director John Landis
John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London was a pretty big movie for me in my young movie-going life. It was the 2nd R-rated horror film that I managed to get my mom to take me to (The first being Alien (1979)), which unfortunately for my sister three and a half years younger, was also the case for her. Childhood traumas are made of this stuff…but not for me. Rather, this was a pretty formative movie in my day.
As I’ve often noted here, I was a dyed in the wool or maybe even dyed in the womb monster movie lover. Though I heavily enthused on movies from Universal Pictures classic horror films and the likes of old Godzilla, I was growing up in an era when horror films were far more bloody and filled with a lot more sex. In fact, in the 1980’s most new horror films were rated R.
And that’s just the thing. I don’t remember the third R-rated movie I saw in the theaters with my mom or otherwise (most likely there was a lot of pay cable movies in that time), but these first two made life-long impressions on me. And frankly, of all the horror films to have gone to, Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London? Two pretty spectacular films.
I can’t tell you the last time I’d seen it or how many times I saw the movie. I feel like I know it in and out in pretty solid detail, rightly or wrongly. And for a big portion, it’s true, I do know the film in good detail.
A couple of odd notes. I had been thinking of watching it with my kids, now 13 and 10, which would be older than the 9 and 12 that my sister and I would have been in 1981, but I had two qualms. Strangely, the film’s sexuality made a huge impression on me when I saw it. There is some sex talk, a big sex scene with the beautiful nurse Jenny Agutter, and then there is the scene in the porno theater. Somehow that all seemed very intense to me, though I’ll tell you that the sex scene is nowhere as suggestive or revealing as I had recalled it, nor is it very long.
And then there is the violence and gore effects. It’s a pretty scary movie, though full of comedy, too. The English setting and some of the black humor I thought would really appeal to my kids, but for some reason…I was like “Wasn’t there like TONS of SEX in the movie? And was it gory? Was it scary?” Like I’ve suggested, I think it’s more a testament to how the film impressed upon my 12 year old self as to why I thought I’d give it a viewing before watching it with the kids.
The biggest thing is that the movie is pretty damn great.
David Naughton, he of those Dr. Pepper commercials of the day, is a good lead in this comic horror/love story. And his buddy Griffin Dunne, he who gets killed in the movie early on but comes back as a progressively rotting corpse trying to convince Naughton to kill himself to lift the werewolf’s curse…he’s fantastic. I always liked him and his scenes.
And those werewolf effects by Rick Baker. 1981 was the year of the werewolf effect film, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Wolfen. What a year for werewolves! Baker’s effects are definitive genre examples of the best transformation sequences set to film. I’d be willing to bet/argue that they’ve never yet been topped. They are iconic. They are gruesome.
But Landis pulls out not just a scary thriller, but a very funny comic film. And somehow, the love story between Naughton and Agutter also makes this movie sad and tragic, too.
Sorry to harp so much upon it, but if you had asked me, I would have sworn that you see Agutter in her altogether in rather copious ways. Nope. It’s moderately discreet for the time. But Griffin Dunne’s gruesome post-life bloodiness? Really pretty gross and beautifully executed. Why did I not dwell on the gore? I guess my 12 year old self dwelt on the flash of a breast more than an eviscerated corpse.
Bottom line on this rather rambling spiel: John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London is an excellent, funny, gory, great horror film. Excellent.