An American Werewolf in London is available to rent, buy or stream.
Over forty years since its release, An American Werewolf in London remains one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Yet on its release, it didn’t earn universal praise, as the John Landis horror-comedy hybrid threw a good few critics off the scent. It’s easy to see why. Over forty years on, apart from Rick Baker’s legendary transformation scene and some gory physical effects, Landis’ movie joyously defies audience expectations.
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. An American Werewolf was, and still is, a slippery and challenging film to pin down.
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Due to its hard-to-define mash-up of comedy, horror and sadness, An American Werewolf in London has become an enduring classic of early 80s cinema. Its humour appeals to teens and adults equally while offering something different to both groups. I distinctly remember watching An American Werewolf for the first time, around sixteen, where I loved the one-liners and the gore. But as an adult, it is Landis’ cutting exploration of British conservatism and a countryside hatred of diversity and difference that stood out. Alongside this, I 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 clearly 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, in essence, 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, hoping they get the message to leave?
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An American Werewolf in London plays with Waggner’s 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 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, manifesting his fear of becoming the monster he has feared his entire life. These scenes are some of the most powerful in modern horror but are equally bookended by dark comedy; it’s a brave, creative move 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.
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An American Werewolf in London is a rare example of expertly crafted horror and comedy that also carries heartwrenching sadness. It’s a story of friendship, love, fear and mortality that isn’t afraid to play with socio-political discussions. Landis reinvents The Wolf Man into something timeless as we watch David’s life fall apart instantly and his first love slip through his fingers. It is a masterpiece that reinvents itself with every viewing.