While it may be common to praise and appreciate director John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London for its successful and iconic blend of comedy and horror, the movie is not missing one single tooth when it comes to its ability to terrify the living daylights out of viewers. While distinctly tongue-in-cheek at times, that tongue and cheek still happen to belong to a vicious beast of a werewolf who wishes to tear your face off and open your guts with a slash of its claws. A groundbreaking film in regards to special effects, the release of An American Werewolf in London in 1981 is not that far behind other legendary (and nearly timeless) horror genre flicks like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) or Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), coming from that magical time in filmmaking when the practical effects fought against the director’s vision just enough to make sure audiences were ultimately shown only what was absolutely necessary in order to send our imaginations sprinting from the nightmares conjured just off screen and within our own heads.
Make no mistake. For all its laughs and off-kilter style, An American Werewolf in London is a terrifying film, easily standing toe to toe with every other entry in the lycanthrope genre.
No sequels and/or reboots need apply.
Strangers in a Strange Land
The film starts off following two American college students, David Kessler and Jack Goodman (played by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne), as they backpack across the moors in Yorkshire. As darkness starts to fall, the pair make their way to the local pub (comfortingly called The Slaughtered Lamb) in a small, remote village along their trek. The inside of the pub is crowded, but when Jack points out an odd, five-pointed star on the wall of establishment, things between the locals and the American students get fairly uncomfortable, with David and Jack realizing they’ve crossed some sort of cultural line and have caused offense. Actor Brian Glover, who’s also fantastic in another small role as Superintendent Andrews in David Fincher’s Alien 3, is particularly effective as one of the pub regulars. As many might do when confronted with an awkward situation in a foreign land, the college students make the fairly stupid decision to venture back outside and continue hiking in the darkness only to be confronted by the blood-chilling howl of some unnatural beastie. As you can imagine, things don’t go well from there.
Few fears are as universal as being somewhere you feel you don’t belong and suffering the consequences of your own ignorance, far away from all those you know and love.
While Jack is killed in the werewolf attack, David survives his injuries, and it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable occurs.
Like the chestburster scene in Alien, the first transformation of college student David Kessler into a werewolf is a visual depiction of pain, agony, and body horror that burns itself into the viewer’s brain. Created completely with practical effects by makeup effects legend Rick Baker, An American Werewolf in London won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup and served as the inspiration that caused pop star Michael Jackson to hire the team of Baker and Landis to work on his 1983 music video, Thriller, for obvious reasons.
Forced to Face His Victims in the Most Horrifying Way
Not content with shocking audiences with only David’s horrifying alteration, Baker was also employed by Landis to depict the gruesome and stomach-churning results of a werewolf on the loose in the streets of London. Starting with his deceased hiking buddy, Jack, the victims of David’s animal side begin to appear as apparitions who still bear the shocking wounds they received while meeting their end under the fang and/or claw of a werewolf. In addition to looking simply frightening, Jack and the other victims offer little sympathy and no solace to David, basically demanding he take his own life and end their purgatory-like curse.
The concept of a string of ghostly victims following along the cursed individual is an interesting addition to werewolf mythology, and I will admit that, as a child, it was the horrific mutilations on display that really caused by my nightmares the first time I viewed this flick.
And that was even before Jack started to decay.
An Animal in the London Underground
Imagine the nightmarish scenario of being absolutely alone in the subway tunnel late at night, your footsteps echoing loudly throughout the enclosed structure, only to turn the corner and come face to face with a vicious, menacing animal. The set up itself is hair-raising, but Landis’ decision to shoot from the POV of the werewolf and focus the audience on the victims terrified reactions is truly what wins the day, capitalizing on the power of the audiences’ imagination.
A Truly Terrifying and Tragic Ending
You may have had a chuckle or even some fun at some point earlier in the film, but there are no happy endings when it comes to An American Werewolf in London. After making a call to his family back in the States to let them know he loves them, David does attempt, unsuccessfully, to take his own life. Unable to escape his tragic destiny, David transforms into a werewolf once again, going on a tear through the streets of London. The beast is eventually corned in an alley, where Alex, a young British nurse who’s fallen in love with David, attempts to sooth the creature by speaking to him as if he’s the man she knows. Her heartfelt attempt causes the wolf to pause, but only momentarily, and she’s forced to watch as the authorities gun down the perceived threat. In the end, David’s naked body lies in the street.
There’s something frighteningly blunt about the ending of An American Werewolf in London. The unforgiving and abrupt ending has not always pleased everyone (Roger Ebert was not a fan.), but it feels unnaturally real for a horror film and done so without any gimmick. While it’s easy to forget in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and Teen Wolf (either version), being a werewolf started out as a curse, and that’s absolutely what it is in this story without a doubt. There is no escape for David. There is no solace, beyond death, that is offered to him. He carries a death sentence from the moment he and Jack are attacked in the British wilderness, perhaps even before considering the actions and reactions of the locals in The Slaughtered Lamb. It’s a refreshingly honest depiction in a horror film of the inevitability of death, with much of that coming from the fact that the glee present in the picture is not there in morbid anticipation of the lead character’s tragic end, but, rather, it ends up being present in spite of it.