Werewolves are a staple of the horror genre. Yet unlike other horror monsters, lycanthropes haven’t enjoyed the same resurgence in popularity. In fact, it’s difficult picking out more than a small handful of decent werewolf flicks released in the last 20 years. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of classic literary roots. Or maybe it’s owing to the challenges of convincingly rendering the beast on screen. But if you were challenged to name a good werewolf film, the odds are pretty good that one title would come to mind. That movie would likely be An American Werewolf in London.
Whatever the reason, horror fandom seems disinterested in the werewolf. Fortunately, the horror genre has produced some excellent werewolf horror in the past. Notwithstanding Universal Studio’s The Wolf Man, An American Werewolf in London, released 37 years ago today, is arguably remains the best werewolf film. John Landis’ classic has deservedly made most ‘Best of’ horror lists. For several reasons,
A Perfect Balance of Humour and Horror
In past posts I have commented on the difficulty in balancing out humour and horror. It’s a fine line between dark humour and tastelessness. John Landis walks a nearly perfect tightrope in his balance of both sides in An American Werewolf in London. Griffin Dunne’s ‘Jack Goodman’ provides the bulk of the humour. Even under layers of make-up, his deadpan demeanour and delivery are first-rate. Dunne offers some surprising ‘laugh-out loud’ moments in between the carnage and gore. To his credit, Dunne never reduces ‘Jack’ to comic relief. He manages to infuse the character with tragic pathos.
David Naughton has his moments, too. His first post-werewolf transformation morning in an English zoo offers much needed levity. Following the intensity of prior scenes, it’s a moment that should feel tonally jarring. But this is where Landis truly shows his handle of the subject matter – he knows when to inject humour. Landis expertly placed moments of levity placed between the chills and character moments.
First-time viewers shouldn’t be fooled by the film’s humour. Landis blends classic horror tropes with more contemporary approaches to the genre. David and Jack’s walk along the moors blends Landis’ humour with old-school atmosphere and state-of-the-art gore effects. Even the soundtrack boasts some clever fun for attentive audiences. All the songs in An American Werewolf in London have the word ‘moon’ in the title. Blue Moon has never sounded more ominous.
An American Werewolf in London Boasts Revolutionary Make-Up Effects
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in making an effective werewolf film is creating a convincing werewolf. Consider the gaps in between what are considered benchmark effects in werewolf movies. Legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce’s work on The Wolf Man was the standard-bearer in the field. From 1941 until the release of An American Werewolf in London, werewolf effects didn’t get better. Nothing touched Pierce’s work for 40 years.
In a horror film that boasts several stand-out features, it’s still Baker’s make-up effects that define the genre classic.
Special effects wizard Rick Baker inevitably arrive on the scene to revolutionize Pierce’s work. In a horror film that boasts several stand-out features, it’s still Baker’s make-up effects that define An American Werewolf in London. David’s transformation is a testament to Baker’s creativity and ingenuity. The scene remains one of horror’s most impressive special effects moments – it has stood the test of time. Only The Howling, which was released in the same year, is nearly is nearly as impressive.
Admittedly, the action-oriented scenes with the full werewolf haven’t aged as well. Nonetheless, over 30 years have passed since An American Werewolf in London was released. To be honest, CGI-effects haven’t produced anything nearly as impressive. If you don’t believe me, watch the sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, or Van Helsing.
Offbeat Nightmare Scenes
An American Werewolf in London has several sharp jump scares. Yet another of its distinguishing trademarks are its surreal nightmare scenes. Some viewers have complained about the movie’s pacing. After all, David’s first werewolf transformation happens about 40 to 45 minutes into the movie. But Landis’ approach to the horror elements are in keeping with classic monster movies of yesterday.
Second, if the perfectly staged attack on the moors wasn’t enough to keep you on edge, David’s nightmares offer inexplicably creepy imagery. The contrast in one nightmare between David’s siblings watching The Muppet Show and Nazi-werewolves bursting through the door eerily has a dreamlike logic and quality. These random jolts keeps the audience off balance early in the movie.
An American Werewolf in London Remains a Landmark Horror Film
With Halloween only two months away, you may already be planning a horror film festival. Perhaps you also have a taste for organizing your films into themes. Should one of your themes be a werewolf night, you’d be dropping the ball if you didn’t include An American Werewolf in London. It’s still the best horror film for your money, though it’s closely followed by Joe Dante’s The Howling, which was also released in 1981.