Retro Review: ‘An American Werewolf in London’

Werewolves can be a difficult monster to translate to the big screen. Filmmakers are constantly running the risk with these furry creatures of making it too campy or having werewolf1make-up effects which look downright laughable. Despite these hurdles, werewolves have remained a mainstay of the horror genre. Arguably the greatest werewolf of them all is the cult classic John Landis picture, An American Werewolf in London. Blending a Hammer Horror inspired gothic horror tale with Landis’ trademark snarky humor, this film set the standard for this sub-genre of horror.

Two American backpackers, David and Jack, travelling through England are attacked by an unknown creature after leaving a pub. While Jack is killed in the attack, David survives and is treated in London where he falls for the nurse taking care of him. As David tries to continue with his life after this strange event, he is tormented by the decaying spirit of Jack informing him that they were attacked by a werewolf, and now David has become lycanthropic beast. As the young man struggles with his new monstrous side he is tormented not only by the spirits of those he slays but also by nightmares which haunt him.

Actor David Naughton may have been best known at that time for a series of Dr. Pepper commericals, but that did not stop the young actor from delivering an anguished and complex performance. In fact the entire ensemble that Landis puts together delivers werewolf2perfectly in their roles, but rest assured the true star of this picture was behind the camera, make-up artist Rick Baker. Originally slated to work on the Howling (the other popular werewolf movie of 1981), Baker was pulled away to create the gruesome visuals of An American Werewolf in London. Not only did Baker give form to David’s victims but was also responsible for the greatest werewolf transformation to ever be filmed. As viewers we cringe as David’s body twists and contorts and stretches out all set to the ironically upbeat soundtrack. It is little wonder that the make-up legend won the first Academy Award for best make-up from this horror flick.

What separates An American Werewolf in London from so many other films featuring these fur covered beasts in John Landis’ ability to infuse campy and sarcastic humor into the picture. From the quirky dialogue to the fun classic rock soundtrack which completely clashes with the horrors onscreen. But the humor does not detract from the terror, as Landis does not hold back on the psychological horror. The veteran filmmaker makes sure that we as the audience care about David throughout the story, so we feel his fear and anguish throughout the horrors he endures.