There are a select few “one of a kind” movies left for viewers to find. Especially in Hollywood, where most successful formulas are quickly copied and watered down by a plethora of posers who hope they can make a quick buck. This is particularly true of the horror and comedy genres, where low budget films can make back their money quickly regardless of quality. Despite the vultures, there are still a few films that have a tone that’s all their own. One such film is An American Werewolf in London.
While backpacking across Europe, David Kessler (David Naughton) and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) fail to follow the simple advice “Stick to the road. Keep clear of the moors.” The result is a run-in with the local wildlife, in the form of a good ‘ol fashioned lycanthrope. Jack is savagely ripped apart, while the young Mr. Kessler wakes up in a London hospital, where he’s tended to by the delectable Jenny Agutter. Things quickly get weird for David, as nightmares become visions of his undead friend, who predicts what the title already tells us. The full moon is on its way, and David has to figure out how to deal with his predicament and steal small children’s balloons.
Universal Studios has always been respectful and loving toward the monster films that helped them make their name in the 1930s and 1940s. (Yes, I said “always” – and I am considering Van Helsing.) An American Werewolf in London is the ultimate tribute to Lon Chaney, Jr. and The Wolf Man, which established the traditions that have defined the subgenre. Jack and David both reference the 1941 film while establishing the plot, but writer/director John Landis doesn’t need his characters to speak the film’s deeper connections to the original classic.
While there are plenty of other wonderful werewolf films out there – I have to shout out to the 2000s’ prime examples, Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps – I’ve never felt another werewolf film comes close to matching The Wolf Man or An American Werewolf in London. I think I slightly prefer the original film due to Claude Rains‘ performance and the classic makeup/effects, but it’s impossible to compare the two films head to head considering the different tones. An American Werewolf in London may have been conceived as a tribute, but the resulting film still stands alone thanks to Landis’ unique blend of comedy, violence, and terror.
If you ask a fan of horror and sci-fi cinema about 1981, they’ll probably smile. The horror scene produced the original classic The Evil Dead and the ’80s’ other famous werewolf film, The Howling, plus a myriad of slasher films – led by the original My Bloody Valentine and the first Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels – and underrated horrors like Dead & Buried and Ghost Story. Meanwhile, the genre scene also saw the release of Escape from New York, The Road Warrior, and Excalibur. Oh, and a little film called Raiders of the Lost Ark happened… which has already been named a Movie to See Before You Die.
Looking at that list of titles, I will quickly admit that my head wants to explode due to awesome overload. To be honest, three films from the year are safely ahead of An American Werewolf in London in the Top 100 of my Flickchart, and there are at least two other films on that list that I feel like I might be selling short. That doesn’t make it any less a movie you need to see, it just means 1981 was a fantastic year for genre cinema.
The idea of the “horror comedy” kind of bugs me. Considering how often we laugh at something that would otherwise be terrifying – for example, most kill scenes featured in the slasher subgenre – it makes sense to connect the horror and comedy genres. It’s also said by some that promoting laughter during a horror film can make the shocks even more shocking, and I get that too. There’s a fantastic example of this that precedes the initial moment of terror in An American Werewolf in London, where a dark moment becomes light just before the rug is pulled out from under the viewer entirely.
Don’t get me wrong. films like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland are great fun, and they win us over by making light of catastrophic events. Other horror comedies, like Evil Dead II or Re-Animator do a better job of offering the macabre, but even they slip into slapstick tricks to make smiles.
If there’s one film that’s commonly called a horror comedy that I’ve never felt cuts corners with its darker side, it’s An American Werewolf in London. The nightmare sequences are a perfect example of how willing the film is to keep its foot on the viewer’s throat when they want to laugh. We find ourselves laughing at the film, to be sure, but it’s not because Landis and Co. are being nice to us.
If comedic minds were represented by everyday items, I’d expect that John Landis would be a Swiss Army knife. And he wouldn’t be one of the lame little ones with a useless excuse for scissors, two dull blades, and a plastic toothpick. He’d be one of the cool Swiss Army knives that you have to carry around in a special case because it’s too big for your pocket. The man was certainly blessed with a diverse set of skills and a keen eye for effective ways to blend comedy with action, music, and horror.
An American Werewolf in London – despite being what I think is a horror movie first and a comedy second – is the final leg in what might be the greatest triad of madcap romps ever made by one director. Landis had just come off of fantastic successes with National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers (both starring my favorite comedic mind, John Belushi), and it’s easy to see that An American Werewolf in London was his “I’ve made enough money for this studio that I can do whatever I want now” project.
Landis would follow up these three films with plenty of fun comedies – Coming to America and Spies Like Us stand out to this viewer – but it’s safe to say that the three films he made for Universal are Landis’ legacy thus far. It’s hard to top Belushi in my eyes, but An American Werewolf in London comes in behind just The Blues Brothers on my list of films by John Landis.
While the genre lovin’ part of my heart is proud to call An American Werewolf in London one of my favorite horror films, I’ve always believed this is a film that even those who resist the horror genre can love. They might have to hide their eyes from some of the gore, but Landis’ film honors werewolf traditions while having a lot of fun with the viewer’s expectations. No matter how you classify it, I doubt you’ll feel like you’ve ever seen another film quite like An American Werewolf in London.