Have you ever walked into a strange pub to find the locals turn and stare at you in silence? Well, the two chirpy American college kids, David Kessler and Jack Goodman, are given little choice when on their backpacking tour. Night falls and thunder strikes as they find themselves alone in the vast Yorkshire Moors. Student banter ensues until they apprehensively enter through the doors of the ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ pub.
Hopelessly unwelcome, the pair feel compelled to leave the rustic pub. As they step out, a local calls out in a wonderfully broad Yorkshire accent:
“Stay on the road. And beware the moon, lads.”
Already, this does not bode well.
Three weeks later, young David (David Naughton) awakes in a hospital room to find that not only is he in London, but he is the sole survivor of an escaped lunatic’s savage attack.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) is a real game-changer for the horror genre. The care and dedication from director John Landis (The Blues Brothers, 1980) is a sight to behold and both his work and that of the make-up department have paved the way for modern horror. Although I’d prefer to save it until the end, I must mention the incredible man-to-monster scene. Now a cinematic icon, we watch as the terrified David turns into a beastly werewolf. Through the cracks and crunches of bones, the throws and screams of agony, we can still sense the suffering as the man transforms into a ravenous beast. Not only agony for the character but for the crew as they add each millimeter of each strand of hair and growth of bone frame-by-frame.
Even today, 31 years later, students of make-up and prosthetics in film consider this the pinnacle of their art and recreating it is often an exercise undertaken during their curriculum. Even revered as a feat today, it is something the looming shadow of CGI can only ever aspire to truly accomplish.
Special effects aside, American Werewolf wonderfully sets the scene for future movies by using the guise of a horror flick to convey some seriously comedic overtones. The script crawls with some memorable one-liners. Where else will we hear gold like “A naked American man stole my balloons”? From raunchy lovemaking scenes, dark humour and immortal special effects, this was a film well ahead of its time.
On a cultural note, it manages not to only mock the brassy attitude of American students but to regularly poke fun at Britishness. The stereotyping, clearly from an American perspective, is however, not insulting but rather romanticising as well as endearing. It brings one to wonder whether the director is even an Expat from cheery Britain. From the broad and burly Yorkshire bumpkins to the stiff-upper lip of the repressed Londoners and even a tube-ful of Punks, it adds to the spicy flavours of the dark humour, especially the general pluckiness of David’s hapless victims living within the Tory Britain of the 80s.
For today’s audiences, often accustomed to splatters of graphic violence every five minutes, the forty-five minutes prior to any violence may come off as a bore. Nevertheless, Landis builds with gradual and deceitful suspense the environment in which the werewolf within will inevitably rampage. As the audience is lulled into a false sense of security, one is thrown into David’s troubled psyche as he dreams of horrifying terrors that lurk inside him. Through this the film proudly nods to its forefathers, one of which being The Wolf Man (1941), not only in David’s turmoil and mental battle in the realisation of becoming a monster than merely insane but in regularly referring to the classic within the film’s dialogue.
So perhaps today American Werewolf‘s gore can appear campy at times, with scarlet-stained plastic heads catapulting across Trafalgar Square appearing now as shortcomings. Perhaps the dialogue can even be interpreted as cheesy with what can be seen today as tame one-liners. However, the film remains a pinnacle to the genre; It has elements to which most modern horror flicks are indebted from the transformation scenes to the stop-motion, it continues to surpass its computer-aided contemporaries.
Let this classic not be forgotten. We owe it that much. And let’s pray that come 2014, the remake does not smear its good name. Beware the moon…