An American Werewolf in London (1981) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 20

by Jovial Jay

Check out that full moon tonight! Arrroooooooo!

An American Werewolf in London was one of several werewolf films to come out in 1981. It helped redefine and invigorate the sagging genre with new scares as well as humor.

Before Viewing

The trailer opens with that blood curdling howl that has been frightening audiences for the past 40 years. Two American men are walking along a dark field in England when they are attacked. One dies and the other becomes a werewolf. Several moments of tension occur but also some oddly humorous ones as well. The trailer ends with part of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon on the Rise. Check if there’s a full moon tonight and then let’s go watch this together.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London title card.

After Viewing

North of London, outside of the small village of East Proctor, a sheep truck drops off David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), two American students over on holiday. As daylight fades, they hike into the town and stop in a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb to get warm and possibly a meal. Jack notices a five-pointed star on the wall next to two giant candles. When he asks the locals about it they all become tense and even more terse than before. The boys leave, but get a warning to beware the moon. As they make their way to another town, both are attacked by some animal which is shot by the villagers. Jack does not make it.

Three weeks later David awakens in a London hospital where he is told by Doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine) that he was attacked by an escaped lunatic and that his friend was killed. David vehemently disagrees and says he’s certain it was an animal. He is tended to by nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), who he is obviously attracted to. David has several lucid dreams while in the hospital, including one of running through the forest naked and biting a deer on the neck and another where Nazi werewolves attack and kill his family.

One day before he gets released, the shredded and grotesquely undead body of Jack visits to warn David that he is werewolf and he needs to take his own life to sever the bloodline of the wolf. Otherwise Jack will walk the earth as an undead. Jack disappears when anyone else comes into the room. Since he has nowhere else to stay, Alex invites David to room with her at her flat and the two make love. David awakens in the night and is once again met by Jack, now a bit more decayed, who implores his friend to kill himself.

An American Werewolf in London

Jack kills the mood in the pub by asking about the pentagram symbol on the wall.

Alex hears voices so David explains what has been happening, knowing he sounds crazy. He explains his problems by describing the plot of The Wolf Man, which only makes Alex feel sorry for him. Meanwhile Dr Hirsch visits East Proctor, uncertain of the explanations he’s received about David’s condition. His visit proves to, at least to him, that something is going on and the villagers covered it up. Alex goes off to work and David is left alone during a full moon in which he changes undeniably into a wolf. He kills 6 people that evening including Harry and his fiancée Judith, three homeless men Alf, Ted, and Joseph, and a commuter in a tube station, Gerald.

David wakes up naked at the zoo unsure of how he arrived there. He returns to Alex’s flat full of energy. Dr. Hirsch tells Alex to bring him to the hospital straight away as he is in danger, but on their cab ride the driver mentions the murders and David leaps out and runs away. He phones home to tell his sister and family that he loves them and then tries to slit his wrists but is unable or unwilling to. Wandering the streets of Piccadilly Circus David sees the rotting corpse of Jack outside of an adult theater, motioning him inside.

Jack introduces David to the other undead from his previous night’s activities. They all offer him suggestions on ways to kill himself. David begins to change again. The police, getting a report that a wild animal is loose in the theater, close the metal shade, but the wolf breaks through, causing a number of vehicle accidents as it roams the street. It bites the head off the chief inspector before getting trapped in a dead end alley. Alex runs towards the beast telling David that she loves him. The officers open fire on the monster. David falls dead in the alley, the curse now broken.

You’d be surprised what horrors a man is capable of.” – Dr. Hirsch

An American Werewolf in London

David is shocked to see his dead friend Jack appear in his hospital room, telling him he’s now a werewolf.

An American Werewolf in London is the greatest werewolf movie ever made. What makes this even more impressive was that it was made by a director who was, at that time, known for his comedies. John Landis, whose two previous biggest films were The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon’s Animal House decided to reinvigorate the werewolf genre with a new film, injecting some of his trademark humor–which honestly makes the scary scenes even scarier.

Released in 1981, about 4 months after Joe Dante’s The Howling, An American Werewolf in London made werewolf films scary again. It’s not that The Howling wasn’t scary, but it was a little more satirical in its display. Prior to this year, there had not been a popular werewolf for decades, arguably since Hammer Horror’s The Curse of The Werewolf (looked at last week). After this film, the werewolf genre increased tenfold with multiple sequels to The Howling, the Teen Wolf series, Stephen King’s Silver Bullet, and many other TV shows and films containing werewolves. No longer was the film hampered by a man in a furry costume running around on two legs. Now special effects had advanced to the point where a human could reasonably look like they were turning into a monster. Rick Baker’s Academy Award winning special effects makeup changed the landscape for monster makeup and integrated makeup effects forever.

The film also took the legacy of the werewolf mythos and reinvented it for the modern age. Landis’ movie adapted the Universal Pictures tale of The Wolf Man as a legend that Jack is versed in. When he sees the pentacle (or pentagram) in the pub, he immediately relates the story of Lon Chaney Jr and the 1941 film. In both films a man, attacked by a monster becomes one himself and changes when the moon is full. They both are saved by people that they love, Larry’s father in the original and Alex in this version (though she doesn’t actually kill the monster). From there it cranked everything up to 11. A new bloodcurdling werewolf howl was created for this film that is one of the most unsettling sound effects in a horror film to date. The grey, foggy moors of Northern England set the tone perfectly for the two tourists to get attacked. But rather than having the film take place in a remote village, the action is brought back to London and Piccadilly Circus where the finale unfolds in the center of the city.

An American Werewolf in London

Dr. Hirsch visits The Slaughtered Lamb and tries to get some details of the attack from the locals.

Landis uses his proclivity for humor as a sharp weapon, deflecting the horror elements but also relaxing the audience before the next fright. The film rides from the crest of a scream to the crest of a guffaw, ebbing and flowing between two opposite emotions. Sometimes he combines the moments within a scene as he does when Jack reappears. The rotting and tattered corpse of Jack talks to David as if he was over for some tea. He grabs bits of toast and eats them while plainly telling the other that he must take his life. It’s staged so normally, but the visuals, especially the dangling flap of skin on Jack’s jaw, tell a different story. The characters also try to deflect the terror they feel by telling jokes, or making fun of the situation. But it’s often grim humor as the characters know they’re in trouble.

The use of catchy moon related songs (“Moondance” by Van Morrison, “Bad Moon Rising” by CCR, and three different versions of “Blue Moon”) provides a knowing wink from the filmmakers that they’re aware of what is happening to the characters. It’s a slightly meta-moment, as with David and Jack knowing the plot of the most famous werewolf film to date, which makes the film all the more real and important. Landis proved that he should not be judged on his past works, and that he was fully capable of creating a good scary film. Two years later Landis would create the opening moments for Twilight Zone: The Movie, arguably the scariest (and funniest) part of that anthology. An American Werewolf in London is still going strong after 40 years in part due to its candor, special effects, and well structured frights.

An American Werewolf in London

A subway passenger is stalked by the creature on his way home.

Assorted Musings

  • The success of An American Werewolf in London landed John Landis the job of directing the Michael Jackson music video (short film) for “Thriller,” which features Michael turning into a wolf-like creature as well.
  • The opening of the film sets up the fates of the characters with some foreshadowing. David and Jack get off of a truck carrying sheep. They find a Pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. They are knowingly not warned about the creature on the moors. Thus being led like lambs to the slaughter.
  • A sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which was not as well received, follows the offspring of David and Alex as he visits Paris, unaware that he’s a lycanthrope.

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