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Laughing Until It Hurts: An American Werewolf in London at 40

May contain spoilers

Although the notion of a werewolf had been utilized for its cinematic potential as far back as the now-feared-lost silent film “The Werewolf” (1913) and reached the pinnacle of its popularity in the 1940s thanks to the success of the horror classic “The Wolf Man” (1941), it eventually waned in popularity as filmmakers and audiences turned to new sources of horror. By the 1970s, werewolves only cropped up in a handful of increasingly preposterous efforts, such as the bizarre Watergate satire “The Werewolf of Washington” (1973), the dull “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf” and the immortal “The Werewolf of Woodstock,” a 1975 TV movie with a title that pretty much tells you everything that you need to know about it. Quite frankly, the most notable appearance by a werewolf in a movie during this period of time was in “Young Frankenstein” (1974) and in that case, the beast only served as the punchline to a joke and was never actually seen.

And yet, as the calendar shifted to the 1980s, something else was evidently changing in the air. And for whatever reason, by the time 1981 came around, moviegoers were suddenly faced with a genuine plethora of werewolf-related product at the multiplex. There was “The Howling,” Joe Dante’s sensationally effective film that blended together smart social satire, countless arcane references, and in-jokes to other films and impressive transformation effects from makeup artist Rob Bottin. The late B-movie legend Larry Cohen offered up one of the quirkiest efforts of his career with “Full Moon High,” a surprisingly gentle comedy about a teenager who is bitten by a werewolf who, since he never ages, decides to enroll at his old high school 20 years later under the pretense that he is his own son. Speaking of “The Werewolf of Woodstock,” “Wolfen” saw “Woodstock” director Michael Wadleigh directing a thriller about a New York cop (Albert Finney) investigating a series of gruesome killings that turn out to have a supernatural basis.

Now even if you are a hardcore fan of lycanthropes, that's still a lot of werewolf-themed product coming out in a relatively short period of time and there was still one more to go in John Landis’ "An American Werewolf in London." As a result, when audiences sat down to see that film when it first premiered 40 years ago, many of them were no doubt feeling a certain amount of fatigue towards werewolves in general. Additionally, since it was coming on the heels of Landis’ enormously successful previous efforts, the raucous comedies “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) and “The Blues Brothers” (1980), many of those viewers may have just assumed that the film would take the same basic approach as “The Howling” and serve more as a knowing spoof of familiar genre conventions. 

Therefore, it must have come as a shock to discover that instead of the comedy with horrific elements they were expecting (even the ads played up the “Animal House” connection), they were instead faced with a film that, while containing some very funny moments, is a horror film through and through and an uncommonly effective one at that. Here was a movie that took a premise that may have seemed a bit hokey and approached it in a sincere, straightforward, and realistic (or as realistic as could be accomplished under the circumstances) manner that helped to provide a solid and relatable foundation for the oddball humor, eye-popping visual effects, and genuinely frightening set pieces that were also a part of the package. Those initial viewers may not have been expecting an instant classic when they sat down to watch it but that is what they got—a masterful negotiation of the horror and comedy genres that's as effective today as it was back in the day.

As it turns out, it was the film’s most notable aspect—its blend of horror and comedy—that kept it from  being produced for more than a decade since Landis first wrote the screenplay in 1969 at the age of 19 when he was in Yugoslavia working as a production assistant on the Clint Eastwood WWII epic “Kelly’s Heroes.” The story goes that while driving from the remote location, Landis and a Yugoslavian member of the crew came upon a Gypsy funeral ritual in which the body was lowered into the ground feet-first, supposedly because this would prevent the dead person from rising from the grave. This got him to thinking about what might happen if an ordinary and rational-minded person were suddenly confronted with something supernatural along the lines of the return of the undead. That incident inspired Landis to write the script and while he elected to keep the basic story as serious as possible, he injected quite a bit of humor as well, which makes sense because humor is one coping mechanism that people use to cope with something horrifying or profoundly unsettling.

Alas, this thinking was not shared by the studios and producers who read the script over the next several years. Of course, there had been any number of combinations of the two genres before, ranging from the likes of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) to some of the goofier Roger Corman efforts in the 1960s. In those cases, however, the films were essentially comedies at heart and it is easy to see how the blend is easier to achieve under those circumstances. After all, if something like that doesn’t work—a scare sequence that falls flat, some unconvincing special effects or an especially clunky piece of dialogue—its lack of effectiveness can always simply be written off as part of the joke. On the other hand, if you are trying to create a straight-up horror film and then add comedy into the mix, those jokes, even if they work, run the risk of undermining the tensions that are being developed—how can an audience be expected to take the scary stuff seriously if the film itself doesn’t seem to be able to itself?

In response to these rejections, Landis not only stuck to his guns but asked friend Rick Baker, the rising young makeup expert who he had worked with on his directorial debut, “Schlock” (1973), to figure out the centerpiece transformation sequence in a manner completely opposite to how the effect was formerly achieved via a litany of photographic tricks and quick edits—he wanted the transformation to be done in bright light, use as few camera tricks as possible, and convincingly stress the enormous pain that a person might go through if their physiognomy changed from that of a human to that of a wolf. Meanwhile, Landis hit a hot streak with three big hits in a row—“Kentucky Fried Movie” (1977), “Animal House,” and “The Blues Brothers”—and was finally able to convince new production entity Polygram Filmed Entertainment to finance it and release it through Universal Pictures, the very same studio where the whole idea of a wolf man film began and flourished in the first place.

The one hitch to all this involved Baker. Yes, he figured out how to pull off the effect of the main character turning into a wolf-like creature before our eyes in a convincing manner, without the usual gimmickry. The problem is that the struggle to get the film financed had gone on so long that he assumed it was never going to get made. Therefore, when Joe Dante called him about doing the makeup effects for “The Howling,” he figured he would at least be able to get some use out of his work and signed on. Inevitably, right afterwards, Landis signed the deal for his film and Baker had to say that he had signed on to do this other film that covered roughly the same subject matter and which would arrive in theaters first. Eventually, Baker was able to reach a deal in which his assistant, Rob Bottin, would take over duties on “The Howling” and he would return to Landis’ project.

The story of “An American Werewolf in London” is not markedly differently from the films that helped inspire it. It opens with David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), two American college kids backpacking their way across Europe, arriving in the moors of Yorkshire in the back of a truck filled with sheep before making their way to a local pub. Once they enter, they feel distinctly out-of-place among the locals and Jack further antagonizes the situation by inquiring about the meaning of a five-pointed star on the wall. The reaction from the crowd finally compels the two to leave and as they do, they are warned to stick to the roads, stay off the moors, and avoid the full moon. Since this is a film entitled “An American Werewolf in London,” you can probably surmise how well they heed those warnings.

This opening sequence takes up the film’s first 15 minutes and pretty much conforms to what audiences were probably expecting from Landis. The two charming-but-clueless college students (who seem as if they could have been latter-day Delta House material) are always joking and kibitzing with each other, so much that they fail to notice how much trouble that they are getting themselves into until it is too late. At the same time, Landis is dropping all of the expected werewolf movie accoutrements—the pentagram, the fearful and secretive locals, the fogbound moors. Hell, the name of the pub is The Slaughtered Lamb, an indication that subtlety is probably not going to be the dominant approach to the material. 

This stuff is all fun but as it turns out, Landis has been laying a trap for us as well for David and Jack because it is at this point that he springs his first major horror beat—an attack by a mysterious creature on the moors that wounds David and proceeds to maul Jack to death. Unlike, say, “The Howling,” where the violent moments were usually laced with some degree of humor, this scene is deadly serious in its execution. Instead of the fast cuts and quick shots of the attack that we expect to see, Jack’s killing is depicted in gruesome, gory detail and when we don’t see him being torn up, we hear him screaming in absolute agony. This scene poleaxed viewers back in the day—both in terms of the amount and intensity of the gore and brutality—and served notice once and for all that this film was not joking around.

Three weeks after the attack, David wakes up in a London hospital and is told by the police that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic, though David continues to insist that they were attacked by a wolf-like creature. David is then visited by a ghastly-looking vision of an undead Jack who informs him that they were indeed attacked by a werewolf and that David, having been bitten by one, will become one himself at the next full moon unless he breaks the curse by killing himself—news that David rationalizes as a psychological reaction to the guilt he feels over his inability to help Jack during the attack. Meanwhile, David’s doctor, J.S. Hirsch (John Woodvine) takes a trip to the Slaughtered Lamb to investigate and one patron seems to suggest that he may not be telling the truth about what happened.

In interviews, Landis has claimed that the screenplay changed very little from when he first wrote it—he has said that the biggest difference is that the porn theater sequence (featuring clips from a specially shot ersatz skin flick entitled “See You Next Wednesday,” a phrase Landis cribbed from “2001: A Space Odyssey” that would crop up in all of his films) was originally intended to be shot in a theater that specialized in showing old cartoons to young audiences while their parents went shopping, only to discover that the booking policy had changed a bit since he had last been there. This makes sense because the film feels like a story created by a 19-year-old, which I mean in the best possible way. Instead of trying to figure out some elaborate way of modernizing the whole werewolf conceit, he utilizes a more direct and traditional approach that would end up having two added benefits—the essential timelessness of the story has prevented it from feeling dated and when he does veer into unexpected areas, such as Jack’s increasingly grisly reappearances urging his friend to kill himself or the bizarre double-nightmare David has in which he sees everyone he loves being brutally murdered before his eyes, end up having a tremendous impact. 

The movie also taps into a convincing sense of youthful alienation—the sense that the people who are supposed to be charge are either mysteriously absent (which would explain why David’s parents are nowhere to be found outside of the dream sequence) or absurdly ineffectual (David cannot even convince a bobby to arrest him, let along make people believe he is a werewolf.) Throughout the film, there is a youthful sensibility at work—ranging from the goofy bits of humor to the grisly violence to the pop soundtrack that mostly takes the place of the traditional ominous score one might normally expect—that works nicely with the old-fashioned nature of the story without ever devolving into something completely juvenile along the lines of the immortal “I Was A Teenage Werewolf.”

Perhaps not surprisingly for a screenplay devised by someone that young, the characters, outside of David, are not especially well-developed. The reason that they come off as well as they do is the result of Landis’ keen eye for casting, which is especially impressive when you consider that of the three leads, only Agutter was a reasonably familiar face thanks to appearances in films like “Walkabout” (1971) and “Logan’s Run” (1976)—Naughton was best known at the time for appearing in a popular ad campaign for Dr. Pepper, and Dunne was essentially unknown. Naughton’s performance seems so natural you almost don’t notice how good it really is—he demonstrates plenty of glib charm in the early going but as things progress, he nicely captures David’s growing horror at what he is becoming so that when he does eventually become a monster, there is a sense of tragedy that keeps the transformation from being just an orgy of special effects. The same goes for Dunne, who only gets a few minutes to establish himself before being transformed into a so-called walking meatloaf, but makes enough of an impact so that Jack still registers as a person even during his final appearance when he's portrayed by an elaborate puppet. Agutter manages to make her questionable part work beautifully as well, and the rapport she develops with Naughton is so strong and genuine that the film is almost unsure of what to do with it during its final moments.

As for the contributions by Baker, which would go on to win the very first Academy Award for Makeup, they were immediately hailed as a landmark in special effects and still manage to amaze and astound 40 years later. The technical details of how the transformation was achieved have been analyzed at length and I will leave them for you to discover if you choose to peek behind that particular curtain. Yes, the transformation goes on for a while but since no one else is involved but David, the length of the moment makes sense, especially when it becomes apparent that Landis is emphasizing the absolute physical agony that he is going through during the process, an idea that had never really been explored in other werewolf movies. The film also makes a smart move by limiting our views of the creature from this point on, preferring quick shots that help underscore David’s now-savage nature while allowing viewers to relax just enough to be startled once again by seeing it full-on during the ending.

Which brings us to the ending, which has inspired objections over the years from most people who have seen it and which remains a bone of contention to this day with many viewers. The problem is not so much what happens—David’s story is essentially a tragedy right from the start that could not possibly end happily for him—as how it happens. After transforming once again inside the porno theater, the werewolf David bursts out into the streets and inspires all sorts of gory mayhem ranging from decapitations to violent car crashes before finally being cornered in an alley. Alex arrives on the scene and just as she is beginning to profess her undying love for David, the police open fire and kill him, bringing the story to an abrupt ending. I get what Landis was going for—by not giving David a break even in his final moments, he tries to further accentuate the tragedy of his story. However, while he demonstrated himself a master of timing, especially in his staging of the big scares (such as the dream sequence that is cut in such a way that it still makes viewers jump no matter how many times they have seen it), throughout the rest of the film, he just jumps the gun a little bit and when the credits start running soon afterwards, it is so abrupt that it almost feels as if something had been clumsily cut out of it at the last second. 

When "An American Werewolf in London" opened at the end of the summer of 1981, it did well financially but its critical reception was decidedly mixed. While numerous critics appreciated the performances and were suitably knocked out by Baker’s groundbreaking effects, many reviews complained about Landis’ combination of humor and horror, believing that the combination did not make sense and feeling that he should have picked just one or the other. In the years since its original release, the film would go on to become a modern horror classic, and its blend of genres would not only be celebrated but would serve as an inspiration for any number of films that would utilize the same approach. Seen today, it's important to note just how well the horrific aspects hold up. Yes, the film has a lot of very funny moments but the scary stuff is still pretty amazing. The opening sequence trots out every possible cliche of the werewolf genre but Landis stages it to create genuine, growing dread leading up to the big attack. Similarly, the Nazi demon dream sequence may sound like little more than a detour designed to inspire a couple of cheap scares, but Landis stages that in a way that recognizes the certain rhythm in how these moments are put together, and then makes the big shocks pop up when you least expect them. And as someone who has found himself on subway platforms late at night, I can assure you the brilliant sequence in which the transformed David attacks an unlucky lonely commuter instantly comes to mind.

Over his career, Landis would occasionally go back to horror-comedy hybrids, most notably in the amazing prologue to the otherwise misbegotten “Twilight Zone-The Movie” (1983) featuring Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, and a car driving down a lonely road in the middle of the night. He would be hired by Michael Jackson, a fan of “An American Werewolf in London,” to direct a video for his song “Thriller” and the resulting epic was basically a spoof version in which all of the genre cliches that Landis avoided in his film were cheerfully milked for maximum silliness. “Innocent Blood” (1992) tried to do for vampires what he had previously done with werewolves but audiences did not spark to his tale of a gorgeous bloodsucker (Anne Parillaud) battling a group of recently vampirized mobsters in what could be described as “Bram Stoker’s Goodfellas”—a shame because while it is not quite as ambitious as its predecessor (it is pretty much an overt comedy throughout), it is one done with a lot of style and wit, especially in the drolly hilarious performances from Robert Loggia as the undead mafioso and Don Rickles as his attorney. He also contributed two episodes to the “Masters of Horror” television series with one, “Deer Woman,” playing as a sort of reverse-gender take on his previous werewolf narrative. It should be noted that while he did evidently at one point flirt with the notion of a sequel, his concept was rejected and he had nothing to do with the dreadful “An American Werewolf in Paris.”

“An American Werewolf in London,” for all of its love for the traditions of the classic horror films, remains a truly unique cinematic experience that's not easy to repeat. Oh, plenty of werewolf movies have come in its wake and some of them have even been quite good—“Ginger Snaps” (2000) and “Brotherhood of the Wolf” (2001) leap to mind—but this one remains the gold standard. Hell, even the controversial ending has a certain elegance when seen today. You want to know how good it is? My mother—a woman who has a profound loathing of anything that even vaguely smacks of horror and anything that spills an excessive amount of blood—not only watched the film (for reasons now lost in the midst of time) but genuinely liked it despite the monsters and the gore and all that other stuff. Honestly, I cannot think of greater testament to what Landis achieves with this film than the fact that it could win over someone like her.

Okay, she still has a bone to pick with the ending, but you can’t have everything.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to eFilmcritic.com and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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