Lunatics and Laughter Day 5: An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Writer: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, Anne-Marie Davies, John Woodvine, Frank Oz
Plot: American college students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking across Europe, beginning in northern England with plans to work their way south to Italy. The plans are shattered, though, when they stop at a small-town pub called the Slaughtered Lamb in the town of East Proctor. The locals distrust them, and Jack distrusts the five-pointed star painted on the wall. They leave, disturbing the barmaid and prompting warnings to stay on the road and beware the moon. The Americans are attacked by a huge wolf, which kills Jack and bites David before the villagers arrive and shoot it down. As he passes out, David sees that the beast has turned into a man.
He wakes up in a hospital in London three weeks later, where the police take his statement, but believe he was attacked by a lunatic rather than an animal. One of the Nurses, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) takes a personal interest in him, convincing him to eat even when he isn’t hungry, keeping him company at night. He begins having dreams of running through the woods, naked, slaughtering and eating animals, then later seeing himself in a hospital bed, threatening Alex. After a particularly bad dream, Jack appears in his room, chatting jovially with his friend despite the fact that he’s a mutilated corpse. As David struggles to figure out if he’s dreaming, Jack starts quipping about his own funeral, putting him at ease before he can drop the bomb on his buddy. They were attacked by a werewolf, and since he was killed by a supernatural being Jack is cursed to walk the earth until the werewolf’s bloodline is severed. David, bitten by the wolf, is now part of that line, and Jack begs him to kill himself so they can both find peace. Jenny comes into his room, thinking him waking up from another nightmare, and he kisses her and declares himself a werewolf. When David is discharged, Jenny invites him to stay with her, and their relationship progresses quickly. Despite his newfound happiness, Jack’s corpse continues to haunt David, again begging him to kill himself before tomorrow’s full moon.
David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) drives to the town where David was attacked, trying to figure out why David’s version of events differs so greatly from the official report. He finds himself blocked by the same villagers who turned out David and Jack, but this time, one is willing to talk. He warns Hirsch that David is in danger, and will “change” with the full moon. That night, as Jenny works a late shift at the hospital, the predictions come true – David undergoes a terrifying change from man to monster. He rushes into the night and attacks people, as the previous werewolf attacked him. Hirsch returns to London and compares notes with Jenny. Convinced that something is wrong in East Proctor – and wrong with David by extension – he calls her apartment. When David doesn’t answer, he calls the police.
The next day, David wakes up in the zoo, naked, in a wolf pen. With some quick thinking, he covers up and gets away. Hirsch, meanwhile, finds the morning paper full of stories about a brutal series of murders where the victims were half-eaten. When David returns to Alex’s apartment, particularly excitable and enthusiastic, she plans to take him back to the hospital. Along the way, the cab driver tells them about the murders, and David flees, planning to turn himself into the police, but the officer dismisses him. He runs away and Alex, Hirsch and the police who investigated his attack begin searching for him. David calls his family in America, hurriedly telling his sister he loves her before attempting to slit his wrists. Finding himself unable to do so, Jack’s corpse appears again, leading David into an adult ovie theater. The corpse, now more decrepit than ever, introduces David to the people he killed the night before, now trapped as a living dead just like Jack. He’s still in the theater when night falls again, and the killing begins again. The wolf escapes into the London streets, going on a bloody rampage, killing some and causing traffic crashes that kill many more. The police corner it in an alley and Alex rushes to the scene, approaching it and trying to draw the real David out. It lunges at her and the police open fire. The beast turns back into David as it dies, and Alex weeps.
Thoughts: Reportedly, director John Landis wrote the first draft of this script in 1969 and fought for over a decade to get it released, as studios thought it was too funny to market as a comedy and too scary to market as a horror film. You’ll excuse me if I find that just precious – as the whole point of my project is that the two both can, and have worked hand in hand for decades. On the other hand, the fact that I’ve located so few great horror/comedies before 1980 to include in this project seems to indicate that it wasn’t always the relatively easy sell it is today, and I have to suspect the success of An American Werewolf in London is one of the things that helped turn the tide and convince filmmakers that the conflicting styles could, and do, work together.
Landis is clearly a fan of the old Lon Chaney Jr. Wolfman pictures, even throwing out several references to them throughout film. He goes much farther than Universal could in the 40s, though, showing extremes of violence that wouldn’t have been allowed at the time. His special effects are, as to be expected, considerably more advanced as well. The transformation scenes are very good – simply done, but effective. Not to harp on it, but there’s no way this movie would be made today without giving in to the temptation to do the entire transformation via CGI (see the 2010 remake of The Wolfman if you don’t believe me), and that would really kill one of the most memorable sequences in this film. Naughton’s performance during the transformation is really excellent – even before any of the special effects show up he’s putting on a terrific, very convincing show of agony that makes you receptive when the limbs and face start to transform and the hair begins to sprout.
But the truly innovative thing about the movie, to me, is the tone of the film. This takes us back to a Type A picture, and an extreme Type A at that, far more horror than comedy. Landis basically wrote a monster movie, a modernized retelling of the Lon Chaney Jr. picture, and laced it with just enough humor and off-the-cuff commentary to market it partially as a comedy. Most of the humor actually comes through Jack – a snarky type even when he’s alive, but he becomes the master of the deadpan quip after he dies. David gets a little bit of physical comedy later, once he transforms for the first time. The sequence where he tries to sneak out of the zoo naked, stealing bits and pieces of cover-up along the way, feels like it could have fallen out of an old Marx Brothers or Hope and Crosby routine.
Landis is great at pulling an emotional reversal as well. When David calls home and tells his sister he loves her, there’s a horrible sense of finality to it. It’s a very genuine moment, where you understand you’re listening to a man who’s planning to die, trying to get everything straight before it happens. Considering that David was dancing around in a red fur-trimmed coat just minutes before, the viewer is left completely unprepared. The pace of the film as a whole is surprising, in fact. There’s a very long build-up to David’s first transformation, and once he realizes he’s responsible for the murders you blink and realize there are only about 20 minutes left in the film. It feels like there should be more, like everything has happened much too fast. When the end finally comes, it’s over in the blink of an eye. BAM-David is shot! Alex cries! Begin credits! There’s no denouement to cling to, no moment to allow your emotions to work themselves out before you feel a bit of a tear turn up for the poor American who became something he never wanted to be, did terrible things he never wanted to do, and died in a way he never would have wanted to die. It was a departure for Animal House director Landis and it’s a bit of a departure for this project, but it’s a good one.