My wife advised me that I shouldn’t write a whole review around something just because I thought I’d come up with an amusing title. No doubt she’s right but it isn’t the first time I’ve ignored her wise counsel so here’s hoping that this is one of those occasions where the consequences are not so great.
The thing is that I wrote a review of Jaws a few weeks ago where I made reference to our current situation in the name and content of the piece and the readership shot right up with the post getting about ten times as many views as I normally enjoy. It may just have been interest in that classic movie of course, but you forgive me for trying the same angle again.
An American Werewolf in London is certainly another much loved movie from a similar period but the comparisons to what is going on in the world at the moment are not as strong. With its public fear of an unseen and underestimated danger and its politicians mismanaging the situation, Jaws is the perfect film to watch right now. Still, An American Werewolf in London also has an unknown threat that many are in denial about and it certainly presents a clear warning about the risks of heading into the great outdoors and then bringing a contamination into a densely populated area.
Nonetheless, the question is probably more about whether this film works in the 2020s rather than in 2020. Is this one of those cherished movies that people remember fondly but that doesn’t stand up to a contemporary audience or is it still a great motion picture?
It is undeniable that there are some aspects of An American Werewolf in London that definitely place it in a particular time and place. I’ll list them and then we’ll move on.
- As innocently as it may have been meant there is no way that a guy would say that he has to make love to a woman and that she has no choice about it in any film coming out now. That’s not funny anymore and it only just works in context here.
- The idea that a nurse in any hospital would have the time to sit with a patient just because they would rather not be alone is possibly the most unbelievable thing in this film about supernatural curses and legendary monsters. Sure, it doesn’t look like a NHS hospital but all the same.
- Also, the whole thing about that same nurse flirting with her patient before taking him back to her place once he is discharged and having sex with him is beyond unprofessional now. They seem to be addressing this at one stage, when she gets called into her superiors office, but they move past it in the blink of an eye.
- The demon goblin Nazis that turn up in one of the nightmare dream sequences feels like a very early 80s idea and they are wearing very early 80s masks. (More on the special effects later.)
- You can’t get cigarettes from Tube station vending machines anymore and you can’t by a newspaper for 20p.
- David, the troubled Yank of the title, comes out with some very funny insults for British people when he is trying to get arrested by a London cop. You can’t say faggot anymore though unless they are talking about meatballs. Just ask The Pogues. It is sweet though that having suggested Prince Charles is gay, something that still stood as an insult then but doesn’t in any reasonable quarters now, they then congratulate him and his new wife Diana Spencer on their recent nuptials at the end of the credits. Random but sweet.
- Lastly, there are no red phone boxes, old school neon signs or porn cinemas in Piccadilly Circus anymore. Two of these things are a real loss.
Outside of these, admittedly in some cases fairly significant, things An American Werewolf in London really holds up. For a start it discovered the narrative joys of placing a single US citizens in a very English setting way before Richard Curtis did. It may not be as scary as it once was but the opening moments of David and his buddy Jack being hunted on the Moors are properly chilling and some of the other moments where you know the beast is there but you can’t see it (just like in the best bits of Jaws) are effectively creepy too.
Of course as everyone knows, the highlight of An American Werewolf in London is when you get a really good detailed look at the American werewolf. It is absolutely true that the werewolf transformation scene in this film from 1981 has never been bettered, even in this age of easy CGI. It’s almost as though other film makers know that this film is so revered for it that to attempt to improve on it would be disrespectful. The comparable moment from the 2010 Benicio Del Toro Wolfman movie had its moments but it’s over too quickly (although not as quick as Van Helsing’s). The change at the start of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video comes close, as you would expect since they got John Landis, director of this film back to oversee it. In the end Jacko looks a little too Teenwolf though. Then there is The Howling, which people often talk about, from earlier in the same year as this but that is just rubbish. They had better VFX in The Munsters.
Irrelevant of what people have done since though, what is amazing about the visual effects in that scene from this film made four decades ago is that they still look flawless. This was the same year as Clash of the Titans, Evil Dead and Scanners and none of them hold up in the same way. I guess the elongating hands/paws look a bit plasticine but that muzzle extending is astonishing.
Interestingly this moment; the point at which the main monster turns up for the first time, is an hour into a 97 minute movie. All the stuff that comes after this is fun, including lots of cars crashing into each other which is clearly something Landis didn’t get out of his system a year previously with The Blues Brothers. It is almost literally only a third of the movie though and around this is a delightful comedy of manners that is as funny now as it ever was. There’s the quirky detectives with strains of Clouseau, the scowling locals that could have come from the pages of Bill Bryson and The Muppets. (This horror film actually features Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy with the latter providing a duel role for Frank Oz who also plays the guy from the US Embassy.) Eclipsing all of these, and arguably everything in the movie, is Griffin Dunne as Jack. His performance as a man who is risen from the grave yet totally down to earth is a perfect dark comedy turn.
The pop music choices throughout are a bit too on the nose but these do contribute to the humour and the juxtaposition of the final shot of the movie with The Marcels’ version of Blue Moon suddenly playing over the credits might just be genius.
Plenty of films have done the comedy horror thing since An American Werewolf in London, and while there are a few of them I may love more (Cabin in the Woods, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead) this one set the template and a very high bar.
So yes, dig it out and give it a go; An American Werewolf in London is a worthy distraction at a time when that could be needed. It is a good stay at home movie and will prove to be highly entertaining for anyone coming to it fresh, even now-oooooooow!