An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Written and directed by John Landis
Now, werewolves are pretty passť these days, actually downright comical, and I haven't seen proof that anyone can make a decent werewolf movie anymore, case in point both the abysmal Dog Soldiers and the abysmal-er Brotherhood of the Wolf.
Yet I continue to be fascinated with werewolves, going so far as to dress up in a "Professor Werewolf" costume one recent Halloween (werewolf makeup, fake fur, tweed coat, pipe, and fake English accent an embarrassing failure of a costume akin to Charlie Brown's multi-eyed ghost).
So it was with welcome arms that I borrowed American Werewolf, and a little nervousness that maybe it wouldn't hold up to the indistinct memory of my nerdish, scaredy-cat childhood (and fears that it would affect the sleep of my nerdish, scaredy-cat adulthood).
And unlike my pitiful erections, it holds up quite well. From the opening scene on the moors right up to the final carnage in Piccadilly Circus, American Werewolf serves up tension and gore in equal measures, plus a lot of consistently played humor and just enough sex to spice up the character development sequences.
Landis really shows his filmmaking strengths throughout the film, confident enough in his abilities to have long stretches of dialogue and very little action, but keep it totally engaging and strangely believable.
Unlike with most horror films today, you actually like David (David Naughton), and sympathize with his unpleasant situation. In fact, you pretty much like everyone in the film, even the disagreeable doctor who investigates David's claims about the animal attack that killed his best friend Jack (Griffin Dunne).
The only character you don't like gets mercifully beheaded in the climactic sequence, just desserts for being such a by-the-books cop. Of course, by that logic my neighbor who talks on the phone too loud should soon be whisked away to the Dead Zone by a hundred screaming Ring Wraiths.
What's great about the movie is its ruthless sensibility, that bad things are better if they happen to good people. A mood of casual violence permeates the film, so that even a scene of David's girlfriend (Jenny Agutter) interacting with some little kids feels like it could end in carnage. The fact that very few scenes actually do end in carnage is beside the point, or maybe it's the point I started to make a few paragraphs back but got a little sidetracked.
Then back to Landis' directorial skills. You really can't argue with a film that's more than 90 minutes long and plays like it's less than an hour even with so much dialogue and tension building, American Werewolf moves, like a train heading toward the bloodbath you know has to be coming.
And what a satisfying bloodbath. The madness at Piccadilly Circus has to be one of my favorite scenes ever. Scenes of rioting or mass panic cause a deep-seated, skin-crawling dread in me that I can't quite explain, but done well I can't stop watching and have to watch again, like the home movies of my 10th birthday in which my parents took me to a water park and ditched me, then secretly filmed me wandering around in tears to show me later as a joke.
American Werewolf takes the cake in the dread and horror department, it takes the fucking cake and smears it all over its furry, blood-soaked torso, which is what I'm gonna do if I ever get the chance to exact my well-deserved birthday revenge.
The film also has the distinction of creating two by-now-way-overused horror film conventions: the 'dream-within-a-dream" and the "werewolf transformation sequence." In both cases, American Werewolf plays it faster, more convincing and scarier than any of its descendants. You canít get much better than Nazi werewolves obliterating a suburban household, or that first groundbreaking, totally freaky transformation scene that set the bar for all future werewolf films.
The acting's pretty damn good, too Naughton is appealing and likeable, Agutter is warm and sexy, Dunne is wry and funny (and brilliantly plays his death scene).
The strangest thing about American Werewolf is that it marks the beginning and end of Naughton's serious acting career. A performance like his in a movie like this should have led to Bachelor Party and Sleepless in Seattle; Naughton ended up in Hot Dog The Movie and Flying Virus. It's almost tragic how pathetic Naughton's career turned out. The only possible explanations are drugs, bad attitude, or outright stupidity.
We do, however, know exactly what happened to Landis: cocaine and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Even ignoring such bad luck, American Werewolf was something of a fluke in Landis' career, which runs the gamut from painfully unfunny (The Blues Brothers) to excruciatingly excruciating (The Blues Brothers 2000). The only films of note on his roster are American Werewolf, Trading Places (and I haven't seen that in a while so I could be wrong) and one of my favorite guilty pleasures, The Three Amigos. Other than that, out of 20-plus films, it's basically all shit.
Regardless, you can't take American Werewolf away from him. It's a great movie, very easy on the multiple viewings and truly deserving of respect.
Now if we could only convince those Hollywood motherfuckers to film my Teen Wolf sequel script (Teen Wolf 3: Teen Wolf's First Job vs. The Werewolf Terrorist Front) about how the Teen Wolf gets his first job in a stuffy bank and has to save the town rec center from the evil bank president by winning the local golf tournament, and the sub-plot about the werewolf terrorists blowing up banks to protest poor treatment of werewolves well, then pretty much everything in my world would finally be okay. Until then, I shall continue to drink the wolf's bane in hopes that my curse will someday subside.
Review by Crimedog