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John’s Old School Horror Corner: An American Werewolf in London (1981), the greatest werewolf movie of all time!

May 10, 2013

MY CALL:  Well, if you’re in the market for a great werewolf movie that has a sense of humor, then see An American Werewolf in London (1981)–hands down the best werewolf movie ever made!  [A+IF YOU LIKE THIS THEN WATCH:  Second best might be The Howling (1981), which takes itself quite seriously.  Another fun one is Cursed (2005), which is loaded with clichés and honors many past horror flicks.   Ginger Snaps (2000) is a metaphor for puberty, Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004) is a worthy sequel that takes a strange turn, and An American Werewolf in Paris (1997) serves as a coming of manhood from college man-childhood–but it’s more of a positive journey.  If you want another utterly ridiculous werewolf movie, then move on to Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985) and Howling 3: The Marsupials (1987).  But skip Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988), Howling V: The Rebirth (1989), Howling VI: The Freaks (1991) and The Howling: Reborn (2011).

Steering clear of formulaic horror movie plot clichés, An American Werewolf in London avoids immature promiscuous summer campers and delinquent drug-using twenty-somethings with loose morals as we are introduced to our protagonists David (David Naughton; Ice Cream Man, Big Bad Wolf) and Jack (Griffin Dunne; 40 Days and 40 Nights).  Yes, they’re twenty-somethings.  And yes, they have their quippy repartees.  But their immaturity is no more than an otherwise responsible pair of men enjoying a night of manhood away from the wife and kids.  They’re actually somewhat mature when things aren’t crazy.

Oh, yes!  Let’s stop there for a drink. That’s a great idea!

They unintentionally make their way to The Slaughtered Lamb Pub, a northern Englishman’s locals-only sort of place adorned with a pentacle on the wall.  They are a backwoodsy, superstitious and secretive lot.  More fearful of the locals than anything they could encounter among the full moon, dreary weather and local fauna, they flee into the wilderness to be met with some sort of animal attack.  David in injured by this “animal.”

During his recovery David dreams about some in-the-buff jaunts in the forest followed by some very disturbing visions of evil “werewolf soldiers.”  As clearly indicated by the movie’s title, this recovery occurs in London, he occasionally turns into a werewolf and people get eaten.  David’s lovely nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter; Logan’s Run, Child’s Play 2) takes a shining to him and invites him to stay with her.

While David lives with the curse of lycanthropy, his victims are also cursed.  These now undead victims appear before David, flayed and gory, and serve as an “everything you ever wanted to know about werewolves, full moons and lycanthropy” guide.  As we see David’s undead victims throughout the film their level of decomposition advances and you can’t help but to smile when they point that out.  Great make-up, by the way!    Sprinkling more comedic charm on this gory horror are the sharp-tongued jokes and off color behavior of David’s haunters.

The transformation scenes are really something.  We see his hands slowly elongate and HEAR his bones  and tendons stretching, giving root to the maddening pain he seems to be going through–shit, I almost FELT it myself.  So then, when his vertebrae elevate, his shoulder blades protrude and his skull begins to elongate you predict more pain as if you were watching someone brace themselves before resetting your dislocated shoulder.  His nudity during this scene properly conveys his vulnerability and you genuinely feel sympathy for all of his suffering.  All the while, some ironically pleasant music is playing in the background on Alex’s record player in her kitschy living room.

Fully transformed, he looks like a wolf after an “evil” HGH binge on chest and arms day.  But not so much like a wolf-man.  This is a nice change of pace even when compared to today’s werewolves in which our shapeshifters become regular-sized normal looking wolves (e.g., Hemlock Grove), giant normal looking wolves (e.g., the Twilight Saga, Red Riding Hood), wolves from a twisted R-rated Alice in Wonderland (e.g., Ginger Snaps), classic wolfmen (e.g., The Wolfman, Wolf, Teen Wolf), the wolfman on steroids (e.g., Van Helsing, Cursed) or the reversed man-wolf (e.g., the Underworld series, Being Human, An American Werewolf in Paris).

Writer/director John Landis is epic in comedy–having brought us Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1979), Trading Places (1983) and Coming to America (1986) to name a few–and he’s even had other successful forays in a least semi-humorous or satirical horror (e.g., The Twilight Zone movie, Innocent Blood), but I find it stunning that he was responsible for the greatest werewolf movie of all time!  And this is hardly just my opinion.  While some favor The Howling (1981) or Ginger Snaps (2000), online lists tend to include London in the top five or six (if not #1) more than any other.

The Undying Monster (1942)

The story is good, but clearly not without some forgivable issues.  What made this movie truly great was Landis’ ability to be brilliantly funny at times, while keeping a straight, serious, even brutal tone during the violent, rending scenes, the wincing transformation and the final scene with nurse Alex and David such that I wouldn’t dare call this a straight up horror-comedy or a satire; simply a great, very serious werewolf movie that also happens to be often funny when things aren’t dire.

It doesn’t matter how old you are.  The effects truly hold up and stand the test of time so don’t worry that the lack of CGI will make it uncool.  Just see it!!!

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