Acclaimed director John Landis is the brains behind a horde of beloved flicks, including “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “The Beverly Hills Cop III.” Although his films are often found in the comedy section, one of his greatest projects is the wacky 1981 “An American Werewolf in London.” Landis lends a hearty dose of comedy, and coupled with startling and award winning special effects from Rick Baker, it’s a winning combination.
American college students Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) and David Kessler (David Naughton) are backpacking, and their trek across the chilly Yorkshire moors leads them into a nearby pub. Portentously named “The Slaughtered Lamb,” the local townsfolk don’t seem keen on David and Jack’s presence. The kids opt to continue their travels though it’s late in the evening, and the pub goers warn them to “Keep to the road,” and “Beware the moon.” They don’t heed the advice, and while crossing the moors are attacked by an enormous wolf.
David awakes in a London hospital three weeks later with little recollection of what transpired. He’s informed by Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) that Jack is dead, and the pair was attacked by an escaped lunatic. David, however, remembers a wolf-like assailant, though Dr. Hirsch believes he’s crazed from shock. The townsfolk’s testimony seemingly refutes his memory. Yet David’s worsening mental state suggests otherwise: he exhibits distinct loss of appetite, and increased frequency in nightmares. A nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), takes a romantic interest in David, and brings him to her flat, all the while the next full moon approaches.
“An American Werewolf in London” opens with David and Jack trekking across the moors, and immediately it’s captivating. Their natural banter feels unscripted, and could easily be an actual conversation between college buddies. When Jack dies, it’s really tragic mainly for the fact that he and David shared a wonderful chemistry. Thankfully, he’s not quite dead, but rather in limbo. The undead Jack appears to David in dream sequences which are terrific, and darkly comedic. There’s a bizarre nightmare that features a dream within a dream, and it’s completely unexpected. Stand down, “Inception.” One of the highlights is a congregation of David’s victims, now stuck in limbo. It’s set in an adult movie theatre, and hilariously a porn flick is playing in the background. The group brainstorm ways for David to kill himself and avoid another werewolf rampage. Their enthusiasm is hysterical.
Mastermind Rick Baker really steals the show however with terrific effects. The transformation scene is unforgettable, and it’s aged quite well. Honestly, the metamorphosis rivals current computer animation. While David’s werewolf makeover usually receives the most attention, the undead Jack is incredibly impressive. Over the course of several days he gradually decays, first appearing as his shredded corpse, then with a slightly green hue, and finally as s skeletal entity with blackened flesh.
John Landis’ film remains a celebrated classic for the sheer brilliance of the production. Inventive story telling throws several dream sequences in the mix, the special effects are strikingly vivid, and even traditionally serious matters are made comical. Musically, “An American Werewolf in London” is quite underrated. Elmer Bernstein provides an original score, but complimenting that are several lunar-themed songs. Bobby Vinton croons “Blue Moon” during the intro, there’s a lovemaking scene set to Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and even CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” makes an appearance. Oddly, these pop inclusions lend a cheerful backdrop that contrasts the impending carnage. Ultimately, with the terrific execution and praiseworthy originality of “An American Werewolf in London,” there’s really only one flaw: Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves in London” doesn’t appear anywhere in the film. It’s a minor complaint for an artful and amusing werewolf flick.