Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
When he was still a teenager, John Landis conceived of a story about how the modern world would react to a supernatural occurrence, such as a dead man coming back to life. After establishing his box office bonafides with a series of unlikely hits including The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers, Landis got the go ahead to make his long-gestating horror-comedy.
An American Werewolf in London struck an immediate chord with audiences on release thanks to the jaw-dropping (or, should we say, jaw-stretching) make-up effects by Rick Baker, the eclectic soundtrack that paired up-tempo ditties (all with the word “moon” in the title) with images of bloody carnage and flesh-twisting transformations, and the strange comedy of humor and horror that would have audiences guffawing in one moment and gasping in the next.
An American Werewolf in London remains much-discussed in genre circles, whether in appreciation for the film and Baker’s effects, or as part of a larger debate about whether it or The Howling was the superior werewolf film in 1981 (not to mention the occasional heathen trying to toss Wolfen into the discussion). Over 30 years after its release, An American Werewolf in London is still able to excite, agitate, and inspire. I should know about that last point because, well, it’s a big inspiration for me personally.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION PARAGRAPH: It doesn’t come up too often here, but I recently launched a podcast over on Cinepunx, entitled Black Sun Dispatches. Every month, Black Sun Dispatches features at least two new stories of horror, wonder, humor, or just plain weirdness. While I’m certainly not trying to ape American Werewolf in any conscious way, this film long ago imprinted on my brain how to blend the fantastical with the commonplace, how to pivot between genres, and how to keep humanity shining forth even while piling on goo and gore and monsters and mayhem. END OF SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION.
So, does An American Werewolf in London still howl with the best of them, or is this one beast that should be put down? Find out below!
Next Week’s Pick:
Let’s change things up from the past few weeks of horror, melancholy, and heaviness. One of the most unexpected delights of recent years has been the charming Paddington, following a young marmalade-loving bear who comes to Great Britain only to bumble his way into and out of trouble, and into the target sights of vicious rogue taxidermist, Nicole Kidman.
Featuring the voice of Ben Whishaw and a human cast including Sally Hawkins, Jim Broadbent, and Doctor Who, Paddington is available to stream on Netflix Instant.
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co anytime before midnight Thursday!
It’s not that I dislike An American Werewolf in London. It has everything, including a killer referential soundtrack (CCR for the win!), amazing special effects from maestro Rick Baker, and a half tongue-in-cheek plot that casually references previous werewolf movies and lore without relying too much on them. John Landis is very much in his element, and manages to conjure up some real scares amid a mildly satirical structure. So far, so good.
My problem is that the film undergoes a marked tonal shift about halfway through, after our hero is off the moors and beginning to deal with his newfound lupine syndrome. The romance angle never really pays off for me, and the ending is so rushed that one wonders if Landis just ran out of money (or ideas). Having set up the situation, the film doesn’t quite know where to go with it, falling back on werewolf tropes that it was skewering not a few minutes before.
For my money, other movies have done it (and do it) better. Humorous meta-horror? Yeah, The Howling is the best indulgence there. A more serious look into what would actually happen if a guy began turning into a wolf? Look no further than Wolf. An American Werewolf in London leaves me cold because it doesn’t seem to know what to do with its own set-up. It’s an incoherent work, unable to settle on genre or to meld its multiple genres effectively. Influential? Certainly. Iconic? Probably. A particularly good werewolf movie? Meh, not so much. (@lhbizness)
I take a lot of flak for this, but I’m not the biggest fan of An American Werewolf in London. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not a bad film by any stretch. In fact, it is in my estimation one of the top five werewolf movies of all time (just not the best one released in 1981). But that’s a discussion for another day. Rick Baker’s creature and makeup effects are top-notch, although I must confess I prefer bipedal werewolves (more wolf-man than simply a large wolf). The transformation scene is not only technically impressive but also a terrifying example of body horror. In addition, the gradual deterioration of Jack (Griffin Dunne) throughout the film is another visual highlight. Unfortunately the film is tonally inconsistent; David (David Naughton) goes from openly weeping in one scene to laughing and joking in the next. That back and forth, along with the fact that other than Jack I never really feel any emotional investment in the victims, means the film never feels quite as tense or as scary as I would like. I know that it’s a horror-comedy, but I don’t feel like I know David or Alex (Jenny Agutter) well enough to be fully invested in their story. An American Werewolf in London is well-made and directed — its cinematography and effects are gorgeous. Its contribution to cinematic werewolf lore regarding the fate of people killed by werewolves is fascinating (if a bit underdeveloped). I’m glad I revisited it, as I honestly hadn’t watched it in a long time. But, as in past viewings, AWIL is just never as scary or as funny as I really want it to be. (@T_Lawson)
Whenever I tell someone about this movie, I always do a kind of beginning and ending first type evaluation in that the beginning is perfect in how it sets the tone for the rest of the movie and how the ending is perfect because of the sudden violent shift in tone that is heartbreaking and jarring but still fitting. When people talk about AWIL, they almost always jump to the FX by Rick Baker. And for good reason; Baker’s work in that film til this day is considered by many to be the gold standard by which werewolf films are measured and the FX on Griffin Dunne’s character are breathtaking. But I think the true beauty in this film isn’t just Baker’s FX, or the horror elements of the film mixed with the comedy (and let me be clear Landis blends the two flawlessly) but rather in the relationship between David Naughton and Jenny Agutter. It’s an extremely realistic depiction of the “honeymoon” period of a relationship, and everything about it depicted in the film hits the mark perfectly. The unsaid ‘I love you’s that are tragically left unsaid when it really matters, the lovemaking, the frisky PDAs; all of it is achingly perfect. This element, along with Griffin Dunne’s undead Jack being a grim reminder of the inevitable, coupled with Naughton’s character calling home to say goodbye to his family when he is contemplating suicide (the sweetly awkward exchange with his younger sibling is so fucking sad) lead up to an ending that is absolutely emotionally devastating. Instead of taking the the horrific yet comedic much of the rest of film relies on, Landis casts all of that aside for an ending that does away with any element romance. Love does not tame the beast. Love doesn’t save anything. Ultimately, Naughton has become a monster for whom love does not matter and to whom Agutter is simply meat for the beast. Instead of a happy ending where Naughton agonizingly resists instinct and flees into the night or perhaps turns back into a man to collapse into the arms of his beloved, the last two shots are Agutter sobbing and Naughton’s bullet riddled body. It’s a brutal yet appropriate conclusion to a movie that is a perfect blend of comedy and horror, one that is unrivaled in so many fields. It’s my personal all time favorite film and for so many reasons other than the ones touched upon here. (@repairmanxjack )
American Werewolf in London fills me with so much fucking joy in every scene and every random bit character and every line of oddly memorable dialogue, but mainly, I just miss Griffin Dunne so much. This and After Hours are on my constant rotation of background rewatch. Why do you think Griffin Dunne didn’t go on to be a bigger star? (@gmara4serious)
There are other great werewolf films. There are even other great werewolf films that came out in 1981, but none of those are the storm-in-a-teacup concentrated majesty that is An American Werewolf in London. I came to this one relatively late in life, as an adult who’d grown up hearing the praises of this film sung. The first time I watched it, I braced myself for something that didn’t live up the legend.
Instead, my first viewing knocked me right on my ass and every subsequent viewing has only strengthened that impression. I’ll be halfway through the movie without realizing it due to the Swiss watch pacing, or awestruck at the Rick Baker creature effects even though there was never a time when I knew this movie without knowing the man behind the curtain. And I’ll always marvel at how a piece of cinema can be at once so profoundly tragic as well as so viscerally entertaining.
For the tiny gripes that do manage to echo through the caverns of this movie’s greatness (we were, uh…not woke in the ’80s, folks), there are a score more things to praise. David Naughton and Jenny Agutter are empathy machines that bulldoze right through a slightly under-sketched relationship on raw charisma, the supporting cast refuses to be forgotten long after the film is over (“No!”), and there are few movies in any genre with the conviction to build to a finale like this one and then slam into the ending with the nearly audible crash of this movie’s final shot and cut to credits.
An American Werewolf in London is an American classic. (@BLCAgnew)
Over the years, my reaction to this movie has changed. When I was a teenager and watching it for the first time, American Werewolf was a comedy with some really effective moments of horror and a fair few gallons of gore. When even something as grueling as Rick Baker’s incredible werewolf transformation is interrupted with gags (a transforming David breaks the fourth wall and notices the audience watching him; a well-time cymbal-crash) it’s hard not to assume that humor is the de facto tone.
But nowadays, it’s the almost punishing sadness of American Werewolf that lingers. Doom is soaked into ever early frame, the cheerful banter between David and Jack overtaken by the perpetually overcast skies and the way Landis frames Naughton and Dunne as being tiny, insignificant figures against the sprawling landscape. These boys don’t deserve what happens to them,and every happy moment they share (or that David shares with Alex, played by a luminous Jenny Agutter) is another twist of the knife. American Werewolf can certainly still make me laugh (it is to my mind the best of all horror-comedies, by a fairly significant margin) but all the humor and supernatural mayhem is running up to that final, awful hard cut to black, and that’s maybe the cruelest joke of them all.
So take that, The Howling. (@TheTrueBrendanF)
Watch it on Netflix:
Next Week’s Pick: