An American Werewolf in London [DVD]
Screenplay : John Landis
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1981
Stars : David Naughton (David Kessler), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), Don McKillop (Inspector Villiers), Paul Kember (Sergeant McManus), John Woodvine (Dr. Hirsch)
In the opening credits sequence of An American Werewolf in London, writer/director John Landis makes it clear that this is not going to be your typical werewolf movie. As the plain credits unspool over shots of the Yorkshire moors at dusk, the soundtrack fills with the gentle rhythms of Bobby Vinton crooning "Blue Moon." It's a disarming opening sequence in a disarming horror movie, and it's key to what Landis is up to: He wants to keep you completely off-balance so you never know what to expect.
This is why no one can agree on what An American Werewolf in London is. Is it a comedy or a horror movie? After all, it is very funny, and when he directed it, Landis was known exclusively as a comedy director, having had several comedic hits in a row with The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), and The Blues Brothers (1980). But, at the same time, it is a grisly, gory horror movie complete with clever "boo" moments, a creepy soundtrack, spectacular werewolf metamorphosis effects, and graphic blood and guts. This is, of course, not entirely new, as those dealing in horror have known for ages that the use of comedy from time to time as a tension reliever works very well in priming the audience for the next scare. Yet, few movies had mixed comedy and horror with such utter aplomb as An American Werewolf.
Although it turned out to be a smash hit, this casual oscillation between the humorous and the horrific caused some critics and audience members to miss the boat, including Roger Ebert, who wrote, "Landis never seems very sure whether he's making a comedy or a horror film." Actually, it was the other way around: Landis was absolutely sure of what he was making—a funny horror movie—and the uncertainty was in Ebert the viewer, who was not prepared for a movie that was both at the same time in such a flamboyant manner.
The movie is, ultimately, both a loving homage to the old Universal horror flicks, most notably the four films featuring The Wolf Man, and a gentle spoof of them. Updated with the best in special effects that, even 20 years later, retain their full effectiveness and a wicked sense of humor, An American Werewolf in London is a unique horror-comedy hybrid that paved the way for others who realized that the scary and the funny can exist side-by-side without undermining the other's impact.
The story takes place entirely in England where two American students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are backpacking. Stranded in the middle of the moors after dark and having received several warnings from stern locals to "stick to the road," David and Jack are attacked by a giant wolf. Jack is killed and David is maimed, waking up three weeks later in a London hospital. The doctor (John Woodvine) tells him that the police have closed the case, says that it was an escaped lunatic who attacked them. But, David is insistent that it was an animal. The only person who seems to listen to him is a pretty nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter), who doesn't necessarily believe him, but is willing to comfort him.
David begins to believe he is losing his mind as his nights are tormented with strange nightmares that become increasingly bizarre. At one point, he dreams that he is naked in the forest hunting deer like an animal, and in another dream that can only be described as Bunuelean, he dreams that his entire family is massacred by Nazi zombies with machine guns. And, if that weren't bad enough, Jack suddenly reappears, still bearing the gashes across his face and the torn-out throat inflicted by the wolf, and tells David that he was attacked by a werewolf and that, at the next full moon, he will become one, as well. "Has it occurred to you that it might be unsettling for me to see you rise from the grave to come visit me?" David says in one the movie's many humorously deadpan responses to the fantastical.
An American Werewolf in London was a groundbreaking movie in more ways than one. Not only did it establish the tenor and tone of the horror-comedy hybrid, it was immediately recognized as a quantum leap forward in the art of make-up special effects, so much so that Rick Baker, best known at the time for his work on Star Wars (1977), was awarded the first-ever Academy Award for best make-up. One of the central ideas Landis had in writing An American Werewolf was a realistic on-screen depiction of the transformation from man to wolf. Not satisfied with the use of lap dissolves that had previously suggested metamorphosis, Landis encouraged Baker to go for broke, which is exactly what he did.
The sequence in which David first changes into a wolf is still remarkable. Baker's make-up effects show with never-before-seen verisimilitude what it must look like for a man to turn into a wolf, from the elongation of his hands and feet into paws, to the sudden growth of hair, to the arching of his back, to the expansion of his skull and face from flat human proportions into a long, canine snout. Even modern CGI effects would have a hard time topping the realism that Baker achieved here, and it is made all the more effective by Landis' smart direction that never lingers too long on the effect—just enough to shock you, but not so much that it becomes redundant. Plus, he has the nerve to score the whole sequence ironically with yet another version of "Blue Moon" in the background.
Landis isn't content to stop there, and he continually pushes the envelope, in both horror and humor. Jack reappears two more times in the movie, each time further decomposed until, at the end, he is little more than a talking skull. Jack tries to convince David to kill himself so that Jack can rest in peace (because he died an "unnatural" death at the claws of a werewolf, he is doomed to walk the earth as the living dead until the werewolf's bloodline is severed). One of the movie funniest and most surreal moments finds David in a porn theater, sitting next to Jack the talking skull and surrounded by the bloody living-dead reincarnations of the six people he had killed the night before as a werewolf, a few of whom absurdly maintain their oh-so-British politeness.
The movie climaxes in the infamous scene in which David the werewolf rampages through the internationally known Piccadilly Circus in London, causing utter mayhem. Yet, what is even more amazing is that Landis still manages to convey the essentially tragic nature of the werewolf at the end of the movie. Despite all the blood and laughs that have gone before it, we ultimately feel sorry for David in his predicament, something you might not have expected. Landis' output since the 1980s has been sparse and generally mediocre, but An American Werewolf in London still stands as a grand and influential achievement.
|An American Werewolf in London Collector's Edition DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
DTS 5.1 Surround
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne|
"Making An American Werewolf in London" 1981 featurette
Interview with writer/director John Landis
Interview with make-up effects artist Rick Baker
"Casting of the Hand" archive footage
Cast and filmmaker biographies
|An American Werewolf in London was released in 1998 by Live in a nonanamorphic widescreen transfer. For this new "Collector's Edition" version, Universal has gone back and created a new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer that is, unfortunately, somewhat hit and miss. While the daylight scenes are sharp and clear, the nighttime scenes, especially those in the beginning of the movie, are surprisingly muddy and grainy. The image is a little too soft, which cuts down on the detail and clarity. Color saturation appears to be good throughout, although some fading is evident in particular sequences.|
|Universal has remixed the original monaural soundtrack into both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 surround mixes that, considering the limited source material, are fantastic. Elmer Bernstein's score is given depth and resonance, and the sound effects are efficiently deployed in the surround speakers to create an atmospheric aural environment. This is especially true of the stalking sequence on the Yorkshire moors, in which the guttural growling of the off-screen werewolf is heard from several different speakers at different moments, giving the palpable impression that it is "circling" the hapless soon-to-be victims. This is about as good as it gets when remixing mono into multi-channel surround.|
| Actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne contribute an enjoyably amusing, if somewhat spotty screen-specific audio commentary in which they joke and reminisce about the movie's production. They come up with some interesting trivia, such as the fact that the attack sequence at the beginning of the movie was filmed on a lot behind the Queen's castle, but they come up short in explaining why John Landis includes "See You Next Wednesday" in all of his movies. Naughton and Dunne have an easy-going rapport and it's obvious they enjoyed making the movie, but the commentary lacks any real insight that might have been included had some of the filmmakers been involved. |
Perhaps to make up for their being absent from the commentary, the movie's true auteurs, writer/director John Landis and make-up special effects wizard Rick Baker each appear in an interview segment. Landis' interview runs about 18 minutes in length, and he talks about the long road it took to get the movie made (he wrote it in 1969 when he was only 19 years old) and what he was trying to accomplish (he starts off the interview by emphatically denying that it's a comedy). Baker's interview is a great retrospective of his truly innovative special effects work, and it includes some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of his work that will please FX aficionados.
"The Making of An American Werewolf in London," the included making-of featurette that runs about five minutes in length, is actually a promotional piece from 1981. It's obviously meant to be pure advertising, but it does include some nice footage of the production, as well as interviews with Landis. It is a bit unnerving, though, to see Landis discussing the Piccadilly Circus sequence and smiling as he declares that no stunt is worth hurting someone for, considering that a scant year later actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children would die in a helicopter accident during the filming of Landis' segment from The Twilight Zone: The Movie.
Other supplements include four minutes of outtakes that have no soundtrack, but include some good alternate footage of the werewolf, as well as Landis joking around in front of the camera in a bit of "mystery footage" that simply has to be seen. A 13-minute bit of archival footage called "Casting of the Hand" shows how much work was involved for Baker to make a simply plaster cast of Naughton's hand and forearm for the transformation sequence. A brief film-to-storyboard comparison shows the initial conception of the Piccadilly Circus sequence compared to the finished scene in the movie, and a photograph montage numerous publicity shots. The disc also contains the standard production notes and cast and crew filmographies, as well as the entire screenplay available on DVD-ROM.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick