John Landis, 1981, UK/USA
I first saw ‘An American Werewolf in London' in 1983 in the film marquee of what was then known as the C.N.D. Glastonbury festival. I was just about a teenager and far more interested in the mysteries of film than music at that age and spent most of my time alone, sitting on the grass (no seating), watching most of the films in the film marquee. There was ‘Zardoz’, which I already knew and really liked (I was quite baffled why the audience burst out laughing at the big reveal concerning a famous novel). ‘Woodstock’ was shown (it was a C.N.D. festival, after all), and I remember being piqued that the guy in front of me intended to play his bongos throughout the entire screening. There was ‘The Blues Brothers’ too, but I was not so interested in that.
I had met up with some other kid at some point and we had one of those friendships that lasted just one evening. I think I was the one who said we should watch ‘An American Werewolf in London’; I was certainly aware of it and its frightening reputation, as it was only a year or two old. We were immediately terrified and traumatised by the early moors scene and proceeded to experience the whole thing with our backs to the screen, taking turns to check out whether the scary scenes had finished yet. So in the end, we really didn’t get to see the whole thing. The next day, free to wander at my leisure, I tried to find the caravan where my ‘werewolf’ friend said he was, but his directions had been vague and I was too shy to knock on doors to see if he was staying behind any of them. So we never met again, and I wonder if he remembers that first experience of “American Werewolf” too. It must surely have been my initiation into a more extreme form of horror. This, and ‘Eraserhead’ at a little while later (but that’s another story). And ‘American Werewolf’ was the very first VHS tape I owned, though I am not sure how I got hold of it as I hadn’t reach its ‘18’ demands at that time.
So jump forward decades later (2012 or thereabouts) and I get to see ‘An American Werewolf in London’ for a second time on the big screen, courtesy of one of those welcome aberrations in mainstream chain cinema schedules where they actually screen an old film. Firstly, the new digital restoration really does justice to the soft tones and colours of the opening moors scenes. The tongue-in-cheek soundtrack is still a joy with its retro moon-related songs. It is still quite nasty and extreme in its gore. The initially violent mauling on the moors and Jack’s (Griffin Dunne) ghoulish deterioration are still capable of inducing squeamishness. I had seen ‘American Werewolf’ many, many times - happily into double digits - but it had been a while since I last viewed it. It is one of those films I know back-to-front; yes it is a favourite. But what struck me this time was just how many iconic scenes the film has – or maybe I just felt that way because I knew it so well. There’s the hapless New York backpackers’ visit to “The Slaughtered Lamb” and the moors werewolf attack; the still absolutely terrifying and upsetting Nazi-monster family massacre dream sequence (which takes place whilst ‘The Muppets’ plays on the TV, keeping up with the mismatched elements that run throughout the film); the infamous transformation, which gleefully renders the agony of the metamorphosis; then there’s the hilarious porn cinema sequence and the brutal, shocking Piccadilly Circus vehicle smash-up that closes the film.
Although Landis’ direction is deceptively unfussy, closer inspection reveals some excellent choices in pacing, execution and framing. For example: the soft fade into 'The Muppets' that sneakily seems to signal the passing of time to somewhere safe to reassure the audience when it is instead a segue into a nightmare. The balance between casual and slightly more goofy humour (the incompetent police investigator, for example) and straight-up horror alone is wonderful and assured. Rarely does a horror-comedy hold together humour and horror so well; there is no sense of self-referential parody here, and the tongue-in-check elements are kept to the details rather than the core of the drama. The romance is light and, thanks to the immediate affable charms of David Naughton and the gorgeous Jenny Agutter, more endearing and convincingthan it probably has the right to be.
The film’s dedication to a sequence in which David is in hospital is notably longer and more relaxed than usual; typically horror narratives speed over hospital periods quickly. But this extended time allows Landis to set up a tour-de-force of unnerving nightmare sequences and it’s-all-a-dream shocks. A simple dream of panning through a forest creates dread and tension. Landis knows that we know what is going on and doesn’t waste much time with tedious sequences of denial or ambiguity. The Nazi-monster family massacre remains one of my favourite ever horror moments, and it has lost none of its terrifying and upsetting power. This hospitalised period also allows time for warmth and romance between David and his nurse, and it is to Agutter’s and Naughton’s credit that they make this very brief fling credible for the final tears to matter. There is also space made for a handful of side characters to flesh things out.
The transformation was, and remains, quite a breakthrough: Dick Smith has spoken of how it was practically unheard of to film such an effects sequence in full light. Landis was right in this choice. The film has a look that seems mostly akin to television: slightly flat; no particular showcases for lighting effects. But his only helps to frame the werewolf in a realistic environment and for some of that realism to rub off on him. Seeing all the gore and metamorphosis lit like a daily soap opera pays great rewards, and what were are left with is perhaps the greatest werewolf of cinema. “The Howling”, “Ginger Snaps” and “Dog Soldiers” all have great work in them, and even something like “Underworld” (love the first two films; less taken with the others) is a fine example of the move to CGI lycanthropes (not to be encouraged, necessarily, but inevitably here to stay), but very little can compare to the visceral power and fear that this American Werewolf provides. And the transformation scene is an exemplary example of incongruity between the visuals and soundtrack as David’s pain and screams are accompanied by that classic 'Blue Moon'.
The first true reveal of the beast rampage is brilliantly framed: from the top of an escalator in a London underground station, we look down as the werewolf slowly wanders in from the top of the frame. It is revealed in the clear, slightly sickly, cold glare of a very public space; convincing in its movements, unnerving in size. This remains one of my favourite shots in the whole film. Landis manages to offer plenty of excellent views of the thing - chowing down in the cinema and running through Piccadilly Circus - without giving away too much for too long so that the viewer’s imagination still gets the opportunity to expand and imagine for themselves. There is the sense that, because Landis holds back so often, each viewing of the monster is a real treat. It’s a great creation and rarely bettered. One of the best ever put to screen. (Even the cover lose-up can still unsettle me.)
After the tension of the werewolf rampage, Landis drops into the film’s sequence of broadest humour, involving David waking naked in a wolf pen at the zoo and his search for clothes and getting home. The film unapologetically and assuredly juggles tones and genres, and often delivering surprising or clever transitions. We see a lion when we think we shall see the werewolf; the dream-within-the-dream; etc. Next, there is the wonderful stupidity of the porn film ‘See You Next Tuesday’ and finally the end rampage. This involves that pile-up in Piccadilly Circus which is so thoroughly brutal and edited brilliantly so that the viewer will always flinch at the massacre. It is a remarkably canny move on Landis’ part to rely upon the carnage that the fleeing werewolf causes by proxy, generating action and bloodshed on a grander scale than possible in the more intimate option of focusing on the werewolf itself.
It probably shouldn’t work, as it ought to be an imbalanced patchwork, but ‘An American Werewolf in London’ pitches itself and moves freely amongst horror-drama-gore-parody-comedy without barely missing a beat. It is still funny, scary and charming. A seminal horror, scruffy round the collar but all the more endearing for that.