The Test of Time: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

Director: John Landis
Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne

Sunday night will bring the most self-indulgent celebration known to man…the Oscars! Yes, a place where very famous, very rich people gather at a very fancy joint, wear clothing no normal person can afford, exchange gold statues, and televise it all for the world to see. All right!

Of course, most genre movies end up overlooked for gold (please, please give all statues to MAD MAX), but that doesn’t mean horror has always gone home empty-handed. In horror, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS remains the golden genre child, the only horror film to win best picture and best actor among others. But other films have won, too. Some even deserved it. Case in point: the movie that not only brought monsters back, but made Rick Baker the king of effects makeup. But does this 1981 John Landis flick stand up against the Test of Time?  

Under the examination: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

Nothing a band-aid can't fix. 

THE STORY: Two American students decide to spend a little time overseas in Great Britain: do some walking, see some old stuff, visit a museum or two and encounter a werewolf. Wait, what? Yeah, that’s what happens to David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne). After visiting a local pub called the Slaughtered Lamb in a small town in Northern England, they get the cold shoulder and quickly leave. A bad decision as Jack gets mauled to death by something in the dark while David survives the attack. However, David now finds himself as a werewolf and Jack keeps revisiting David from beyond the grave. At the same time, David falls for his pretty nurse (Jenny Agutter). Can he keep his animal instincts in check before he eats all of England?  

Their puffy jackets lead them to trouble.

WHAT STILL HOLDS UP: There’s a lot that helps keep AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON a classic. Obviously, I’ll talk about Baker and his effects, but first, writer/director John Landis truly nails this flick, which if viewing it in 1981 context, I’m sure a lot of folks doubted him. After all, the guy was known for ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS…both silly, goofy comedies.

With AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, Landis managed to find a new angle for a tired old story. Some of the werewolf legend remains, but making the main characters college kids on vacation was a good touch, as was making Jack's ghost a recurring character. That really stands out different and adds a whole new level of morbid entertainment. Landis also managed to play things straight, mixing in humor exactly when it needed it. He finds the perfect balance of fear and humor. There’s plenty of funny here, but I never found it forced or out of place. In particular, David and Jack’s banter is authentic, not just filled with cheap jokes. Even when Jack reappears as a corpse, their relationship is still genuine. Oh sure, cheap gags do exist (like a naked David borrowing those balloons from a kid in the zoo), but damn it works just dandy.

Look at those paws!

As for the special effects, Rick Baker deserved that damn Oscar (by the way, the Best Makeup award did not exist before 1981). In a pre-CGI world, what he was able to accomplish is pretty mind-blowing. Nothing here looks dated, and Baker spun the clichéd transformation scene into something newly unique and authentically painful. When it needs to be, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is brutal and bloody. Thank God Landis allowed Baker to go full gore, not holding back for a “comedy.”

 And their collaboration almost didn’t happen as Landis nearly lost Baker (and his designs) to revival picture THE HOWLING (Baker waited eight years for Landis to find funding), but Baker bailed mid-production to join this movie. As much as I dig Landis’s script and directing choices here, without Baker this would have been less effective, perhaps playing more as comedy than horror.  

What is he supposed to be?

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Honestly, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON works. It’s not a perfect movie, but it doesn’t attempt to be. The blend of horror/comedy fails more times than succeeds, and this is one of the premiere examples of finding that perfect balance between the two. (Actually, the double wake-up nightmare sequence with the Nazi monsters is pretty goofy. Thankfully, it's short).  

THE VERDICT: It took John Landis over eight years to propel AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON into production, and it was worth the wait. While Landis’ career remains in the past (he hasn’t had a solid hit since COMING TO AMERICA in 1988…wow; unless you count BEVERLY HILLS COP III or BLUES BROTHERS 2000), it’s fitting that Rick Baker’s career remains quite strong, and this movie still f*cking rocks.  



Now that's a great behind the scenes picture.



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