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I see a bad moon rising; I see trouble on the way. How do we even begin to describe John Landis’ masterpiece forty years on? Is it a dark comedy? Or is it an exquisite love letter to the monster horrors of Universal and Hammer? Could it be a cutting mix of pop horror and socio-political commentary? In truth, An American Werewolf in London is all three of these, its genre-defying narrative bathed in brilliance, a masterpiece of modern cinema that reinvents itself with every repeat viewing.
Very few horror films ever achieve this, but they have included, The Shining, Carrie and Eyes Without a Face. These films defy the boundaries of time, their cultural impact printed into the fabric of cinematic history. An American Werewolf in London is one of these timeless gems. Its unique story of friendship, mortality, and physical change coupled with a humourous dissection of a changing socio-political climate as the world entered the 1980s. Here Landis tears up the classic werewolf stories of Hammer and Universal while equally paying homage to their brilliance. His slow, taut and straightforward tale of transformation, rooted in the human experience.
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Landis opens the movie with two young American backpackers (David and Jack) in the back of a sheep van, their travelling companions heading to slaughter. Cleverly this sets the tone and the trajectory for both boys; one becoming a rotting corpse who walks the earth in limbo and the other a werewolf who kills without control. Their fate, sealed before London even comes into view.
Throughout, Landis teases the audience, never letting us get too close to the horror while joyously playing with our expectations. For example, how many modern horrors would dare place a werewolf transformation scene 90 minutes into their runtime? But, for Landis, the build-up is just as significant as the release. His screenplay, taking us from cutting satirical comedy to gut-wrenching horror in a heartbeat, then back again. In a film that joyously revels in its creativity and invites us to do the same. Meanwhile, Rick Bakers werewolf design and transformation remains a masterpiece of physical effects work, surpassing many of the effects available today through CGI.
Is An American Werewolf in London the first example of a self-aware pop culture horror-comedy? In my opinion, the answer to this is yes. Its very existence, inspiring a whole host of movies during the decades since. But, no matter how hard any of these films have tried, not one has been able to capture the timeless quality of Landis’ movie, and maybe no film ever will.