When the movie arrived to accolades and cheers in the summer of 1981, it represented a series of noteworthy firsts. It was Landis’ first foray into horror, directly following the highly lauded “Animal House.” It was the first full-length film Griffin Dunne ever starred in. It was the single picture whose special effects directly inspired Michael Jackson’s video for “Thriller,” often seen as the first great work of art of the medium. And it was the first movie to ever win the Best Makeup award at the Academy Awards, a category created specifically to honor a new field of emerging artists tasked with the transformation of the human face. Indeed, whenever the film comes up in conversation, the first verbal acknowledgment usually deals with its most spectacular sequence: a long and grueling passage when we see the hero David (David Naughton) scream in pain as his body morphs from that of a handsome young man into a ravenous, ferocious creature with razor fangs and horrifying eyes. Not content to just visualize the moment, Landis does an even more audacious thing: he allows it all to occur under light, so that no detail is left to the imagination. Think of how brave, how fearless a filmmaker had to be in those early years of risky anomalies, and you get a sense of the creative chutzpah that drives the picture as a whole.
A handful of solid entertainments about werewolves came out of the genre’s most prolific decade, including “The Howling” and “Silver Bullet,” but it is “An American Werewolf in London” that still resonates the most – perhaps because it seems as fresh and savvy today as it must have been when audiences first set eyes upon the material. No matter how many times it comes to the screen, no matter how thorough we might memorize all the triggers that lead into the scenes of terror, the sheer gusto of ambition in each frame still manage to catch us off-guard. Think back to the first time you saw David Kessler sitting passively in that chair, keeping his mind and eyes busy in a book, when the camera zooms in and he begins to scream under the full moon. Are any of us ever prepared to endure the next two minutes as he contorts, mutates and shifts from one physical form to the other? It is one of the single most powerful moments in the history of the genre, ranking up there with the demon’s projectile vomiting in “The Exorcist” and the fatal shower scene of “Psycho.”
Also like many of the greatest of horror films, Landis’ pitch is enhanced by how well he foreshadows the climactic reveals. The movie opens passively enough, as two backpackers – David Kessler (Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Dunne) – come to the first signs of civilization on a meandering journey through England, having arrived there after an afternoon of hitchhiking. Their destination is inconsequential as their dialogue revolves around affairs back home, and soon they have stumbled upon The Slaughtered Lamb, one of those shabby British pubs that contain all the familiar staples: an audience of downturned eyes, awkward silence, suspicious glances and short, succinct warnings. One of them notices a pentacle painted on the wall behind the bar, framed by two burning candles, and when Jack asks about its meaning, the others instantly go rigid: they have touched on the forbidden legend of the small rural village. It is one they will soon confront as they are chased out of the bar of strangers and into the menacing claws of nightfall.
The movie centers primarily on David in the weeks following his survival. Waking in a London hospital bed weeks after the ordeal with foggy recollections of that night, he is plagued by guilt following the revelations of Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), who reminds him that Jack perished because of his injuries. The locals claim it was a madman who attacked him, but David’s recollections – not to mention the scars on his chest – paint a different portrait. The kindly Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter) lingers bedside while he works through the trauma, but is mystified by behaviors that don’t seem as if they belong to an ordinary 20-something. He does not eat. He dreams that he is running through a forest in the nude, as if on the hunt for a kill. An image of him with yellow eyes and sharp teeth flashes on screen right after a shot of him devouring the meat off a dear carcass. Then, much to his amazement, his deceased friend appears as a mangled apparition in the hospital room, long enough to divulge the fate of his character should he not kill himself before the next full moon. It goes to emphasize Landis’ wry humor that Jack’s talking corpse gets progressively more grotesque as the movie continues, until all that is left in his final encounter with David is a skeletal face awkwardly chattering away in the back row of a movie theater.
During his initial recovery, David finds comfort in the company of the beautiful nurse. She takes a liking to him as well, surmising that all his quirks and wild claims are simply the act of a man who can’t come right out and indicate his attraction. She takes the reins without much hesitation: when he is discharged from the hospital and it is clear he has nowhere to go, she offers him a temporary stay in her flat nearby. That is not something Dr. Hirsch approves of, but moreso since he starts to suspect validity to the wild claims of an animal attack. Later, when he sets off to investigate the matter in the same pub where it all began, he finds most of the patrons to be rigid and well-guarded on the matter. “It was just an escaped lunatic!” one of them announces in a dismissive tone. The doctor is given no time to contemplate the matter; outside, an uneasy dart player from the bar takes him aside to reveal the local legend of the werewolf, which has now attached itself to the American man loose on the streets in London.
If David Kessler was totally dismissive of his plight or careless with the curse itself, that would be one thing. If he does not pay much heed to the matter during the early warnings, it’s because he can’t be sure if the information is legitimate, or if it’s just his traumatized mind manufacturing a far-fetched fantasy. When the first transformation happens, in fact, he doesn’t even remember it happening on the following morning – this despite him waking up nude in a zoo cage of wolves, with no recollection of how he got there. Nurse Price doesn’t believe it at first either, even though she leaves him home during a shift at the hospital and returns in the dead of night to discover he is nowhere to be found. Hirsch is also apprehensive, even after being offered the explanation in the country, until the news reports of half a dozen shredded human bodies from the night before begin to dominate the conversation. By the time all the realizations come to a head in the minds of the key parties, the movie has written itself into a corner that most directors would find too frustrating or challenging to pull off. But Landis, a pro on the matter of his narrative intersections, crafts an exciting third act that allows all those threads to come together plausibly, in a showdown on the streets of London that is as exciting as it is skillful and concise.
Although the movie is over 40 years old, somehow it still pulsates with resilient life on screen. That’s because Landis, his makeup artists, his visual effects wizards and his actors are so strikingly ferocious in their delivery. They don’t exaggerate the obvious absurdity of the idea, instead choosing to glimpse it through eyes that are deadpan and sincere. They don’t stuff the plot full of self-awareness or convoluted explanations. What they care about is the visceral experience. To them, it matters not that poor David is so oblivious of his mistakes. Perhaps there would be no story here if he chose to seriously heed Jack’s ghostly warnings. But because he feels so much more likable and accessible compared to so many other horror film anti-heroes, he is much more than just a walking dichotomy. When the wild and untamed werewolf is cornered in a dark alley after a night of insatiable bloodlust in the film’s final moments, some part of us still wants to hold back – as if to hope the man beneath the transformation still can see enough reason to be salvaged from the evil curse on his body.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Horror/Comedy (US/UK); 1981; Rated R; Running Time: 97 Minutes
David Naughton: David Kessler
Jenny Agutter: Nurse Alex Price
Griffin Dunne: Jack Goodman
John Woodvine: Dr. Hirsch
Fran Oz: Mr. Collins
Produced by George Folsey Jr., Peter Guber and Jon Peters; Directed and written by John Landis