EMPIRE ESSAY: An American Werewolf In London Review

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Two American students are on a walking tour of England and are attacked by a Werewolf. One is killed, the other is mauled. The Werewolf is killed, but reverts to it's human form, and the townspeople are able to deny it's existence. The surviving student begins to have nightmares of hunting on four feet at first, but then finds that his friend and other recent victims appear to him, demanding that he find a way to die to release them from their curse, being trapped between worlds because of their


You know you're getting old when the first X-certificate film you ever saw gets shown on Saturday morning TV. Not that this could ever happen with An American Werewolf In London — too much sex, far too much nasty, nasty gore — but still, this oddball comedy-horror flick can never again seem quite as hilariously funny, nor as pant-fillingly scary as it did to a generation of 80s teens clustered around the family VCR.

At the time — and this is indeed a film of its time — the werewolf effects were startling, with Oscar-winning Rick Baker pre-empting Rob Bottin's efforts on The Thing (1982) by a good 12 months. Equally startling was the sight of Bobbie from The Railway Children (alias Jenny Agutter) embroiled in a Don't Look Now-sex scene with a latent werewolf. John Landis was one of the golden boys of US cinema when he made AWIL at the dawn of the new decade. Having seen National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) become the most successful comedy of all time, he'd
helmed the sprawling cinematic hell that was The Blues Brothers (1980), somehow managing to make a three-hour demolition derby into a cult hit.

American Werewolf was something else, a campus comedy this was not. The plot is simple enough. Two clean-cut American kids, David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne), are hiking through the English countryside. After an unsettling interlude in a village hostelry named The Slaughtered Lamb, they ignore the locals' dark hint-dropping and end up getting savaged on the moors by a marauding wolfman. Jack is killed, while David comes round in a London hospital, attended to by snub-nosed Nurse Price (Agutter) and inquisitive Dr. Hirsch (velvet-voiced Brit character actor John Woodvine). It's now that things begin to get weird. Really weird. In sequences that predate the nightmare visions of Jacob's Ladder (1990) by a decade, David is plagued by violent and horrific dreams.

Check out the terrifically unpleasant dream-within-a-dream moment, which niftily grabs an idea from the end of Carrie (1976) and succeeds in making it even scarier. When the dead and decomposing Jack puts in an appearance, David sensibly concludes that he's gone insane. The alternative is to believe Jack's explanation, accept that he's become a werewolf, and commit suicide before the next full moon sends him out to kill. Tough call.

When it finally ensues, the man-into-wolf transformation scene is undoubtedly a classic. After pottering about Nurse Price's house all day, twitching with boredom, David is suddenly transfixed with agony. First his hand and then the rest of his body is stretched and contorted into a hideously hairy lycanthropic killing machine. Remember, this is before CGI morphing. What you see here is good old-fashioned makeup and trickery making the incredible seem real. After the excesses of The Blues Brothers, AWIL is an exercise in restraint. David doesn't change into the wolf until a whole hour has elapsed, whereupon the movie's pace accelerates and the bodycount multiplies. Admittedly, near the end, Landis can't resist throwing in a succint and truly nasty pile-up in Piccadilly Circus — crushing and crunching sundry hapless Londoners with a variety of vehicles — but otherwise he handles the suspense so deftly that the relatively few moments of real horror are all the more shocking for it.

And then there's the comedy. When the hideously mutilated Jack first appears to a severely traumatised David, his first words are, "Can I have a piece of toast?" Later, Jack lures David into a porn cinema and introduces him to his victims — the pompous businessman, the cheerful courting couple, three tramps — who then advise their murderer on suitable methods of suicide. The famous scene where David wakes up naked in the wolf enclosure at London Zoo has been much imitated, most recently in a Lion Bar advert, while the gurning grotesques at The Slaughtered Lamb include Brit-com stalwart Brian Glover and a shockingly young-looking Rik Mayall.

However, for all its fascination, American Werewolf In London presents a confusing experience for the viewer. Certainly, the horror and laughs don't always sit well side by side — no more so than in the final frame when the sight of an anguished Agutter weeping for David (shot by police marksmen) is immediately followed by The Marcels' ram-a-lama version of Blue Moon. It's all right, folks — it was only a movie! Likewise, David's descent into post-traumatic depression seems real enough, but the dialogues with Jack's corpse are played for pure schlock value. Then there's the movie's muddled view of Britain, ladling in realism (punks on the underground, Asian hospital porters) with Hollywood stereotypes from an earlier age — blundering bobbies, conniving villagers et al.

Perhaps the whole thing is a brilliant cinematic in-joke, Landis' way of pointing out the impossibility of making a convincing horror movie in the modern age. Certainly, AWIL is such a taut and economical production that it's hard to imagine anything in it not happening for a reason. Incidentally, the CGI-fuelled An American Werewolf In Paris (1997) received roughly the same critical response as Blues Brothers 2000. For unwilling Yankee lycanthropes, as for pork-pie hatted R&B troubadours, original is clearly best.

Although AWIL's comedy/horror elements aren't always cosy bedfellows, the film retains its original, quirky charm. Great effects for the day, too.