Notes On Film: An American Werewolf In London (John Landis, 1981)

What comes to mind when you think of An American Werewolf in London? The transformation scene, right? How could it not be? A moment of breathtaking visceral horror, starkly brought to life by John Landis’ slick direction and Rick Barker’s unrivalled creature design and practical effects, it is a moment that shocked and awed in equal measure, firmly cementing it and the film’s place in the annals of filmic lore. A moment, incredibly influential yet rarely equaled. Think back on werewolf transformation sequences in the past and none, with the exception of Joe Dante’s The Howling, that rarely come close to matching the sheer audacity and brutal visceral intensity of An American Werewolf in London.

Of course, being film fans, we all know this. It isn’t new. In fact, the moment has become so iconic that when prompted, most people I speak to about it can barely recall the name of the actor playing the titular American of the title – It’s David Naughton, in case anyone was about to look it up.

I remember watching the film for the first time when I was fifteen years old and being overawed by it. The stark sense of black humour in that opening shot as Naughton and Griffin Dunne’s characters emerge from the back of the sheep truck, figurative lambs to the slaughter. I recall the dark, gothic absurdity of the clientele of the Slaughtered Lamb, the sense of dread during the attack upon the moors, the monstrous, gut wrenching pain of the transformation and the sheer brutality and violence of the rampaging finale in Piccadilly Circus.

Watching it again just the other day, I was struck by how well the whole thing has managed to stand up to the test of time. That finale is still shocking, Rick Baker’s makeup and creature effects are still as fleshy and grotesque as anything we see on-screen today and Landis’ sharp dialogue and blackly comic stylings still hold their own. And yet, other thoughts struck me as I watched it. Horror movies, at least the really good ones, usually have some depth to go along with the horror; some social or political commentary possibly. Hell, even Shaun of the Dead is not simply a zombie horror/comedy, but rather a rumination on the necessity to put away childish things and take responsibility as an adult, coupled with hilarious and smart comedy and seriously dark moments.

An American Werewolf in London has no such depth. It is merely an exercise in intense and fantastically grotesque style. Not that is a bad thing. Landis’ skill and style and likeable performances make the film as watchable as ever, yet it barely has any depth beyond the title of the movie. Perhaps that’s the point.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert described An American Werewolf in London as “curiously unfinished, as if director John Landis spent all his energy on spectacular set pieces and then didn’t want to bother with things like transitions, character development, or an ending. The movie has sequences that are spellbinding, and then long stretches when nobody seems sure what’s going on. There are times when the special effects almost wipe the characters off the screen.”

As I grew up and began to engage with movies, An American Werewolf in London cropped up time and time again as essential viewing, being cited by critics and fans alike as one of the greats of cinema. Yet it seems that whenever the film is discussed, the transformation scene is all that is discussed. It’s as if the film has survived purely for that one scene. There barely exists anything beyond its set pieces. I realized after watching it again just how bizarre that dream sequence with the Nazi Wolf Men was. I struggled to wrap my head around just exactly what the thematic relevance was for that sequence for existing. Perhaps there is a reason and I just failed to see it, but in the grand scheme of things, it seems to exist independent of the rest of the film, just a random moment to simply unsettle with little relevance for existing. The first dream sequence of David running naked through the forest and devouring a deer is relevant, as the beast within begins to take hold… But come on… Nazi Wolf Men with uzis? Did I miss something?

The love story between Naughton’s character and Jenny Agutter’s nurse is okay, and the appearance of Griffin Dunne’s gradually rotting corpse is a highlight, yet all these great things never extend beyond the surface of its title. It was like the surrounding narrative merely existed just to show off that one scene. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. As I’ve said I still thoroughly enjoy the film, the design, the style, the startling finale… And yet, that’s it.

It’s strange because the film is nothing more beyond that title, nothing more beyond that design, yet it is constantly held up as a masterclass of the horror/comedy subgenre and yet, narratively speaking it lacks anything beyond that surface title. It’s a testament to Landis’ skill as a director, coupled with Baker’s unrivalled makeup and creature design that ultimately rescue the film from potential mediocrity.

And yet… I still absolutely adore this movie…

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