Directed by John Landis
The first film to win an Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, An American Werewolf in London is a rare blend of monster movie horror and comedy. Director John Landis developed the idea while working as a production assistant in Yugoslavia where he and a Yugoslavian crew member came upon a Romani group attending a ritualistic burial where the corpse was buried standing up and wrapped in garlic to prevent him from “rising from the grave”.
David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne), two American college students backpacking in England, get lost on the moors on the night of a full moon and are attacked by a huge wolf-like creature. Jack is killed and David is mauled before the townspeople can slay the beast. David is taken to the hospital, where he starts to have strange vivid nightmares and is visited by the decaying corpse of Jack, who tells him that he is a werewolf and must kill himself before he transforms and kills others. He is reluctant to do so, both because he is denial about his condition and because he’s fallen in love with his nurse, Alex (Agutter).
Landis had trouble getting financing for the film and was forced to shelve it for 10 years until his later success made it possible to fund what had become a pet project. Initially, producers felt it was too scary to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror film and were reluctant to finance it. Ironically, the comedic elements helped drive the popularity of the movie and Dunne’s humorous scenes in particular are commonly listed among fans’ favorites.
Over the years, the film has gained cult classic status, mostly due to its amazing makeup effects designed by Rick Baker. The initial transformation scene is specifically lauded for its realism and effectiveness, as it was the first werewolf film to show a transformation on screen rather than using camera dissolves. Michael Jackson was so impressed by this scene that he hired Landis, Baker, and the principal effects specialists to work on his iconic “Thriller” video. According to Naughton, the scene took six days to finish, with most of that time spent applying makeup and prosthetics. Baker estimated that only a half hour of footage was shot during that week of filming.
As a fan of practical effects, I really enjoyed this movie and, when rewatching, my favorite scenes are makeup and effect heavy. The film is loaded with Landis’s famous black humor, as seen in Schlock and his segments of the Twilight Zone movie; even the oddly cheerful soundtrack gets a laugh when paired with the gruesome scenes of werewolf transformations and attacks. It’s surprisingly gory (even Landis thought so when approving a high definition DVD transfer a few years ago) and the dream sequences give the flick a surreal, dream-like quality that contrasts nicely with the humor. There are a few awkward scenes – a weirdly placed sex scene that feels tacked on and a semi-montage of a bored David hanging out in Alex’s apartment – but when the movie gets down to the gore and the scares, it’s a fun watch.
Dunne steals every scene he’s in, particularly those in which he plays the ever cheerful reanimated corpse of Jack. Reportedly, he found it difficult to play the part upbeat while wearing the makeup, but it definitely doesn’t show in his performance. Naughton, previously most famous for a Dr. Pepper commercial, is charming, if a little wooden, but he’s at his best playing off Dunne or flirting with Agutter, with whom he has quite a bit of chemistry.
It’s easy to see how An American Werewolf in London paved the way for modern horror comedies like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, as well as showing the strides made in practical effects. It’s a classic for both of these reasons, and well-deserving of the Oscar win for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup.
Fright Rating: 2 1/2 gasps out of 5
Although it’s peppered with humorous moments right up until the final sequence, An American Werewolf in London is also gory and the transformation scenes are intense and fairly graphic. It’s a must watch for creature feature fans, especially those who love old school practical effects.