Two American backpackers are wandering across the Yorkshire moors when they are attacked by a mysterious creature...the film was made in 1981 and was the brain child of director John Landis. It was one of three werewolf films released in the late 80s and remains to this day one of the best werewolf films ever made, helping to create a new breed of horror.
Do you remember Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video??
(…That question was rhetorical by the way…)
If you have no idea what I am talking about then please find the nearest large pot, put it on the hob, bring it to boil and then stick your head in it…that question was redundant because everyone should have seen the Thriller video because it is the best example of music and movie blended seamlessly together. Now what you may not be aware of is that fact that John Landis directed the Thriller video and this was apparently because Michael Jackson had seen An American Werewolf in London and wanted the man who brought the werewolf to the screen in such a terrifying way to be the one who directed Thriller, a video that is itself a masterpiece.
The title is fairly self-explanatory really, after all the film is about an American who becomes a Werewolf and is in London. See this is why you need to pay attention to titles because they do give a fair amount of information…of course David Kessler did not start life as a werewolf, he was bitten and transformed into one, so it begs the question: How did it happen??
I’m glad you asked…
Whilst backpacking around Europe David Kessler (David Naughton) and his friend Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) find themselves walking across the Yorkshire moors as night draws in. They shelter in a pub and find that the locals are suspicious of them but soon settle down and start telling jokes. The boys notice a five pointed star on the wall, and as the atmosphere seems pretty laid back, they ask about it. The atmosphere in the pub immediately changes and silence descends, uncomfortable, the pair decides that it is probably best if they leave.
The villagers tell them to stick to the roads, and avoid the moors. Almost immediately the boys start walking across the moors when they hear something moving in the darkness around them. Growing increasingly afraid they decide to return to the pub even if those inside were a little hostile, as they turn back they are attacked. Jack is targeted first and then the beast turns on David who manages to survive thanks to the intervention of the villagers.
Three weeks later he wakes up in a London hospital and learns that Jack is dead. He is traumatised by the whole experience, he has constant nightmares and his fear only gets worse when a bloody Jack appears. He warns David that he is a werewolf and will change at the next full moon. David believes that he is going insane, and shares his fears with his nurse Alex (played by Jenny Agutter).
Following his release from hospital he goes to stay with Alex who had become infatuated with him during his time in hospital. Jack appears again and tells David that he needs to kill himself before the full moon because he will kill people and as long as David is alive Jack himself will be doomed to walk the Earth as the undead.
David doesn’t heed Jack’s warnings and on the night of the full moon he screams in excruciating pain as he undergoes a terrifying metamorphosis into a werewolf...
So the undisputed King of Pop wanted Landis to direct Thriller after seeing this film, and this is quite simply one of those films that truly defined a genre.
An American Werewolf in London was one of three films made in the 1980s that set the bench mark for werewolf films (the other two being The Howling and Wolfen). An American Werewolf in London is a film from the days before vampires and werewolves fighting one another was the norm, and did not rely on CGI effects. David’s metamorphosis from human to werewolf was done with prosthetics and took a week to film. It shows the slow and obviously agonising process that morphs David Kessler into a large and savage werewolf. His body is twisted, his bone structure changes, his muscles stretch and morph, all the time he is in agony. He begs for help. He has no idea what is happening to him and the audience gets witness every stage of the transformation in all its magnificent glory.
The werewolf stalks though London and kills several innocent people. However, Landis does not show the audience the werewolf until the film is drawing towards its end. Like Jaws, the film benefits from ‘seeing’ many of the attacks from the werewolf’s point of view and not seeing the werewolf itself. What we can imagine is always scarier that what someone can show us on screen. We get glimpses of the creature but more often than not we actually see the reactions of those that are confronted by the massive wolf stalking the streets of London, shame it didn’t go after any politicians but hey-ho.
Naughton does a terrific job as David Kessler, the normal guy who slowly realises that he is a werewolf and if he does not take his own life then he will kill more innocent people. Agutter is also a treat for any fans, especially as this film includes a nude scene, and she is the perfect girl-next-door who falls for the vulnerable Kessler. By the way just because I showed a picture of Alyssa Milano naked in the Embrace of the Vampire review doesn’t mean I’ll include nude pictures of any actress who gets their kit off in a film. Consequently I am not going to include a photo of Agutter naked because I want you to go out and watch this film, I didn’t want anyone else to see Embrace of the Vampire but this film is stunning and seeing Agutter naked is just a bonus. Plus the scene in which she confronts David in his werewolf-form is excellent because she stares into the eyes of the monstrous wolf, is David Kessler, the man she loves in the monster somewhere?? I cannot say any more because if I do I risk ruining the rest of that scene so I will just peter that sentence off…
Landis wrote the initial draft script for this film in 1969 but shelved it until he received box-office success with several other films (including The Blues Brothers and Animal House) after which he was able to secure funding for his werewolf film. As a result this is a film that the director knows back to front and knows exactly what he wants from the cast and the special effects.
Numerous members of the supporting cast were or went on to become well known actors; amongst them are Rik Mayall, Brian Glover and Alan Ford. Director Landis also cameos as a man being knocked through a window during the sequence in Piccadilly Circus.
This film showed audiences that something as ridiculous as the idea of a human becoming an animal was not just possible but it could be executed superbly. This is not people leaping into the air and changing into wolves like in Blood and Chocolate or…[…shudder…]…the Twilight films. David screams in agony as his body changes. He wakes up naked in the zoo after his rampage as the wolf not knowing what has happened or how he came to be in the wolf enclosuren.
The transformation scene is a masterpieces of cinema and one of the scenes that demonstrated what clever make-up combined with excellent direction is capable of achieving
Admittedly the special effects have dated since the film’s release but it really doesn’t matter because at the time the special effects were state of the art. The ending is also a little abrupt and does almost seem like the makers ran out of money and just tacked on a quick ending, however, everyone here is on fine form from the cast to the director to the people in charge of the special effects.
Forget the CGI werewolf seen in Van Helsing or the werewolves seen in The Twilight Saga…[…shudder again…]…because this werewolf is a true monster and looks nothing like something that has been created by nature. This film gets a Thumbs Up because even after thirty years it is still a magnificent example of the werewolf film, vampires are thankfully not in the story, and the werewolf itself is a horrifying monster that will rip anyone who crosses its path to shreds.
8/10 - An American Werewolf in London is a film that helped to shape the genre. It is from a time when werewolves were still scary and didn’t always seem to be fighting vampires. This is the film that prompted Michael Jackson to get John Landis to direct the epic Thriller video so that should be more than enough reason for anyone who has seen that music video to track this film down and give it a watch.