An American Werewolf in London can best perfectly describe as a best of both words type movie. The ideal blend of fun dark comic wit and gruesome violence. It’s been nearly 40 years since the film’s original release, yet it stands on the top of the golden tower as one of the definitive werewolf features.
Something that is often lost with a lot of mediocre showings of this genre is that they often emphasis showing werewolf ripping people’s heads off more than the storytelling or characterization. And while this film more than delivers on that front, it also populated with charming characters.
David Naughton in the lead role gives so much youthful sincerity in his performance that it makes for a very charming and, at times, sympathetic protagonist. And while there may not be many of them, has some wonderful back and forth with Griffin Dunne as his best friend who sells to the audience that these two are actually, best friends who just find themselves in a very pellicular situation. Even the love interest played by Jenny Agutter fits seamlessly into the narrative and has enough convincing chemistry with Naughton, which does a lot to keep the romance aspect from feeling intrusive.
The level of comedy at display here is used smartly. Horror comedy can be tricky compared to other mashups of the genre as putting the audience into a state where they can find the film both comically assuming and horrifying could turn the whole thing into a jumbled mess. But through Landis’s sharp screenplay, these two different genres are interwoven to perfection.
Mainly because the source of the film’s horror, the werewolf, is never played for laughs. Comedic situations can arise from its existence, such as David finding himself naked in a zoo and figuring how to get home while butt-naked that are gut-bustlingly funny, but the monster itself is played as a vicious undeterred predator. It’s this careful handling of the material that makes for some awesome contrast and, in part, what makes An American Werewolf in London so entertaining.
But a good chunk of this film’s legacy rests in the shoulders of one Mr. Rick Baker. As a makeup artist, his work is absurdly good. For a film that came out in 1981, the effects work still remains timeless. The first werewolf transformation is such a beautiful summarization of Baker’s careful level of precision and detail that makes it feel so tangible and such a notable icon in the world of horror makeup in that decade.
If there is one thing I still have to come to grips with, it’s the film’s use of dream sequences. There is some very effectively unsettling imagery that pops up during these sequences, but they feel rather jammed compared to everything else the film has to offer. But they’re so brief that they don’t end up serving as a major detriment to the overall package.
John Landis certainly had something to prove to financiers about the worth of this feature. In their eyes, the screenplay ran the risk of both a total mismatch of two very particular genres. But as An American Werewolf in London proves, the fate of any concept lies in the execution. And Landis pulls it off with so much wit and skill that the final result is endlessly watchable. And one that stills stands a true horror cult classic.