An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London (1981)


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Over forty years since its release, An American Werewolf in London remains one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Yet it didn’t earn universal praise on its release, as the John Landis horror-comedy hybrid threw a good few critics off the scent, and it’s easy to see why. John Landis’ tongue-in-cheek exploration of a conservative and insular Britain following Thatcher’s election in 1979 was wrapped in American comic book humour, a discordant soundtrack and more than a few one-liners that have become legendary. But An American Werewolf in London also had a sting in its furry tail as its humour, and comic book horror were disrupted by sudden jolts of pure terror, especially in the film’s midsection. As a result, An American Werewolf was a slippery and challenging film to pin down.


Due to its hard-to-define mash-up of comedy, horror and romance, An American Werewolf in London has become an enduring classic of early 80s cinema. Its humour appeals to teens and adults while offering something different to both groups. I distinctly remember watching An American Werewolf for the first time, around sixteen, with the one-liners and the gore the standout feature for my young brain. But as an adult, Landis’ cutting exploration of British conservatism and a countryside hatred of diversity and difference stood out. I also found an unrelenting sadness I never picked up as a teen as I watched a young man, full of life, slowly accept his fate. Here Landis’ film appeals to different groups in highly diverse ways while lacing these divergent themes with a Universal and Hammer-inspired dose of howling horror.

The inspiration and template for Landis’ film came from The Wolf Man (1941), and like the George Waggner classic, An American Werewolf in London is at its heart a tragedy. Here it’s clear that David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are already doomed from the opening scenes; they are essentially slaughtered lambs from the minute they walk into the pub of the same name. The audience instantly knows this, yet we are thrown by the humour surrounding each conversation and interaction; should we laugh, hide behind our popcorn bucket or shout at the screen?


An American Werewolf in London plays with Waggner’s 1941 horror throughout its runtime, from David’s nightmares and dreams to conversations around the terror of the Second World War and the transformation of people into monsters. In An American Werewolf, these conversations centre on David being Jewish and the ever-present spectre of the Holocaust. In David’s worst nightmare, mutant human/dog-like creatures in Nazi uniforms kill his parents and his young siblings in front of him. These scenes are some of the most powerful in modern horror but are equally bookended by dark comedy; it’s a brave, creative directorial decision and works to stunning effect. Equally, the scenes where Jack warns David about the monster that lies within are chilling yet bound by humour; who can forget Jack’s exasperation as he says, “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely. Kill yourself, David.” This one sentence is incredibly dark, yet it’s delivered in a manner designed to make people laugh and then question themselves for doing so.

An American Werewolf in London is a rare example of expertly crafted horror and comedy that carries heartwrenching sadness. It’s a story of friendship, love, fear and mortality that isn’t afraid to play with various socio-political themes. Here Landis moulds The Wolf Man into something unique as we watch David’s life fall apart as his first love slips through his furry fingers on a slippery slide to death that started on a cold, wet moor.

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