Celebrated critic Roger Ebert gave An American Werewolf in London a two star review upon its release, writing “Landis never seems very sure whether he’s making a comedy or a horror film“, which seems a strange observation to me considering it’s surely possible that he intended to make both?
Ebert even went on to say ‘combining horror and comedy is an old tradition’. Well, yes, so what’s the problem then? Incidentally I remember Barry Norman saying he never rated An American Werewolf in London much either, whilst his daughter Emma (also a film critic) loves it. So, not a favourite with the old-school film scribes then. I saw Barry and Emma Norman walking their dogs through the village of Datchworth in Hertfordshire about 10 years ago. If you’re expecting this anecdote to go somewhere then I’m afraid you’re very much mistaken.
The plot: two American backpackers are walking through a remote part of the Yorkshire Moors at dusk (bit weird, but then it’s a horror-fantasy so let’s suspend all disbelief at source) and as the light fades they decide to see if they can stay the night at a pub, the brilliantly named ‘Slaughtered Lamb’. Upon entering, the room goes quiet.
Everyone who grew up in rural Britain (as I did) knows exactly what this scene is getting at, especially if their parents were from elsewhere, meaning they were never really accepted as true ‘locals’ (yep, me again). The true ‘locals’, including a brilliantly bluff Brian Glover and a young Rik Mayall, tell them to “beware the moon”, but don’t make any attempt to welcome them or truly warn of the horrors the lie outside.
Feeling distinctly uncomfortable, the pair leave, somehow deviate from the road, and end up wandering the moor. Hearing ever-louder howling noises, they desperately try to make it back to the Slaughtered Lamb, but are attacked by… something (we’re not quite sure what). One of the pair (Jack, played by Griffin Dunne) is killed, but thanks to the locals rushing out and shooting the attacker, the other (David, played by David Naughton) survives. He stays conscious long enough to see the corpse of a naked man.
David is taken to a hospital in London (I’m not quite sure why, surely there were other hospitals nearer? I guess ‘An American Werewolf in Huddersfield’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it) and finally waking three weeks later to be told by a policeman his assailant was an escaped lunatic. Although he can’t remember much, David insists he was actually attacked by a large wolf.
Not much longer after, Jack’s decaying corpse appears at David’s bedside to explain that they were attacked by a werewolf, and that David, having been bitten, must kill himself, thus ending the bloodline. If he doesn’t, at the next full moon, he too will transform into a werewolf.
Having recovered enough to be discharged from hospital, he ignores Jack’s advice, and moves in with Jenny Agutter (sister Julienne from Call the Midwife when she was in her twenties and ridiculously hot), who having nursed him back to health, then provides him with a place to stay and fucks him senseless while listening to Van Morrison’s ‘Moondance’. God bless the NHS! Seriously, if America was ever going to fall for the idea of a national health service, surely that was the moment?
Jack appears again to tell him to top himself, but David’s like “Fuck off dude, I’m fucking Jenny Agutter!” (okay, not quite).
The full moon rises. Cue one of cinema’s great human–to-monster transformations.
In the age of CGI we take such sights for granted, so it’s worth emphasising just how groundbreaking and impressive this scene was back in 1981. Taking nearly three minutes (on screen… quite a bit longer to produce), David writhes in agony as his hands and feet grow longer, hairs appear from every pore, his teeth sharpen and finally his face distorts out of all human recognition. Man to wolf in the time it takes to make a cup of tea.
Make-up artist Rick Baker won an Oscar for his work on the film, but awards aside, the transformation effects were to have a big influence on future horror films, and other areas of popular culture. Michael Jackson was such a fan of the scene that he sought out Landis and Baker to turn him into monster for the Thriller video – perhaps the most famous and influential pop promo of all time.
Later on of course, Jackson did a thorough job of turning himself into a monster without anyone else’s help, but that’s a whole other story.
Having transformed, David goes on killing spree through the streets of London (“have you seen the old man” no, he got slaughtered by a werewolf, sorry) and wakes up in a cage at London zoo, naked, with no memory of the previous evening.
Upon discovering the news that a horrific killing spree has occurred in the city, David is mortified to slowly realise that Jack was right all along, and that he was responsible for the murders. After failing to get himself arrested (“Prince Charles is a faggot… Shakespeare’s French!!” he screams in Trafalgar Square) and attempting to cut his wrists with a pocket knife, he seeks refuge in an adult cinema. It’s to no avail.
Jack’s even more decayed corpse appears, as do the victims of his previous night’s rampage, all urging him to take his life before causing further mayhem. It’s too late though. David werewolfs (if it wasn’t a verb before, it is now) once more, magnificently biting the head off a policeman before being cornered in an alley. Jenny Agutter has appeared by this point, appearing to placate the slobbering beast with her declarations of love. But no, the Werewolf lunges forward, is shot dead, and returns to human form, leaving Agutter sobbing at David’s side.
It’s a genuinely sad ending considering the fantasy/comedy that has gone before, but that’s something I find admirable about this movie too. Moods and genres are hopped between but as a cohesive whole it works wonderfully. Often in horror films the only really memorable moments are the more horrific ones, or at least the ones that suggest a gathering menace of some kind. But one of AAWIL’s big strengths is the comedy to be found in placing the two American antagonists in Britain – when David imitates the sneering faces of some passing punks on the tube for instance, and of course, the famous entrance scene in the Slaughtered Lamb.
It’s far from perfect; Landis is not exactly the go-to director for well-rounded female characters and Agutter’s nurse is another to add to the list of incriminating evidence. It might also be that, in the depiction of a Brit and foreigner unconvincingly falling in love having barely exchanged a word, Landis provided a great deal of the inspiration for Richard Curtis’s big screen career. A pretty much unpardonable cinematic crime I’m sure you’ll agree.
Naughton is a likeable lead in this, but it’s not surprising that megastar status eluded him; his performance is certainly not one that was ever going to bother the Academy. He’s perhaps the Mark Hamill of horror-comedy – fine in one much-loved role, not particularly noted for anything else. But then, if I was an actor, I would love to have a film as good as this on my CV.
Landis may have made better movies (Coming to America being his best I would argue) but this is possibly – for better and for worse – his most influential. And it’s always worth bearing this advice in mind: “Beware the moon. And stick to the roads.”
For more spine-chilling thrills to watch over Halloween, check out our complete 31 days of horror movies list.