“I was going to bite you very badly.”
Most of the time, when I’m writing a review like this, it is either for a movie that is newly released or one that hasn’t been as widely seen, discussed, written, and talked about as An American Werewolf in London.
But so much has been made and written about An American Werewolf that any further discussion—especially discussion as necessarily cursory and superficial as I would have room and remit for here—seems beside the point.
Nor do I have anything to add to the discourse that is particularly new. Indeed, so much has been written about John Landis’ horror comedy classic that there may, in fact, be no facet of it that remains unexplored.
More extensive essays than this one have already been written about the ways in which the film jams together hoary Hammer horror staples with Animal House-style comedy and then-modern-day London—a combo that is, perhaps, nowhere more apparent than in the famous subway stalking scene, where the walls are plastered with advertisements. Or the film’s penultimate sequence inside a porno theatre in Piccadilly Circus.
Much has already been made of the film’s Oscar-winning special effects by Rick Baker—it won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup—and its body horror aspects, not to mention the subtext of everything from the conflict between physical and psychological maladies to the infamous Nazi werewolf dream sequence.
Someone has already pointed out, at great length, the symbolism inherent in the name of the anachronistic English pub—The Slaughtered Lamb—and the fact that our protagonists are introduced in the back of a sheep truck.
Even the film’s brilliantly incongruous soundtrack, which features nothing but songs with “moon” in the title, has been dissected at length, though it probably bears repeating that there have been few bolder and more successful needle-drops in film history than the one-two punch of setting scenes of David hanging around his new girlfriend’s flat to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” while the agonizing transformation sequence that follows is set to one of the film’s three different versions of the ballad “Blue Moon.”
Any of these subjects—and many more—have been explored with scholarly depth, insight, and wit, sometimes within the extensive booklet that accompanies the Arrow Video Blu-ray. So, what more is there to say about An American Werewolf in London, after all?
Released in 1981, it, along with Joe Dante’s The Howling, helped to change the face (literally), not only of werewolf movies but of horror films in general. More than a decade before Scream, these were horror flicks that were self-aware, self-referential, and not too self-serious—generating sucker-punches of heart and pathos by couching them in humor.
“When you know the supernatural does not exist,” Landis once said of the film’s themes, “how do you deal with it when it’s standing in front of you?”
In An American Werewolf in London, everyone has not only seen a werewolf movie before, they often know them back-to-front. When David is theorizing about his condition with Nurse Price, he rattles off the actors who played each of the main characters in Universal’s 1941 version of The Wolf Man from memory.
“Bela Lugosi bites Lon Chaney Jr.,” he says, then explains that Claude Rains plays Lon Chaney’s father, who ultimately kills him. “I think a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him,” he continues, foreshadowing the film’s tragic climax.
Partly, this is Landis displaying his own monster kid affection, but it’s also a way of showing how media depictions shape our ideas about the world we live in, and how we react to it—and a way for the film to both distance itself from its creaky forebears and embrace them at the same time.
This self-awareness enables An American Werewolf to both incorporate the Gothic staples of the werewolf story and play fast-and-loose with them. In perhaps the film’s most ingenious contribution to cinematic werewolf lore, the victims of the werewolf haunt the earth as the undead until the werewolf’s curse is ended.
Taking the form of David’s slain friend Jack—played by a continuously-decaying Griffin Dunne and, eventually, by an elaborate special effects puppet—this helps the film’s monster function as both actual creature and metaphor for mental illness.
The fact that Jack is constantly encouraging David to take his own life—for the greater good—sounds an awful lot like suicidal ideation. As an added bonus, Jack provides comic relief and a vehicle for exposition in a brilliantly simple bit of deus ex machina screenwriting.
The career of John Landis is a fraught one—it’s difficult to talk about him without bringing up the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors during the 1982 filming of the Twilight Zone movie, among other things. But it’s also hard to deny that he produced at least a few genuinely classic films in his day, whether he should have been or not.
You’ve probably already seen An American Werewolf in London, and you’ve probably already made up your mind about it—and about Landis—long before you started reading this, let alone by the time that you got to the end. I’m not here to try to change your mind, one way or the other.
I’m just here to tell you that, if you’re a fan of the film, Arrow’s features-laden Blu-ray is a beautiful restoration of a landmark genre picture. And if, by some chance, you actually haven’t seen it by now, it’s as good a way to do so as any. Just keep off the moors…
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.