An American Werewolf in London
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Here we have a bit of an oddity, a film produced by John Landis who, at the time, was best known for his comedies (The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers among them). But despite what his name might lead you to believe, this film really isn't a comedy at all. Hell, while Wikipedia even lists it as a horror-comedy, I'd have to argue that point. While there are a few brief moments of comedy, beats to help spike the horror when it arrives, this isn't a comedy at all. Yes, Comedy Central might have run it regularly back in the day, but they ran a lot of stuff if they could get it cheap.
As a horror film, though, An American Werewolf in London actually finds some pretty creative paths to follow. It starts out as a pretty paint-by-numbers werewolf film, one of any number that pay homage to the universal classic The Wolf Man, but once the film really gets going, focusing on its titular character, it strikes a different tone than werewolf films that have come before, crafting a very different, and much more interesting lycanthrope movie than its pedigree (no pun intended) might lead you to believe. It's not the comedy film you might expect, but it ends up something much better for it.
In the film we're introduced to David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), two college friends backpacking across Europe while on break. They start their trip out in the highlands of Scotland (for some reason) intended to eventually make it down to Italy to meet up with some friends and finish out their trip in style. Unfortunately there's a danger on the Scottish moors, a fact David and Jack only become aware of when they're attacked by a monster in the middle of the night. Jack is killed, David is wounded, and his unconscious body is taken to London for treatment.
As I'm sure you can already tell from the title of the film, David and Jack were attacked by a werewolf, and Jack ended up the lucky one because, now that he's been savaged by the wolf, David is cursed to become one as well in the light of the full moon. Although he meets a pretty nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), he also had the threat of the wolf hanging over his head, a point that's made explicit not only by the nightmares he starts having (or werewolves and the hunt) but also because his dead friend, Jack, follows him around, a ghost destined to walk the world forever until the line of the werewolf's curse comes to an end. That means for Jack (and anyone David kills as a wolf) to move on, David has to die. Although he resists, the full moon does arrive and David begins to change. Can he find a cure for the curse of the werewolf, or is David destined to die?
The basics of An American Werewolf in London don't tread that far from the original The Wolf Man. Although there aren't any gypsies, and there's no one reciting a poem about "wolfs bane and the light of the moon", David does go on a similar journey to Universal's Larry Talbot. He gets attacked by a werewolf, and then undergoes changes, only to realize that the only way to protect the lady he loves, along with the rest of humanity, he has to die. It's a bit bleak and tragic, very sad even though its understandable.
That's one thing this movie gets right, casting David as a tragic figure. He's likable enough when we meet him, played with affable charm by Kessler, so when he finally realizes his fate and knows what has to be done, you really feel for him. It helps that he has genuine chemistry with Agutter's Nurse Price such that you really want the two of them to be able to get together despite the fact that he turns into a wolf a couple of times around the moon and kills people. Love is supposed to conquer all, right? Sadly, not this time around.
One leg this film has up on its sequel is that it doesn't come up with some kind of easy, cop-out ending. There's no easy curse for the curse of the wolf here (unlike in the sequel), so David either has to kill himself or live with the consequences of his actions. While you might thing, "he can just lock himself somewhere and keep the wolf trapped during the time of the full moon," he doesn't have just himself (or Alex) to think about -- all the ghosts of people the wolf has killed, starting with Jack, will haunt him until he dies, living in an uneasy, and rotting, undead for years maybe.
That's where the big twist to the material really pays off. By having the victims linger, slowly rotting and deteriorating, it leads to the fact that there's no easy solution for any of this. David could be happy, but his friend would linger, painfully, forever. But if he dies he gives up a solid chance at happiness. This isn't an angle I've ever seen in another werewolf film -- most of them are either all about a cure or just about getting rid of the beast -- and it really puts a nice spin on the proceedings, a fresh take on the whole idea of werewolves.
Plus, lets talk about the werewolf effects for a bit. We've already seen plenty of goofy lycanthropes in films we've reviewed on this site, but this is the first to really have truly convincing werewolf effects. The first time David changes is an absolute stunner, with practical effects used across the board to slowly show David's transformation from man to beast. It's the single most convincing werewolf transformation I've ever seen, made all the better by a complete lack of CGI. I doubt you could get one that looked this good in this day and age simple because no one would want to pay for the practical effects to make this work. That's part of what makes this so special: it buys in and really makes the werewolf effects pay off.
Still, not everything in the film works quite right. There's a whole subplot with David doctor, Hirsch (John Woodvine), taking a trip to the original location where David was attacked to try and learn what happened. You expect this to have some bearing on the story, for his plot to end up meaning something in the grand scheme, but Hirsch really doesn't add much information we didn't already know. He's padding and it drags the pacing of the film down. And, really, anything outside of David (with Jack, or Alex, or as a werewolf) doesn't work at all well. He's the focal point of the film, but close to half the movie is focused on Hirsch and other characters, and no one is as engaging for the story as David The pacing it off and you really just want them to spend more time on our hero as he tries to figure out what to do.
On the whole An American Werewolf in London is a decent film that gets really good in its back half. Once the werewolf is revealed inside David the pacing picks up and the movie starts flying. But it takes a while to get there, and the front half of the film really drags everything down. That said, if all you want are stunning werewolf effects and a properly tragic ending, you get all that in spades with An American Werewolf in London, and maybe that's good enough considering so few werewolf films even manage to nail that.