Before I even get into this, I must say that when I think of the pinnacle of werewolf films, I think of two-in no particular order-and I think most would agree with me. At least anyone with a taste for horror films-especially the classics from Universal's heyday to the cheesy B-movies we'd gotten in the 50s, all the way to the best decade of horror...the 1980s-would appreciate my choices. 1941's The Wolf Man and 1981's An American Werewolf in London are the two films I think about when thinking of werewolf films-one being a classic of its time, the other being a classic for its special effects.
John Landis directed this 1981 classic and, at the time, was known for directing a handful of comedies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers. It's a wonder how he had gotten this gig, but I'm glad he did. He put together such a classic horror/comedy (more horror than comedy by the way) that, to this day, I don't think any other werewolf movie has matched it.
The film is a simple tale of two friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who decide to trek on a backpack tour of Europe together, travelling by thumb (hitchhiking is highly acceptable to this day over there) and going where their journeys take them. As they turn up through the countryside of England, they stop into a tavern-The Slaughtered Lamb-to try and get something warm to eat and drink. Met with sour looks of disdain, they sit and make the mistake of asking about a pentagram drawn on the wall. Feeling unwelcomed, they leave, but not before
In every sense of the word, this film is a classic. Some younger people might not like the approach of the "less is better" technique when it comes to the reveal of the werewolf, but I definitely understand it and embrace it. While watching this film, you sit at the edge of your seat, wondering-much like the potential victims in the movie-what's lurking in the shadows.
Rick Baker is probably the most well-known special effects make-up artist in film history. He's right up there with Jack Pierce and Lon Chaney (Chaney, as an actor, performed his own make-up effects). He's done make-up effects in a lot of famous films, such as 1976's King Kong, Star Wars, Videodrome, and so many others. But the special effects he created in An American Werewolf in London are phenomenal! To date, I have not seen a better transformation of man into werewolf. Even though CGI is near perfect these days, films still haven't perfected the werewolf conversion. I thought for sure it was going to be outdone in 2010's The Wolfman (especially since Baker was involved with that one), but it really fell flat, as they went with CGI throughout nearly the whole thing.
In this film, we have quite a bit of comedy, with the relationship and back-and-forth witticisms between the two main characters, David and Jack, at the beginning, as well as when David starts seeing the living corpses of the people he has killed when he had been in his werewolf form. The scene after David's first night as a werewolf and how he ends up in the city zoo's wolf cage ispretty hilarious, how he has to find a way back to Alex's flat-as well as find some clothes before doing so-is a very funny part of this film. When the kid goes to his mother and tells her, "a naked American man stole my balloons," still cracks me up even though I must've seen this movie a hundred times.
David Naughton does quite a job in this film, especially when he has to act by himself in certain scenes or when he has to converse with a decomposing puppet. He's a very likable person in this film and you really feel for what he goes through in the story. His performance when going through the first on-screen werewolf change is great, accompanied by Rick Bakers effects, and you really feel the pain he goes through.
Griffin Dunne is very memorable as well, stealing the scenes he's featured in due to his funny quips, not to mention the make-up he has on to show what happened to him when the werewolf attacked him and how it's decomposing more and more each time his character visits David.
The Piccadilly Circus scene is very well done and it's a wonder they were able to pull that off, due to the work involved as well as getting permission to film there in the first place. But the chaos depicted with the werewolf running around had my mind stunned-and scared the crap out of me-when I first saw that as a kid. Nowadays, I can see how they cleverly only showed part of the werewolf-in all scenes-but seeing this scene in particular had me on the edge of my seat.
Above all else, the design of the werewolf, when you finally see it, is so frightening and foreboding, I sometimes wonder what I'd do if I would ever come across a creature like that...and I always come to the conclusion that I'd shit my pants and be frozen in place as I waited for the inevitable.
If there's anything I can nitpick about is the dream sequence, where David is back at home with his family and is suddenly attacked by these Nazi creatures that come into the house, shooting and knifing everyone. It was a little strange and didn't seem to fit in the movie. I understand he was having some bad dreams where he saw himself in the woods, killing a deer or just running around, but this dream was way out in left field. Otherwise, it's still a shock and had me fooled the first time I saw the flick, because I had thought that he returned home to be with his family. I guess it just shows the warped mind of Landis at his best.
So, what's my final "bit" on An American Werewolf in London?
The film is most certainly a cult classic and one of the best films John Landis has directed and best work Rick Baker has done on a creature design. Although this film has been around for over 30 years and special effects have taken leaps and bounds in improvement and perfection, no one has ever made a better werewolf film since. Maybe one day someone will see the importance of using more practical effects over CGI and surpass this film with a better werewolf transformation (although I don't see that happening). However, more than likely, what'll happen is Universal Studios (if they still hold the rights to this film) will green light a remake. I'm sure the latter is more plausible. Until the day a better werewolf movie happens, stick to renting-or owning-An American Werewolf in London and enjoy a really scary movie.
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