Werewolves are a staple of the horror genre. Yet unlike some of their esteemed horror brethren, lycanthropes haven’t enjoyed the same resurgence in popularity as vampires or zombies over the last 20 years. In fact, you may trouble picking out more than a small handful of decent werewolf flicks released this century. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of classic literary roots, or maybe it’s more owing to the challenges of convincingly rendering the beast on screen.
Whatever the reason, recent popular culture seems far less enamoured with horror’s favourite shapeshifter. 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, remains the bar for cinematic werewolves. John Landis’ classic has deservedly made most ‘Best of’ horror lists. It was one of my first horror experiences growing up and it’s imagery is seared into my memory.
A Perfect Balance of Humour and Horror
In past posts I have commented on the difficulty in balancing out humour and horror elements. It’s a fine line between dark humour and tastelessness. John Landis walks a nearly perfect tightrope in his balance of both sides to An American Werewolf in London. Griffin Dunne’s ‘Jack Goodman’ provides the bulk of the humour. His deadpan demeanour and delivery, even under layers of make-up,
David Naughton has his moments, too. His first post-werewolf transformation morning in an English zoo offers some much needed levity following the intensity of the prior scene. Indeed this where Landis truly shows his handle of the subject matter – he knows when to inject humour. Moments of levity are expertly placed between 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.
Revolutionary Make-Up Effects
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in making an effective werewolf film is creating a convincing werewolf itself. Consider for a moment the gaps between what might objectively qualify as groundbreaking effects. Legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce’s work on The Wolf Man was the standard-bearer in werewolf make-up effects from 1941 until the release of An American Werewolf in London. 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.
Then along came Rick Baker and the werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London. In a horror film that boasts several stand-out features, it’s still Baker’s make-up effects that define this genre classic. David’s transformation from man to beast is a testament to Baker’s creativity and ingenuity. The scene remains one of the most impressive horror film special effects and has stood the test of time. 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 and CGI-effects still haven’t produced anything that is impressive as what you’ll see in this werewolf transformation. 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 the bizarrely surreal nightmare scenes. Some viewers have complained that David’s first werewolf transformation doesn’t happen until you’re at least 40 to 45 minutes into the movie. First, Landis’ approach to the film’s 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 reflects that murky logic which characterized dreams. These random jolts keeps the audience off balance early in the movie.
A Landmark Horror Film
With Halloween approaching in two months, if you’re like me, 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.