Director John Landis' horror comedy set the bar so high few subsequent films got anywhere close to it.
Few movies blend horror and comedy as masterfully as “An American Werewolf in London” did in 1981.
And it’s safe to say the film’s irresistible mix has yet to be matched decades later. “Zombieland,” “Shaun of the Dead” and “Housebound” deliver similar treats, aided by modern FX.
“London” revolutionized special effects for that era, too, a time before today’s digital wizardry.
Then and now the film soars as a study of a tortured soul. Our hero is forced to make an agonizing choice, one made all the more difficult as the dead bodies pile up around him.
American pals David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are traveling through England when their vacation is cut short by a hungry wolf’s howl. The beast kills Jack and takes a bite out of David. Poor David thinks he survived the assault with only a few scratches and one less friend.
Jack soon comes back from the grave to tell him otherwise.
David will become a wolf, too when the next full moon comes around. It’s his curse, at least until someone brave enough comes along to stop him.
David doesn’t like that option for obvious reasons, including his growing bond for the nurse (Jenny Agutter) who treated his injuries following the attack.
“London” delivers state of the art (circa 1981) makeup effects from gore maestro Rick Baker, including the iconic transformation scene that’s lost little of its visceral punch. And the film’s saucy soundtrack – every great song with the word “moon” in the title gets a showcase – heightens the mood.
But it’s Jack’s occasional reappearances where the film’s black humor truly pops. Dunne’s wiseacre role makes the horror go down easier while illustrating David’s sad predicament.
Writer/director John Landis, fresh from overseeing “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” finds just the right balance between horror and humor. Naughton isn’t a great actor, but he’s perfect here as an Everyman faced with a not so ordinary fate.
DID YOU KNOW: Before David Naughton transformed into a beast he served as the jovial pitchman for Dr. Pepper. ‘London’ director John Landis’ wife loved those spots, and she recommended her husband consider him for the werewolf role because of them.
“An American Werewolf in London” deserves its cult status, not only for its shock sequences but for the tiny moments that connect us to David’s dwindling humanity.
Consider how he calls his family late in the film, knowing it may be the last time he speaks with them.
Those touches make this wolf story so very, very human.