They might make them faster and slicker now, but “An American Werewolf in London” is still one hell of a monster movie. Anyone considering making a horror movie today should take a look at what John Landis does here. The three leads have personality – the kids in modern-day horror movies are deathly serious and dull – and the main man in a position of authority is actually willing to listen to what the protagonists have to say. As a bonus, Landis injects a fair dose of comedy to keep things lively.
Young Americans David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking through England, and in order to get out of the cold, they stumble upon the Slaughtered Lamb, the creepiest pub you’ve ever seen. (Don’t blink, or you’ll miss former Young One Rik Mayall playing chess.) When Jack innocently asks about the ominous pentagram on the wall, the patrons ask them to leave, but not before warning them to stay on the road and beware the moon. The two lose their way, and Jack is brutally murdered by a giant wolf. David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital, having suffered only minor injuries from the attack, and meets cute with a nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter). The official police report claims they were attacked by a deranged lunatic, and no one believes David’s claims that it was an animal. But David soon realizes that it’s far worse, as a very dead – and rapidly decomposing – Jack continues to visit David to inform him that he’s now a werewolf, and he must take his own life before there are any more victims.
You can bet that Sam Raimi watched this movie once or twice while hashing out the script for “Evil Dead,” as Landis executes a run-through-the-jungle shot that looks like the Evil Zoom at normal speed. Landis also has some fun with the dream sequences, and in one case stacks one inside another. What should be remembered when revisiting “An American Werewolf” is that Rick Baker’s makeup effects were like nothing anyone had ever seen or done before. Some of those shots have held up better than others (the first shot of undead Jack is still classic), and perhaps anticipating that, Landis is deliberately stingy with the goods, saving his budget for the finale in Piccadilly Square that recalls the car chase in “The Blues Brothers,” with gore.
The most refreshing thing about “An American Werewolf in London” is that it has a short, sweet story, and Landis takes his time telling it. He’s basically telling the audience, ‘The werewolf stuff can wait – get to know David first, people.’ And in doing so, we become invested in David and his budding relationship with Alex. Yes, Landis hits us over the head with one too many ‘moon’ songs on the soundtrack (“Blue Moon,” “Moondance,” “Bad Moon Rising,” etc.), but Elmer Bernstein’s score counters Landis’ lack of subtlety on the pop song front. By the time the credits roll, Landis has given us the goods, but more importantly, he’s given us a good story.(4 / 5)
This originally ran June 10, 2010 on Bullz-Eye.com.