn’t been given that many great, let alone good outings on the big screen unlike his less hirsute neighbour, the vampire for example.
There are more things you can do with the vampire mythology, whether it show the hypnotic, seductive side of the monster or it’s more feral, brutal bloodlust. There’s less scope for gothic romance in a tale featuring a person that sprouts hair and kills.
In 1981, The Howling wasn’t the only film to feature werewolves/shape shifters. Albert Finney popped up in the underrated “Wolfen” which is well worth a watch if you’ve not seen it.
The pick of the bunch however in most horror fans opinion was John Landis’ “An American Werewolf In London“. This was one of the first adult horror movies I saw in its entirety. I may have been around 10 years old (possibly a little young) but I remember thoroughly enjoying it. The iconic cover on the video of the mid-transformation man/wolf drew many a rental in the early days of the service.
John Landis directed the movie and was known for the comedies he’d written and/or directed with his two most recent films being Animal House and The Blues Brothers.
Those who were drawn to the film based on Landis’ previous offerings may have been expecting something more like Young Frankenstein with the emphasis on the comedy over the horror. Hopefully they wouldn’t have been disappointed. As much as there are funny moments in American Werewolf it is a horror film with touches of comedy in it opposed to a laugh-fest with horror elements.
The film opens to the strains of “Blue Moon” by Bobby Vinton as we see a shot of the Yorkshire Moors. We meet our main protagonist, David Kessler (David Naughton), a young American man who is on a hiking tour of Europe with his best friend Jack (Griffin Dunne).
The landscape looks cold and miserable because it is cold and miserable and they dream of sunnier destinations as they head for civilisation, warmth and shelter.
They enter a pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb” and are greeted by silent stares from the locals including great British character actors including Brian Glover, David Schofield and the late comic genius Rik Mayall. It’s made quite clear that they aren’t especially welcome and this feeling is compounded after Jack asks about the pentacle that is painted on the wall. I’ve walked into a strange pub in the past that has been frequented by locals and received a similar reaction and it was not a nice feeling and led to a quick about turn.
Jack and David do not hang about and leave quickly but, not before being advised/warned to stick to the roads, avoid the moors and, bizarrely, to “beware the moon” which hangs full in the sky.
The two men do not heed the warning and, within seconds have strayed off the road into what looks like Baskerville territory.
They hear howling and the guttural growls of an animal that sounds unlike any that are indigenous to the UK. In a tense scene that reminds you that this is as much a horror film as a comedy, the beast circles them and when David trips we get an effective jump scare as Jack is attacked by a large creature that tears him to pieces before turning its attention to David. As gunshots ring out, David turns to see a human being dying, shot by the villagers of East Proctor (almost better late than never I guess) before slipping into unconsciousness.
When David awakes he is in a hospital in London. Traumatised by the death of his friend and his own attack he tells the police officers investigating the incident that he was attacked by a wolf-like creature opposed to a man though there are early indications of a cover-up in East Proctor. The two officers are played as a double act with Inspector Villiers (Don McKillop) the straight man to the clumsily incompetent Sergeant McManus (Paul Kember). David also receives a visit from an Embassy official (a cameoing Frank Oz) who comes across as a heartless arsehole.
The other two notable characters we are introduced to are Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) and Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) with both portraying likable characters. Hirsch goes far beyond the call of duty in his care and even visits East Proctor later in the movie to look into the case himself where he is informed by David Schofield that something unpleasant is soon to happen to David Kessler.
While in the hospital David experiences a series of strange dreams and while this is not something I’m familiar with in any variation on the werewolf story, they all work really well even if they make little sense beyond being visually effective. Maybe they are there to provide a jump scare here or there (as in the scene where David sees himself lying on a hospital bed in the woods and reveals a scary as hell demonic face) or just outright WTF (the gun toting Nazi Demon Monsters, which also gives us a wince inducing throat cutting scene as well as a dream-within-a-dream scare). Irregardless, they are memorable moments in a film packed with memorable moments.
Talking of memorable, David receives another visitor in the form of his friend Jack; his “dead friend” Jack. The makeup job here on actor Griffin Dunne is fantastic (more on this later) but his appearances (which deteriorate over time as his corpse continues to decompose), while pretty disgusting, does provide some levity and a few laughs despite the main reason for him showing up is to tell David that it was a werewolf that attacked them on the moors and that Jack is forced to remain in limbo until the werewolves bloodline is ended.
I have said before that we forgive things in films that we really like no matter how silly, unbelievable, far-fetched (pick your term) it is.
Buying into the fantastical nature of the werewolf mythology removes that from criticism, however, the relationship between Nurse Price and David does feel rushed and a little forced to create a love interest and it’s to their credit that the actors make it believable enough to not tarnish the story at all. It can’t be denied that it doesn’t ring true that Alex would invite a relative stranger back to her flat upon his discharge, especially one who has exhibited the level of mania that David has and, if you were to suddenly kiss the nurse who is providing you care, I very much doubt it would earn you an invite to shower with her back at her place as the Van Morrison song “Moondance” plays.
This doesn’t harm the story and I do have to say that, if Jenny Agutter was to invite me back to her place I would happily accept her offer. Her character here is responsible for a lot of teenage crushes……ahem….anyway……
A much grottier looking Jack has made another visit to warn his friend but David dismisses him despite the pleading. Alex leaves for work and David is left to pace around the flat and grow increasingly bored as time ticks towards the setting of the sun and the rising of the potential transformation trigger.
The song “Bad Moon Rising” plays as we get closer and closer to what we know is coming. Night descends and another version of “Blue Moon” (this time by Sam Cooke) plays as David cries out in agony.
Special Effects supremo Rick Baker won an Oscar for his work on this film and this was the first time that the award was given out for Makeup Effects and it is thoroughly deserved. The transformation sequence is done under bright light and looks better than any CGI transformation that has come subsequently. It’s an amazing thing to see for the first time, especially back then as nothing had come close with the possible exception of The Howling. Both are still, for me, the two best transformation sequences of all time and I challenge anyone to convince me otherwise.
A now transformed David heads out into the capital and proceeds to rack up a bodycount in a short amount of time.
His first two victims are a posh couple (we’d end up calling them “Yuppies” here in the UK which comes from Young Urban Professionals and eventually became a derogatory term for “posh people”) and that is followed by the slaughter of three homeless men.
The victim that everybody remembers the most is the character of Gerald Bringsley (Michael Carter). You may not recognise the name but if you say “the bloke in the Underground” then people will know what you’re talking about. As Pennywise created a surge in coulrophobia (fear of clowns), the stalking of the unfortunate Mr Bringsley, who was “not in the least amused”, through the eerily empty tube station of the London Underground instilled a discomfort in this environment that many still harbour today. Again, I have been on the Tube with a friend at night with no-one else around and we talked about this movie and worked upself up to a point where we damn near sprinted to the exit.
As the sun rises on a new day, David wakes up in the wolf enclosure at London Zoo and we get a couple of funny moments as he makes his way home with the aid of a balloon and a ladies coat.
News of the killings from the previous night have come out and Dr Hirsch, concerned about Davids welfare following his protestations that he is a werewolf, asks Alex to bring David to the hospital. In the taxi, the cab driver (Alan “Brick Top from Snatch” Ford) talks about the murders equating them to the days of the Ripper back in the 1880’s. David bolts from the cab and tries and fails to get himself arrested by shouting out swear words at a policeman along with comments such as “Queen Elizabeth is a man!!”.
He flees from Alex and calls home from a phone-box to say goodbye to his family though he only gets to speak to his young, bratty sister. As he struggles to cut his wrists he sees Jack across the road outside a porno theatre and follows him inside. Jack is far beyond “meatloaf” stage by now and introduces David to the undead corpses of the previous nights “carniverous lunar activities” who offer advice on efficient and painless ways to end his life. While this is happening, a pornagraphic movie called “See You Next Wednesday” is playing on the screen (John Landis frequently uses this title on fictional posters in his films which are always different types of movie) and some of the dialogue in this film-within-a-film is some of the funniest in the whole movie.
Ultimately, the moon rises and again David transforms into the monster. This is where I upset some people because I actually prefer the werewolf in The Howling. I’m not saying that The Howling is a the superior movie, only that I prefer the final look of the monster in that. I like my werewolves to be bipedal and that’s just a creative decision done by the filmmakers that in no way detracts from my enjoyment of the film.
The monster now goes on a rampage through Piccadilly Square. It bites the head off of the arriving Inspector Villiers and creates mayhem as it snaps at terrified tourists. Cars and buses crash and the whole scene is shot extremely well as we feel the tense rush of the escalating carnage.
Hearing that a monster is running amok in the heart of London, Alex and Dr Hirsch rush to the scene where the beast has been cornered in a darkened alleyway. Ignoring protestations from her colleague and the armed police, Alex runs into the alleyway and comes face to maw with the creature. She speaks his name and, for a second, there is a hint of recognition from the werewolf and a momentary beat of calm before it roars and leaps at her. Gunshots ring out (no need for silver bullets here but you can play a bit with “rules” when dealing with fictional monsters). The werewolves of The Howling required silver bullets to kill but could transform whenever they felt like it. Nothing is set in stone and this didn’t bother me at all.
As the police and Dr Hirsch arrive at Alex’s side she weeps heartbreakingly as we cut to the final shot of the movie. The very naked, very dead body of David Kessler, peppered with fatal bullet wounds.
A comedy you say? One final version of “Blue Moon” (and the most upbeat one in the film) by The Marcels plays as the credits roll to remind you that it’s okay to smile here despite the tragic ending.
One of my favourite horror films (and probably in my top twenty favourites of all time across any genre) An American Werewolf In London is something I consider a genuinely classic horror movie.
The comedy that varies from sight gags to slapstick buffoonery to word play works across the board but never gets in the way of the horror to the point where it neuters it. The effects are tremendous and have stood the test of the time. There’s little to fault with the acting and the score by Elmer Bernstein is top notch (even if it gets overshadowed by all of the “moon” songs that feature throughout.)
One of John Landis’ best films, I would always recommend this film to any who haven’t seen it, especially if they’re just getting into the genre. It hasn’t aged badly and skips along at a good pace with very little boring filler in it.
I gush over this film one final time by saying again that it is a true 80’s horror classic and well worth a watch or a re-watch.
A sequel “An American Werewolf in Paris” was released in 1997 which hints strongly that Alex got pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Ignore this film. It’s not that good and I’m being kind. The CGI werewolves in particular look really bad and the story is a weak twist on the far superior film that preceded it.
I’m off for a shave and, when I return with another retrospective, I will be looking at what the problem is with the town of Santa Carla and why it’s considered the murder capital of the world.
Until then….Beware the Moon and…