An American Werewolf in London (1981)

John Landis’ film “An American Werewolf in London” will always take me back to college. No, I wasn’t in college when it came out, but my friends Chris and Tim had a VCR and a copy of “Werewolf.”

They also had all manner of “bongs,” as these items were called, and lots of substances that went into said items. It was a lovely combination.

I’ve seen “An American Werewolf in London” somewhere between five and 80 times, none of them since the early 90’s, when I had my own VCR. On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, there it was, digitally remastered with tons of bonus features, all for $5. Woo-hoo!

The two thoughts I had while watching it anew (and relatively lucid) were as follows. First, without “Werewolf,” there would never have been a “Shaun of the Dead” or “Zombieland.” Its mixture of comedy and monsters was perfect. The dialogue was fast and funny, and the monsters were creepy. Prior to this film, werewolves looked like guys with Chewbacca masks. Rick Baker won a well-deserved Oscar for engineering the werewolf transformations.

The other thought I had was, “DAMN, Jenny Agutter’s hot!”

The story is fairly simple. Two young American college students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking through some desolate part of England (played by Wales). They stop by a small pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb,” where there’s a pentagram drawn on the wall. They’re made to feel unwelcome, and hit the road once again. Lo and behold, a werewolf attacks them on the moors, killing Jack, and wounding David.

Three weeks later, David awakens in a London hospital. He is tended to by crotchety Dr Hirsch (John Woodvine) and the delectable, kindhearted, awesome Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). One morning in hospital, David is visited by his hacked up friend Jack, who explains the werewolf story we’ve all heard a billion times. He was killed by a werewolf, and he’s thus doomed to walk the earth in limbo until the offending werewolf’s bloodline is severed. As it happens, David is the last of the werewolf bloodline, and Jack–after helping himself to some of David’s toast–tells his best friend he has to kill himself before the next full moon three days hence.

After David is released from the hospital, Nurse Price takes him home.  After a long nookie scene set to Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” David heads off to the bathroom, where Jack makes another appearance, cracking-wise and telling his friend to kill himself.

He doesn’t, and that night…

Well what the hell do you think happens? They go see “MacBeth”? A monster lorry rally? Maybe roller skating? Fish & chips, and watching telly?

Nope. As “Blue Moon” plays on the soundtrack, David transforms, and runs amok smiting Londoners. The transformation is protracted and painful. The killings offer a glimpse or two of the monster, but don’t show much.

The next morning, David awakens naked in the London Zoo’s wolf cage.

He feels great, “like an athlete,” and the whole night is a blackout.

Alex convinces him to go to the hospital. En route, David learns London suffered six mutilation murders, and escapes from Alex. He has his final meeting with Jack in the back of a Picadilly Circus porno theater. Amidst the sound of a really bad porno, Jack introduces David to all the people he killed the previous night.

The scenes with Jack and David are all really funny, especially this last one, where his victims offer friendly suggestions as to how David can kill himself.

David transforms, there’s a massive car crash, and the movie ends the way you’d expect it to.

I really like “An American Werewolf in London.” Just about every scene is sharp and well-made, often funny despite the most horrible activities on-screen.

However, the movie isn’t as much a great film as a bunch of cool scenes attached. It would be like swordfish florentine, chocolate pudding, and biscuits & sausage gravy–each of them highest-quality–all on the same plate. Great foods, that just don’t fit together.

Unless, of course, you were 19 and stoned.

Either way, I still enjoy “An American Werewolf in London.” And even if everything else 19 year-old Tom thought was completely wrong, I was right about one thing: Jenny Agutter is hot!

Grade: B

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10 Responses to “An American Werewolf in London (1981)”

  1. Love, love, love this movie!

    And I hate Twilight. For ruining vampires and werewolves. Blah!

    • I concur. I love that there was a Facebook group called, “Vampires Don’t Sparkle. They Rip Out Your F***ing Throat And Kill You.” 😀

  2. I still have nightmares about this movie. Not all that long ago, I saw a rubber werewolf mask on display at a costume shop, and it was the American Werewolf in London’s grimace. I thought, if I ever saw a kid come to my door on Halloween wearing that, I’d shut off the lights and tell him the next door neighbors were handing out Butterfingers. Brrrr.

    • I like that Landis didn’t show more of the monster, other than that gruesome transformation. It was like Spielberg and the shark in Jaws: less is more.
      The special boo-yah dvd I bought has a commentary track with Griffin Dunne and David Naughton. It was a good conversation. Dunne said the first time Rick Baker made him up as a test, he got severely depressed. “It looked like I’d been killed.”
      Plus, their parents freaked the hell out. I can only imagine what 1981 cinema audiences thought.
      Another point they raised was that the film wasn’t huge upon release, but really caught its legs in the video market. Which is where I saw it, safely wasted in Chris & Tim’s room. 🙂

  3. I love this film. Really and truly. The theater scene still cracks me up. Creepily, of course.

  4. Very fun movie — and very original for its day, with its wry dialog.

    I always think of the scene in the subway station as the scariest — and unfortunately flash back to that every time I enter a subway station and am even slightly alone.

    • Agreed. Subway guy was the only victim killed indoors the first night. That’s also the only time we see the whole monster the first night, when the guy looks down the elevator. *shudder* Like subways aren’t creepy enough without lycanthropes.

      One thing I caught this time was the subway posters advertising “See You Next Wednesday,” which is the horrible porno Jack & David attended the next day.

    • ESCALATOR, not “elevator.” Sorry.

  5. am i the only one that stands in front of an open fridge and says, “i’m STILL not hungry!” and then giggles madly?

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