Monday, April 18, 2011

Short Review: An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

An established cult classic, An American Werewolf in London is an entertaining blend of gruesome horror and hilarious comedy from writer and director John Landis. The visual effects and make-up used in the film were so impressive that a new awards category at the 1981 Academy Awards was created specifically for the film - Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, a category that has been a regular ever since.

An American Werewolf in London opens with two American college students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) who decide, on their way to Italy, to begin their trip by backpacking through the moors of Northern England. As it begins to get dark, they make a stop at The Slaughtered Lamb, where they meet the mysterious locals. Making a hasty exit after inquiring about a five-pointed star on the wall, they are warned to 'beware the moon' and 'stick to the road'. After wandering off course and finding themselves lost and disoriented they become distressed when they hear a sinister howling. Soon enough they are stalked and attacked by a large and powerful animal. Jack is mauled to death, while David survives and is taken to a hospital in London.

The police report claims that David was attacked by an escaped lunatic, but through vivid dream sequences, and visits by a bloodied apparition of Jack, David soon realizes that he will transform into a werewolf at the next full moon. Jack strongly urges David to kill himself, not only because he is trapped in a state of limbo (a living death) because the bloodline of his attacker still survives (through David) but also spare others of a similar fate. David is cared for in the hospital by Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) and after he is discharged, he moves into her apartment with her. David's insistence that he was attacked by a werewolf is investigated and confirmed by his physician, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), who visits the witnesses to the incident at the Slaughtered Lamb. His subsequent attempts to help David back in London are too late, however.

There is never a dull moment in An American Werewolf in London and its enjoyable fun from start to finish. Every conversation is full with sharp, amusing dialogue, especially the exchanges between David and Jack. The vivid dream sequences are haunting and odd and the visual effects and make-up used to create David Naughton's extended painful metamorphosis into a werewolf are certainly groundbreaking. There are countless allusions to earlier werewolf films (The Wolf Man for example) and the entire soundtrack ironically consists of songs that refer in some way to the 'moon'. The most notable being Van Morrison's 'Moondance' and Creedence Clearwater Revival's 'Bad Moon Rising'.

The sequence at the Tottenham Court Road tube station consisting of a number of shots from the point-of-view of David as he pursues his commuter victim is fantastic, while the dream-within-a-dream sequence at the hospital featuring werewolf Nazis is one of my favorites of all time. There are some forgivable plot conveniences, but I liked that the inevitable transformation is left until the final third of the film. Delaying his threat as a monster heightens the tension surrounding the event and gives the few short scenes where he endangers the rest of the city even more impact. The concluding sequences at Piccadilly Circus are genuinely shocking. An American Werewolf in London is an entertaining cult classic perfect for a movie and pizza night with friends.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)


  1. American Werewolf has long been one of my favourites and you're right it's as much fun to watch today as it was when it was released.
    Whenever I visit London and travel on the tube or cross the Yorkshire moors it inevitably brings this film to mind, although I've never come across The Slaughtered Lamb fortunately.
    Reading your review has reminded me how long it's been since I've watched this classic, so I'll definitely have to make time to watch it again this week!

  2. Thanks for the comment Paul and for stopping by.

    The film is a riot and I'm glad I reminded you of its awesomeness. I certainly don't ever want to find myself alone on a London Underground platform!


    Andy Buckle

  3. Sounds very entertaining, I'll add it to my list...
    John Landis's previous film, The Blues Brothers is one of my all time favourites so I look forward to watching this one!

    Great review Andy

  4. Huh, I never knew Landis directed Blues Brothers. There you go! I think you will enjoy this Jack. Thanks for reading!