It’s blue moons and SFX swoons in John Landis’ Oscar-winning horror comedy
The horror movie, for all of its terrifying, disturbing content, can often produce in us the surprising gut reaction of laughter – the nervous kind, the grossed-out kind, the sadistic kind, the relieved kind, etc. It’s one of the most physical genres out there – that’s why those who love it really, really love it, because it offers an amazing release and a safe form of catharsis. We’re laughing because if we don’t, we may end up screaming.
But what about the horror movies that intentionally have a streak of humour throughout? It’s a risky move – overdo the laughs (or simply make crap jokes) and you risk diluting the scares. But if you get the balance right, you can deliver something so exhilarating that few things in genre cinema can match it for a great night out. The horror-comedy is is one of cinema’s trickiest balancing acts, and An American Werewolf in London not only walks that line with grace, it even pulls off a few backflips and death-defying leaps along the way. For me, it is the absolute best example of genre juxtaposition. No horror has ever been so funny. No comedy has ever been so scary. Of all of John Landis’ magnificent films to emerge from this era, this is the most idiosyncratic, the most moving, the funniest, the scariest, the most spectacular. On so, so many levels, it shouldn’t work. It should fall at so many of the hurdles it willingly places in front of itself. Yet it doesn’t. Not once. It is, and I say this with total confidence, a perfect film.
Landis, chiefly a director of comedy, had already infused the genre with horror with his very first film Schlock, but The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers had since established him as a filmmaker of riotous, vulgar, upbeat and quotable hilarity. Yet Werewolf was the first script he wrote, it was the film he wanted to make for over a decade until finally, in 1981, the beast was unleashed. Its excellent tagline promised, ‘from the director of Animal House…a different kind of animal’. I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the great ones. It lulls you in with your recognition of one of the funniest films of the seventies, and then turns left-field with the promise of….something else. It has since become one of the best loved monster movies of all time, a riot of horror, hilarity and heartbreak.
Its opening fifteen minutes are so masterful that they belong amongst the upper echelons of first acts in horror that could almost be short films in themselves. Think Suspiria, or The Hitcher, where the gauntlet is thrown down with an absolute vengeance. We open on a bleak but beautiful vista on the Northern English countryside; all grey skies, green fields and foreboding menace. And yet on the soundtrack, there’s the mellifluous, beautiful cover of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s perennially popular ballad ‘Blue Moon’, performed here by Bobby Vinton. It’s the kind of song you’d normally expect to be playing on the radio in a car where two teenage sweethearts are about to share their first kiss sometime in the 1950s in the USA. Here, it becomes a sinister lullaby to accompany the kind of wild and windy moors you’d read about in Wuthering Heights. As the credits slowly drift in and out, the entirety of the song is allowed to unfurl, and our guard, initially raised because, after all, this is a horror film we’ve sat down to watch, is gently let down.
We are then further lulled into a false sense of security with the film’s ultimate sugared poison pill – humour. In this very, very English setting we met our doomed heroes – David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) – two backpackers from New York who have arrived in the middle of nowhere, sitting amongst a flock of lambs in the back of a truck (subtle) – so far, there is no evidence that this is going to be a horror. We get easy-going, relaxed talk about girls and the weather, a failed attempt at a knock-knock joke…it’s all very funny and amiable. Only the static camera that watches the two of them walk far, far away into the distance, emphasising their solitude, gives the impression that something strange is afoot. Elmer Bernstein’s sparsely deployed but beautifully lush score then picks up, and okay, now maybe the signs are building, that maybe something’s not quite right.
Jack : It’s a full moon…
Jack , David : [remembering the warning they received] Beware the moon…
David : And stick to the road. Oops.
Jack : I vote we go back to the Slaughtered Lamb.
Then there’s the name of the pub they stop off at – The Slaughtered Lamb – complete with hilariously gory imagery on its sign. When the two walk inside, it’s the English equivalent of when the stranger in town walks into the saloon in a Western and everyone and everything stops, including the honky tonk piano, except here the piano is a dartboard, and there’s a five-pointed star drawn on the wall. There is a cheery, genial atmosphere admittedly, but only between the locals. Towards David and Jack they are hostile, patronising and tell xenophobic jokes – but then Jack asks about the five-pointed star and suddenly the mood grows dark. If they weren’t exactly welcome before, they’re pretty much shown the door now; not that David and Jack feel like staying anyway. Still, they can’t be allowed to leave the pub tonight, protests the barmaid, not when it’s a full moon. But it’s too late. They’ve gone, and it’s ‘in God’s hands now’. Sure, the locals could have elaborated on those ‘beware the moon’ and ‘stick to the road’ warnings of theirs, but they fear ridicule. After all, no one brought those two people here, and why should the world know their business? Besides, maybe they’ll be safe. Oh, wait – was that a howling sound?
No. They heard nothing.
David and Jack certainly did though. They’ve unwittingly walked off the road too, and have found themselves on the moors where pitch darkness surrounds them, with no clue as to how to get back on the path to safety, and all the desperate, light-hearted chat between them can’t distract from the fact that something is out there, following them. They try to keep moving , but it’s no use: whatever’s out there is circling them, preparing to move in for the kill. How have we, in the space of ten minutes, moved from dreamy cosiness to outright terror, all of it executed so seamlessly?
The attack, when it comes, is quick, extremely bloody, and horrific. No music either. No need for it. Jack’s screams are all the soundtrack we need. David runs away – well, you can’t blame him – but fear and guilt for his friend send him back into danger. Jack is already dead though, and David looks set to be next, except that the patrons of The Slaughtered Lamb have arrived and shoot the creature to death, but not before it gets a few bloody swipes at David. As he begins to black out, David turns and sees that what was once a wolf is now a middle-aged man, riddled with bullets. And there you have it. A freight train of emotions and sensations, enough for a whole film, and we’re only less than twenty minutes in. After this, what could come next?
Respite. Lord knows we need it. We wake up in London (a long, long way from Yorkshire, admittedly) and David is recovering from his attack. Unfortunately no one’s taking him seriously over his claims of just what attacked him. The official line is that his assailant was ‘an escaped lunatic’, but we know what really happened. And David can’t forget. His dreams – intensely depicted here through vivid point-of-view sprints through woodland – are disturbing and violent. The police don’t take his claims seriously. The one American representative (Frank Oz) seems to have absolutely no empathy with his plight at all, even referring to David as an ungrateful ‘dumbass kid’. The hospital staff are more sympathetic, especially nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter), who seems to have fallen in love at first sight with him, but seriously – a werewolf? I mean, if there really was a monster running around Northern England, then surely we’d have seen something about it on the telly. That reassurance is granted by Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), the lead consultant who nevertheless begins to suspect something is amiss and begins his own detective work on the matter.
Those dream sequences still pack a punch – Bernstein’s driving strings, the graceful yet frightening use of steadicam, the surreal imagery (a hospital bed in the middle of the woods) and the incredible, quick-fire grotesque imagery, such as a torn apart deer or a seemingly possessed David grinning foully at a smiling Alex, that appear in a flash and then cut back to reality before you’ve had any real time to take it all in. These rapid transitions give the film a very uneasy tension between dreams and reality. This becomes more pronounced when David wakes up from one horrendous dream (in which, back home, he and his family are exterminated by stormtrooper pigs armed to the fanged teeth) and is reassured by Alex, only for her to end up murdered in front of him by one of the porcine soldiers. Yep, THAT was a dream too. Like David, you just have to exclaim ‘holy shit!’ at the sheer madness of it all, and surrender yourself to Landis’ brilliantly manipulative skill.
Things only get crazier when the steadily deteriorating corpse of Jack takes time out from limbo to warn David that, because he survived the attack, he will become a werewolf himself on the night of the next full moon. Unless he kills himself, of course. Boasting some of the grossest and fascinatingly graphic make-up effects ever on film, Undead Jack is a miracle of flapping skin, innards (is that his wind pipe we can see?), and scarlet gore. This film is what inspired Michael Jackson to ask Landis and much of Werewolf‘s personnel to create the promo to ‘Thriller’, which is still the Greatest Music Video Ever in this reviewer’s humble opinion.
Of course, just as impressive as that is the film’s centrepiece, the legendary transformation sequence. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest scenes ever. Such is the film’s genius that despite the fact that we’ve already seen a werewolf on screen and we know that David is going to change into one himself, the disarming humour and realistic reactions of everybody else wrong-foots one into thinking that maybe this really is all in his head. Could Jack’s visitations simply represent David’s guilt over surviving the attack and suicide the ultimate repentance?
When David talks about what happens to someone when they’re bitten by a werewolf, Alex, with whom he has begun a romance, can barely keep a straight face. I mean, it is absurd, isn’t it? So very, very absurd. The build-up, the ‘Bad Moon Rising’ sequence, is brilliant because it mirrors our restlessness, our impatience – David is home alone, bored out of his mind, and in a kind of way, we’re just as itchy for something to happen, while simultaneously kinda dreading it too. David’s such a likeable guy, and we care what happens to him, but at the same time…. we came here to watch a werewolf film….
…and then POW! It happens. David is reading his book and – ‘JESUS CHRIST!!!’ – the pain comes instantly and what follows is so intense, so horrific and yet so deliriously spectacular that when I’m not recoiling in fear, I’m in absolute awe at how incredible the effects of Rick Baker and his ‘Wolf Pack’ of SFX creators are. Hands stretch out, hair sprouts, the body elongates, bones extend…and yet all of this would be mere spectacle were it not for Naughton’s amazing performance. This is what sets this scene apart from so many other special effects showcases. It’s the human factor. The emotion. You don’t just see these effects – you feel them. You experience them. You dread that sort of thing ever happening to you. David’s fear becomes our fear. He screams for help and it breaks my heart. At one point he even seems to reach out for us, the audience, so that we might help him. And we can’t, and yet because this scene is so fucking amazing, part of us doesn’t want to. We want to see what happens next. Interestingly, this scene was going to be scored with a scary theme by Bernstein, but Landis insisted on Sam Cooke’s version of ‘Blue Moon’, and while the former would have been more appropriate, the fact that we have a beautiful, luscious love song playing over such a shocking moment is just another example of how Landis’ lateral thinking elevated a great film into an amazing one.
David’s killing spree is at once horrible, disturbing and yet very funny. It’s also tantalising, because we still haven’t really seen the werewolf in much detail. The victims? Firstly there’s a doddering rich couple, hoping to scare the host of the party they’re about to attend, then a bunch of homeless people and finally some poor sap on the London Underground. This gent (played by the bloke who was Jabba’s head servant in Return of the Jedi) has a hilariously stereotypical English reaction to that dreaded ‘strange sound’ in the distance, spouting gems like ‘I can assure you this is not in the least bit amusing….I shall report this!’
After his night of violence, David wakes up naked and with no memory of what he’s just done in London Zoo, and all of a sudden the film becomes utterly hilarious again. From bartering with a child under the guise of the ‘Famous Balloon Thief’ to standing in the bus queue wearing a stolen, none-more-red ladies coat, it’s such a great sequence, and yet as soon as David realises that he really is a werewolf, things get desperate again, and despite trying to get himself arrested in Trafalgar Square by exclaiming the most offensive things he can think of regarding England’s most prestigious figures, both contemporary and historical, he finds himself helpless to stop the upcoming night’s violence from happening. By the time he’s visited by a near-totally decomposed Jack and the victims of the previous night’s ‘carnivorous lunar activities’ in a dingy porno cinema, the scene is set for a final evening’s orgy of violence and death, heralded by a beautifully foreboding shot of the moon above Piccadilly Circus.
This final sequence is like an X-rated, compressed version of The Blues Brothers‘ vehicular destruction, with horrendous crashes, crushed bodies, severed heads and hysterical Londoners running for their lives. It’s so horrible you almost have to laugh. Such is the way of this film. Armed police corner David in an alley and are ready to open fire when Alex risks her life in the hope that she can bring out David from the wolf. For a moment it looks like she might have tamed him. But its no use. He goes in for the kill and is instantly torn down in a hail of bullets. Suddenly, the wolf is gone. There’s just David – dead. It’s an absolutely tragic ending, and you’d think a sober, reflective theme would be more appropriate to play out over the end credits. But no, we cut to black and The Marcels blare out their raucous, doo-wop inflected cover of ‘Blue Moon’ (‘Bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom bom ba ba bom ba bom ba bom bom‘, indeed) and the effect is shocking, cruel, disorienting and utterly ingenious. It’s one of the most perfectly judged endings in cinema history. Audiences must have been knocked for six by it. Maybe some were frustrated by it. I can understand that. This is a most unconventional film.
The off-pacing and lop-sided structure did annoy some critics who were probably looking for something more traditional but I really think it adds to the loose, dreamlike feel, which could have been self-indulgent had the film not ended up as funny, scary or imaginative as it did. This is also a film of intense highs and lows – David’s manic depressive mood throughout perfectly mirrors the lurches from genial comedy to terrifying horror and back to comedy again. Speaking of which, the humour is very, very cute indeed, be it the idiosyncratic staff and patients of the hospital (including the bloke who brings David breakfast and won’t let him get a word in, to the boy who only ever says ‘NO!’), or David mocking the tongue-wrestling between two punks on the London Underground, and being caught doing so too – cringe! The characters’ awareness of existing horror tropes foreshadows the likes of Fright Night (one of the only horror-comedies that comes close to this film’s perfect balancing act of genres), and I LOVE that when asked about the film The Wolf Man, the version Alex thinks of is not the classic Universal one but the later remake with Oliver Reed.
Alex: David, please be rational. Let’s go and see Dr. Hirsch.
David: Yeah, be rational. Sure. I’m a fucking werewolf, for Christ’s sake.
The outsider’s viewpoint of England is very funny too, be it the pitch-perfect dissection of British television (three channels, all brilliantly representative – the test card, darts and an ad for a salacious News of the World exclusive), the clipped politeness of the Londoners and the unglamourous gruffness of the Northerners, the funniest fake porno ever made (the hilariously rubbish See You Next Wednesday, the title of which is a regular Landis in-joke), the cabbies, the coppers… it’s absolutely delightful, affectionate and proof that Landis was very much taken by England, but also bemused by its eccentricities. Yet the film also captures the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land. The most emotional instance of this is the heartbreaking moment when David rings home to essentially say goodbye to his family. No one’s in apart from his little sister and when he tells her to tell his mum, his dad, his brother that he loves them all, and that he loves her too, it fucking kills me. He’s so alone. It’s almost like he’s a child once more – so far away from home, wanting his mum and his dad, and knowing, one way or another, that he’s going to die. He then tries to cut his wrists, right there in the phone booth….and he can’t do it.
The performances are absolutely, wonderfully perfect. You really buy that David and Jack are best friends – they work beautifully together. Naughton, who at the time was best known for his run as the cheery public face of Dr. Pepper’s massively popular ad campaign, is just so good as David. I mean, ‘one of my favourite performances of all time’ good. And because he never had a starring role as big as this since, it’s one of those performances that just feels extra special, just so individual and perfect. He gives it everything. And Dunne is just a delight. He makes Jack so very memorable indeed, both alive and dead. It’s one of the ultimate best friend roles.
Agutter is warm, friendly and charming, even when asking a boy if he’s ever been severely beaten about the face and neck – many a teenage viewer of the time will tell you that Alex would have been one of their first cine-crushes, but she’s no one-dimensional sex fantasy. She has agency, she’s independent, she’s intelligent and sensible. The chemistry between her and Naughton is absolutely lovely and totally natural. They really do seem to fall for each other instantly, and it plays out so sweetly. Woodvine is wonderfully droll as Dr. Hirsch – his delivery is hilarious, as is his occasional moments of fluster, like frantically asking his secretary to tell the person on the other end of the phone that he’s dead in order to get out of a conversation. The rest of the cast – Oz, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye, David Schofield, Don McKillop, Paul Kemper… just so great. Everyone shines.
In 1997, the BBC adapted Landis’ script and turned it into a radio play, fleshing out the plot to fill in some of the film’s narrative blanks and stray ends. It’s a fine version, but it normalises the story far too much. The joy of Werewolf is its seeming un-finishedness, its off-the-cuff ingenuity. There was also a very mediocre sequel in 1997 – An American Werewolf in Paris – which attempted to replicate the the horror and comedy hybrid but relied far too much on terrible CGI for the former and broad slapstick for the latter. There’s also rumours of a remake. That’s one seriously bold thing to attempt. Some things can only happen once in a blue moon, and An American Werewolf in London is one of the most extraordinary examples of lightning-in-a-bottle cinema ever made. Nearly forty years on, nothing’s matched it.