On their own, I’ve never really been all that into either vampire or werewolf movies. I get why people like them, I could describe all the social, psychological and sexual reasons why people have always been into them, but I can also say that they have almost always bored me to tears. They’re almost always too wrapped up in their own mythology and too ready to discuss the hideous beauty of their monsters instead of featuring them as, you know, monsters. Normally, for one of these films to get my attention, it has to take a different approach. Thankfully, in the hands of renowned comedy director John Landis, An American Werewolf in London is a classic I am glad to call among my favorites.
American college students David and Jack (David Naughton & Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across Europe, when they stumble across a strange small town in Northern England. The people are superstitious and strangely nervous about the full moon outside. Though making references to The Wolfman, the two boys scoff at the old superstitions and are sent on their way in the middle of the night. Naturally, while walking across the moors they are attacked by a lycanthrope. Jack is killed (mostly) and David is left wounded in the attack, but put into a coma. Waking up three weeks later in a hospital in London, he is confronted by a series of increasingly bizarre nightmares, and is haunted by the specter of Jack who warns him of his impending transformation.
Reading that description you’d think I was talking about a standard, serious werewolf movie, when in reality this is one of the classic horror comedies. John Landis puts all his comedic writing and directing skills to good use, giving us a group of very likable characters with a dark sense of humor, and running them through the emotional ringer. While one scene will have us following a man running for his life through the cramped tube stations beneath London’s streets, the next will feature a long sequence of David, naked, running through London Zoo trying to figure out just what happened to him the night before. A grim scene of David being confronted by the ghosts of the people he killed when he first transformed is offset by the grim cheerfulness they all have when suggesting methods by which he could commit suicide. Well, that, and the fact that this scene takes place in a porno theater with quite possibly the worst-written porno in the world playing in the background (there's every chance that this is the funniest scene in horror movie history, but since this is a really competitive list, I can't say for sure). By making you laugh when you should be scared, or grossed-out, Landis succeeds in unsettling you.
And of course, there are the film’s standout Oscar-winning makeup effects to take into consideration. Effects genius Rick Baker brings great style and personality to the ghosts that haunt David, but it is the transformation scene that truly sets this one apart from its peers. While most werewolf transformations in the years leading up to the film relied heavily on darkness and editing tricks to convey a transformation, this film features its transformation in long, agonizing detail in a brightly lit room, with some of the most convincing and horrifying makeup effects of the day. It looks painful, it sounds painful, and it creates probably the scariest werewolf that has ever been put on screen.
I know most of my attention on this list so far has been toward more recent movies, but I have no problem calling An American Werewolf in London, a true classic, among my favorites.
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-- Matt Carter
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