An American Werewolf in London

Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

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In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

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