Movie of the Day: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

03 Sep


I find myself pulled back and forth in my feelings about “An American Werewolf in London.” Here is a movie put together with brilliant technical craftsmanship, with special effects and make-up that deserve to be applauded. Yet, they serve a story that feels unfocused and even unfinished. It’s hard to know where to stand with this movie because there isn’t much to stand on.

The story is not the most original in the world. Two American college guys David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking through England and stop off at a remote pub one moonlit night to have a drink – they both order tea. The locals don’t like the looks of these two yanks, and when one says the wrong word we get the standard horror movie scene in which the entire place comes to a halt while the grizzliest of the patrons warns them to stay off the moors because a werewolf lurks in the darkness.

The boys poo-poo this nonsense and veer off the road anyway. Jack is killed by a wolf and David ends up in the hospital under the care of the voluptuous Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). He starts having nightmares involving killer zombies. His dreams are so vivid that at one point he has a dream within another dream. Jack’s bloody and mangled corpse returns to inform David that he has the werewolf curse, which he is slow to believe, and that he must kill himself in order to break it.

That’s pretty much the entire story. From there it is a straight line right down to the attacks by full-moon and repeated scenes of David waking up naked with no memory of where he’s been. There is some comic ingenuity in place involving covering of David’s naughty bits to keep the movie’s R-rating intact. Some of the comic bits work. There’s a funny running gag involving Jack who keeps turning up to remind David to kill himself. His face is more and more gelatinous and rotten every time we see it.

Then there’s the movie’s golden moment, a transformation scene, which is really the only scene in the movie that is worth your time. It is done right there in full light with hands that stretch into paws, a nose the stretches into a snout and fur that materializes out of nowhere. The real star of this movie is make-up artist Rick Baker who gives the movie everything that the script doesn’t.

Director John Landis who has made some brilliant comedies like “Animal House” and “Trading Places” turns in a script here that introduces meaningless characters, half-written scenes and ideas that cut short just as they seem about to get interesting. He stages elaborate special effects sequences, like an attack by killer zombies that leads nowhere and has no real purpose. Okay, they’re in a dream sequence but when you consider the work that went into that attack scene, you wonder why Landis wasted it all on a silly dream. Then there’s the ending, which seemed so sudden and so arbitrary that, for a second, I actually thought there was something wrong with my DVD. I thought something had been accidentally edited out.


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