To help usher in the new Film Goblin Age, we must look to the past. We’re all built on it. So to start, I’m going take a look back at 1981’s An American Werewolf In London, because – I don’t need a reason.
Let’s begin by being honest here, once you’ve seen one werewolf movie, you’ve seen them all. And let’s face it, the whole concept is silly with most movies sticking pretty rigidly to a set formula. Wolf bites man, man grows hair and fangs, police look baffled as they examine corpses, man goes on final rampage and meets a silver bullet. Roll credits.
Any werewolf film worth its salt followed this framework up until the early 80’s. Then a clutch of stylish new takes from directors looking to upend the conventions of the genre sprinkled some tasty additions into long-established formulas.
There was Tony Scott’s erotically charged re-working of the vampire myth with the exceptional The Hunger, starring possibly the best-looking cast ever in David Bowie, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. And damn, that Sarandon/Deneuve interface is one for the ages. In fact, stay here, I’m just going to watch it again.
There was Joe Dante’s bizarre The Howling, first to the punch in taking on the werewolf legend, and a highly entertaining cheap thrill it is, followed closely by Wolfen, a strange beast. But undoubtedly the best of these was An American Werewolf In London, directed by John Landis.
This was a useful experience for Landis, as he would later direct someone else undergoing horrifying physical transformations in Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. And he turned into a werewolf too.
This isn’t just one of the best werewolf movies out there; it’s a flat-out great movie. Much of this can be attributed to the frequent doses of sick humour peppered throughout which let us know that this is not a film which is taking its subject matter too seriously, even though it delivers with aplomb on the fear factor and show-stopping set pieces.
The opening 20 minutes neatly sets the scene and is a good summation of the film’s approach. Two young American backpackers (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) are trekking through the bleak Yorkshire moors in the North of England, bantering about old girlfriends and telling bad jokes. Cold and irritable, Jack and David eventually arrive at a rustic pub called, invitingly, The Slaughtered Lamb.
This is a ramshackle boozer inhabited by a gaggle of unfriendly country yokels who stop talking the minute they come in, like a scene from an Eastwood western. We know that Something’s Up.
It’s a tremendously funny scene: there is the established concept of the “strangers in a strange village” motif, frequently used in the Hammer horror films of the 50’s and 60’s, usually when a group of hapless westerners arrive in a Transylvanian settlement. Here, we get a bunch of exaggerated northern-England stereotypes, supping their real ale, playing darts and peppering their sentences with colourful local lingo.
The two lads are ejected after reasonably asking why there is a candlelit pentangle on the wall, and foolishly fail to heed the villager’s advice to “stick to the road lads, and beware the moon”. They soon discover the error of their ways, as, in a genuinely spooky and nerve-wracking scene, they are stalked by an unknown beast that attacks and kills Jack, and leaves David badly wounded.
He then wakes up in a London hospital to find he has temporarily become the luckiest bastard in the world as he is now being looked after by 1980’s Jenny Agutter in a nurse’s uniform. Despite this remarkable good fortune, he is plagued by dreams of running naked through forests eating raw deer, and receives a visit from the decaying corpse of Jack, who amiably tells him what his own funeral was like and that David is now a werewolf.
David is rather taken by Jenny Agutter because she’s Jenny Agutter, and the love struck pair move in together as David tries to forget Jack’s ominous warnings. But before you can say “full moon” he is sprouting hair and fangs, and chomping on any unfortunate Londoners who cross his path.
As Jack’s visits from beyond the grave become more frequent and pungent, a local doctor begins investigating the case, David realises the full horror of his condition, and it ends rather badly for everyone.
This is one wonderfully scripted and acted movie. Landis takes an amusingly obsessive delight in setting up various exaggerated English stereotypes, and killing them with a showman’s glee. There is the stiff upper-lipped commuter in the London Underground who, after hearing some sinister growling noises coming from the tunnel, remarks snottily, “I can assure you if this is joke it’s not in the least bit amusing!” before he is mercilessly gobbled.
There is the infuriatingly cheerful and block-headed young professional couple who, having been killed earlier by David, meet him in a porn cinema in their undead state with their grisly wounds still fresh, and chirp “Hello!” before cheerily advising him on the best way to commit suicide.
And there are the two inept British coppers, one bumbling yet bright, and the other arrogant and stuffy, who seem to have wandered in from their own TV show. One of them meets one of the funniest demises in the movie, during the film’s show-stopping climax in Piccadilly Circus.
The comedic scenes vary from David waking up naked in London Zoo and covering up by stealing a young boy’s balloons to a bizarre interlude in a crap porn cinema where a faux-comedy blue movie is playing, and in which David’s various victims are sitting enjoying the show.
David’s casual conversations with his decaying friend are both hilarious and unsettling as he begins to realise the extent of his fate, and David Naughton turns in a fine performance in the lead role, by turns vulnerable, clownish and convincingly terrified. Kudos also to Griffin Dunne and Jenny Agutter who both turn in accomplished and nuanced performances in what could have been an easy film to misjudge.
Also – 1980s Jenny Agutter, y’all.
The humour is neatly balanced by some excellent scares and atmospheric diversions, particularly during the hospital scenes where David experiences some bizarre dreams. We see him chasing forest animals before biting into their raw flesh, waking up with fearsomely yellow eyes and massive fangs, and there is one sequence that ranks for me as one of the most disturbing in movie history.
David dreams of sitting in his parent’s living room doing his homework while his family watch The Muppets. There is a knock at the door, and suddenly his house is invaded by a group of mutants with hideous faces and Nazi uniforms, who slaughter his family before cutting his throat.
It’s a viscerally shocking scene (with one of those false-awakening twists) that doesn’t have much to do with werewolves, but is certainly scary.
The soundtrack is also an out-of-the-park winner, carefully comprised of songs which all share a common “moon” theme, such as various versions of Blue Moon and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s unbeatable Bad Moon Rising, which are particularly effective during the big real-time transformation scene.
Rick Baker’s stunning practical effects work here shows us hands and feet distending painfully, hair growing on-camera, and fangs pushing through a pulsating face, accompanied by David’s screams and the gentle background croon of Blue Moon. Other movies would have used some stock scary-music bullshit, but the sound here is cheerfully and jarringly upbeat compared to the physical drama on the screen.
The film does look a little dated now, it must be said. It also (perhaps intentionally) observes that old cliché of hardly seeing anything of the monster until just before the end, which is a bit of an annoyance, especially when the finished item doesn’t look entirely convincing.
Still, it’s a massively entertaining, quirky movie that is a fair cut above most attempts at the genre, and if you’re any kind of horror movie fan you should ensure you make a space for it on your shelf. You’ll laugh, you’ll howl.
Check out some more of my retro reviews here:
EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC Review