August 20, 2015 This Week in Horror Movie History – An American Werewolf in London (1981)
This week in Horror movie history, An American Werewolf in London was released on August 21, 1981 through Universal Pictures. The film was directed and written by John Landis (Animal House 1978, Twilight Zone: The Movie 1983) and produced by George Folsey, Jr., (Hostel 2005, Hot Tub Time Machine 2010), who had previously worked together on Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978), and The Blues Brothers (1980) before turning their sites onto the English moors. Starring David Naughton (Hot Dog… The Movie 1984, My Sister Sam TV series), Griffin Dunne (Johnny Dangerously 1984, After Hours 1985), John Woodvine (Fatherland 1994, Persuasion 1995) and Jenny Agutter (Child’s Play II 1990, The Avengers 2012), An American Werewolf in London boasts Award-winning special effects by Rick Baker (Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope 1977, How the Grinch Stole Christmas 2000), who won serious accolades for his insane werewolf transformation effects and rotting corpse makeup. The movie was mostly filmed in Powys, Wales, and London, England, although the famous moors scene was shot in Windsor Great Park in Berkshire, England.
After eight years of waiting for Landis to secure financing and then having to beg off working on Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981), Baker was disappointed that his eight month special effects project for the transformation scene spent only seven seconds in front of the camera. That is, until he saw the film in public and heard the audience’s delightedly disturbed reaction. Not only was the crowd impressed, but when the King of Pop saw American Werewolf, he insisted on hiring Landis to direct his first music video – Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Landis brought along his entire Werewolf crew: Baker, cinematographer Robert Paynter, composesr Elmer Bernstein and his wife, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman. Baker went on to win two Oscars for Best Makeup – one for this film and one for 2010’s The Wolfman – both werewolf movies. The ’80s were a banner time for these hairy critters. Besides American Werewolf, in 1981, there was Wolfen, The Howling, and Full Moon High. Next came The Company of Wolves (1984), Teen Wolf (1985), Howling II:… Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), Teen Wolf II (1987) and The Marsupials: The Howling III (1987). That is a lot of fake fur.
Landis added a few trademarks of his own. Besides including puppeteer Frank Oz playing American Embassy Ambassador Mr. Collins, a man the director has joyfully given a part in every one of his films, he also inserted his own private joke – “See you next Wednesday” – as the title of the porn that Jack and David watch during their last meeting. He has used this non sequitur often since hearing it in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), most notably as fictional movie titles in Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1988) and a billboard in Blues Brothers (1980), along with dialogue and other props. He also went out of his way to include songs with the word “moon” in their titles, including The Marcel’s, Bobby Vinton’s and Sam Cooke’s versions of “Blue Moon,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” although one wonders why the obvious choice of Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” was not included.
The movie begins on the foggy English moors as college students David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne) are ironically riding in a truck full of sheep. They arrive at The Slaughtered Lamb pub, where they are warned to stay on the road and beware the full moon. They ignore this advice and leave the road where they are subsequently attacked by a large animal. When David wakes up in the hospital, he finds out from Dr. Hirsch (Woodvine) that Jack died at the hands of a psychotic maniac and that he himself had been unconscious for three weeks. Hirsch tries to investigate David’s claims that the attacker was an animal and not a man, but he hits a tight-lipped, stalwart wall at The Slaughtered Lamb. For the remainder of his stay, David is tended to by the lovely Nurse Alex Price (Agutter). He also begins having terrifying nightmares of catching and eating forest animals and his family being killed by roving Nazi wolfmen. He thinks he is dreaming when he sees the ravaged yet still joking Jack appear, telling him he is a werewolf and that he must kill himself to keep the public safe. Also, unless the werewolf bloodline is severed, Jack’s undead soul will walk the earth forever. David thinks this is crazy.
As he and Alex slowly fall in love, she offers him a place to stay at her apartment when he checks out of the hospital. Jack appears again, his flesh now rotting off of him, to warn David a second time, but the guy will not listen. During the full moon the following night, and after Alex leaves for work, David transforms into a four legged eating machine in one of the most detailed and grotesque metamorphoses in film history. He breaks out of the flat, kills six Londoners, and then wakes up, naked, in the wolf pen of the London zoo with no memory of the attack. He realizes that Jack was right and tries to have himself arrested, to no avail. After calling home to say goodbye, he tries slitting his wrists but cannot go through with it. David sees the practically fleshless Jack one last time at an adult cinema, and this time, Jack is accompanied by the undead victims from the night before. As they offer him suicide advice, David transforms again and goes on another rampage through the city. Warned by Dr. Hirsch, Alex knows that David’s paranoia was legit, so when she hears about the newest attacks, she goes toward the chaos to try and talk to David. She tells him she loves him and he seems to relax but lunges forward anyway, getting himself shot by the London police. As the heartbroken Alex watches, David’s body returns to human form.
Made with a budget of $10 million, An American Werewolf in London made $61.9 million in the box office, a decent haul in a time with so many other supernatural offerings. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a hefty 89% fresh rating while Metacritic gives it a 60/100. The film was released on DVD several times, once by LIVE Entertainment in January 1998, then Universal put out a 20th anniversary Collector’s Edition on September 18, 2001 and an HD version on November 28, 2006. An American Werewolf in London – Full Moon Edition Blu-ray and Region 1 DVD was released on September 15, 2009, while the Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray came out two weeks later.
Strangely enough, the scene were David calls his parents from the phone booth was not included in the Region 2 DVD since distributors felt the use of a phone booth instead of a cell phone would date the film. When screening the new HD version, Landis said he was in shock at how gory the film actually is. In 1997, a radio edition of the film was recorded on BBC Radio with Agutter, Woodvine, and Brian Glover reprising their roles of Alex Price, Dr. Hirsch, and the chess player from The Slaughtered Lamb. The same year, An American Werewolf in London, the official sequel featuring a completely different cast and crew, was released by Disney, telling the story of Serafine, the offspring of Alex and David. A remake of An American Werewolf in London was announced by Dimension Films in 2009, but has been delayed indefinitely.
There is no other argument for practical effects than An American Werewolf in London. The gratuitous detail of Jack’s slowly dissolving flesh, David’s bone-cracking anatomical transition from human to wolf, and even the dream sequence Nazi wolfmen were beautifully, horrifically done, an artistry that no amount of CGI can ever hope to offer. With the idea of a remake making its way through Hollywood, one wonders if the new filmmakers will fall back on computer driven effects, and if that will help or hurt the perfection of the original.