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An American Werewolf in London

A 1981 horror-comedy directed by John Landis.

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The Ugliest American

  • Oct 15, 2010
Pros: Has werewolves!

Cons: The main character's sometimes inexplicable behavior

The Bottom Line: Awoo, werewolves of London!

You know, I really do wish people who create special effects in movies would harken back to the older times on occasion. Sure, with a computer you can create a whole world and scale the camera in ways unheard of in previous eras, but can you really look me in the eyes and say the computer-generated special effects of the Star Wars prequel trilogy were more convincing than the miniatures and models in the original trilogy? Or that the Lord of the Rings movies would have been nearly that effective had they used more computer-rendered models instead of the sets and minis? 

One of the more convincing physical transformations I've ever seen in a movie was in An American Werewolf in London. Hair standing up on end, claws growing in bloody fashion from lengthening fingers, feet becoming paws, the transformations of An American Werewolf in London's main character, David, looked as painful as they did real. It's a stark contrast to the computer-generated imagery used many years later in the sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, in which the werewolves all looked like bad photoshop jobs. 

Teen movies hit a height during the 1980's which they really haven't been to before or since. Due in large part to the efforts of the late John Hughes, teen movie characters were elevated into third dimensions which revealed the secret mental worlds of all the popular archetypes, and so the characters in 80's teen flicks grew, learned, and acted in very relatable ways. I have a theory that there was a little bit of spillover once the teen movie genre was able to transcend the two-dimensional, instant entertainment gratifications which were churned out by moguls looking for a quick, risk-free small profit. An American Werewolf in London, a classic teen horror movie from John Landis, was a movie that transcended its doomed genre to turn into a regarded classic of teen flicks and horror flicks. 

When you put the words "teenager," "horror," and "movie" into the same sentence, you can make a 90 percent approximation of exactly what to expect: Horndog men, bubbleheaded cheerleading women, skin, and a masked nut with a knife who runs around killing them in the most gruesome fashions possible. Since the teenagers don't do anything to endear you to them, you usually end up rooting for the nut. In the first few scenes, An American Werewolf in London sets itself up to be one of these things, with a werewolf in place of the knife killer. The movie begins with a pair of backpackers, David and Jack, hitching their way through England. They enter a bar in a small town in which the patrons and employees are hesitant to serve them or say anything to them, preferring instead to glare darts and daggers. Jack and David leave in a hurry and are promptly attacked by a werewolf which kills Jack and leaves David bitten, which makes him a werewolf. 

Note that David is the protagonist. He's the one who develops, the one we get to know and like, and so for once the killer isn't just the character we're rooting for - he's specifically designed for us to root for. It's man vs. himself in what becomes a very clever, darkly funny, and sometimes disturbing mindscrew thriller. David is his own enemy. He begins having very strange dreams and recurring visions of Jack, who is rotting a little more as a corpse every time David sees him and telling David that he's trapped in Limbo until someone kills the last werewolf in the line, which is of course now David. David of course doesn't want to rip anyone into shreds every time there's a full moon, but he's not especially partial to suicide either, which Jack keeps encouraging. David has also fallen in love with the nurse who helped him in the hospital after the initial werewolf attack which killed Jack. 

Since there's no real villain to speak of in this movie, Landis is able to keep David's new state of being the focal point. He is the good guy, after all, and we are supposed to like him; trying to get the audience to care about a teenager when he's going on mass cannibalism sprees every ten or 15 minutes or so has a habit of rolling down a character's likability factor. So the movie revolves around David and his mentality more than anything and goes for more Hitchcockian methods of suspense sometimes. David's first transformation doesn't take place until about the first hour in, and the movie clocks in at 97 minutes. 

As David worries about his new lupus form, there is an investigator who noses around trying to solve the murders. Now, this idea does make perfect sense, but it doesn't have as much bearing on the movie's climax as one would expect. First of all, he investigates the bar David and Jack visited in the movie and fails to get any useful information out of the regulars there. His scene in the bar is the last time we ever hear from the people there. Considering their behavior in both that scene and the earlier scene, the people in that bar leave a loose end. It doesn't feel right that we never see them again. The investigator then picks up the trail in London, but he has almost no bearing on the end result. It's safe to bet he was a shoehorn meant to lengthen the movie a little. 

An American Werewolf in London would have worked well enough as just a straight horror movie, but John Landis goes a little bit of extra distance and provides some dark humor too. Mostly we see this in the scenes where David wakes up after a long night of werewolfing, when he's naked and in search of ways to cover up. But pay attention to the soundtrack too; some of the songs hold a kind of dark irony or cynicism. Creedence Clearwater Revival's classic song "Bad Moon Rising" is used in one scene. 

For the development of David and his sympathies, there are some actions he performed which were just difficult for me to accept. Yes, he's concerned about his actions as a werewolf, we get it. But shouldn't he be doing something more than worrying? Seriously, he's not doing a whole lot. He tries to get himself arrested, but that of course fails. He warns people, none of whom seem very sure what to believe about this werewolf nonsense. But when everything fails, shouldn't he be, you know, trying to find a way to contain himself? Maybe looking for a cure? Convincing his girlfriend, Alex, to head to the closest Home Depot to get the materials to rig up a nice cage in her basement? This could indicate that maybe David enjoys going on killing sprees, and I'm quite certain you'll have people interpret it that way since he has certain reservations about suicide too. But I don't buy that explanation because reservations about, you know, killing yourself are quite understandable. 

I'm not fond of the very end, but I won't hold it against John Landis. It feels a little abrupt, but how else could you end a movie after a climax like that? I'm just nitpicking at the moment. Seriously, I liked An American Werewolf in London's pleasant little additions to werewolf lore - Limbo, the fact that Jack laughs off the notion of needing silver bullets to kill werewolves, the whole bloodline issue. It's good to know that regular bullets are effective against werewolves, because buying and smelting jewelry all the time could put a werewolf hunter out of business. 


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More An American Werewolf in London reviews
review by . October 28, 2007
posted in Movie Hype
And if you love werewolves, all the better. "An American Werewolf in London" works on so many levels, that its small wonder so many regard it as a latter-day classic of the genre. A quarter of a century has passed since its original release and An American Werewolf in London still stands (hairy) head and shoulders above any other lycanthrope movie. Its perfect direction from John Landis, great black humor, groundbreaking make-up effects, and wonderful performances make the 1981 classic absolutely …
review by . November 05, 2005
I was obsessed with werewolves when I was in second or third grade. Something about them just fascinated me. (Ironically, I was also terrified of wolves) In second grade, I was determined to see "An American Werewolf in London" as soon as possible. It sounded like a great movie. After about three years of begging, my father finally allowed me to watch it.    The film begins with two college students travelling through the English countryside. After a bizarre encounter with the …
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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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About this movie


In John Landis' (THE BLUES BROTHERS, ANIMAL HOUSE) dripping black comedy, two American students (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) on a European vacation wander into a creepy local pub in Northern England and are quickly thrown out. Stranded and alone in the dark countryside, the pair get lost in their search for warm lodging. Little do they know that they are about to be changed forever by an ancient terror as they walk along the moors on a moonlit night. Only one of the students survives a deadly attack by a supernatural beast--at least he thinks he survived, until the next full moon rolls around. Terrific makeup effects (by Oscar winner Rick Baker), clever editing, and raunchy tongue-in-cheek humor made this suspenseful and thrilling horror effort an instant classic.
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Director: John Landis
Genre: Horror
Release Date: 21 August 1981 (USA)
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: John Landis
DVD Release Date: September 18, 2001
Runtime: 97 min
Studio: Universal Studios
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