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Stick to the roads. Always stick to the roads, for the moors of northern England possess a predatory evil within the vast openness of the land. An evil of immense strength, a violent temperament, and a hunger for human flesh. But what if I told you this evil was simply a man? Well, most of the month, that is. The lycanthrope, or simply the werewolf, preys on the people of London and everything north of it in John Landis’s 1982 all-time comedy/horror classic, An American Werewolf in London. Written and directed by Landis after standout directorial offerings such as National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London signifies a cinematic shift of the time with the inclusion of humorous elements that teeter on the line of slapstick with horrific violence and gore. A film that feels near perfect in its control, focus and execution, audiences will feel elation, shock, pity, and maybe even a little disgust.
The film’s plot concerns two young American backpackers, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), trekking across the English moors in Yorkshire. Upon stumbling into a local pub, the Slaughtered Lamb, they soon notice a pentagram painted on the wall as part of a ritualistic setup. Feeling the ire from the stares of the pub’s patrons, David and Jack quickly leave to continue their journey despite the frigid conditions outside. After straying from the designated path into the moors, the growls of a predator stalking its prey ring throughout the land. David and Jack are soon attacked, with David’s wounds resulting in a newly developed curse; he’s a werewolf. David’s subsequent recovery in London and the full moon shortly approaching force him to navigate a solution before his “carnivorous lunar activities” wreak havoc on the city.
Before we go any further, I would be doing the film a disservice by not mentioning the Academy Award-winning makeup and effects work of the legendary Rick Baker, whose grotesque yet hyper-realistic imaginings are almost just as responsible for the film’s success and Landis’s writing and direction. Baker won the inaugural award and for good reason. Jack’s appearance in the film after his death is as harrowing as it is fascinating. Jack’s physical deterioration throughout the film keeps upping the ante of shock value that will surely give you a queasy stomach at some point. But it’s Baker’s work of David’s werewolf transformation that has had a lasting impact in not only horror but all of cinema itself. The crackle of David’s elongating bones, the image of his claws penetrating his already in place fingernails, and his facial reconstruction are sure to put anyone in uncomfortable awe as his physical pain can almost be felt through the screen. The effects still stand tall in a genre that has gone through many updates to the techniques of special effects, but the practical nature of what is arguably Baker’s magnum opus still reigns supreme.
A further examination beyond the effects and violence of An American Werewolf in London tells a story grounded in themes of love, sacrifice, and mostly friendship. The first two minutes of the film establish a mutual respect and admiration between David and Jack. Two best friends whose bond and love for each other oozes from their body language, David and Jack stay side by side until the fatal attack in the moors. Even after death, Jack remains a constant in David’s psyche, asking him for a sacrifice for both Jack and the greater good of humanity. Ignorant to the extremes of his current condition, David is conflicted, as a sacrifice of his own life would be enough to save many. A philosophical quandary, I too found myself wondering how my approach to the situation would unfold. The longer life continues, the more our friendships are valued, both platonically and even romantically. The end of the werewolf bloodline in the film is believed to end at the hand of a loved one. After my recent rewatch, I started to wonder where the roots of love and sacrifice begin and end in a film like An American Werewolf in London, which is certainly a beautifully complex conundrum.
I can’t help but keep An American Werewolf in London from rising up the ranks of my all-time list for not only pure entertainment value but also as a finely tuned and complete film that begs for a viewing sooner rather than later. Laughs and scares in equal parts work in complete unison for one of the more fun releases of the 20th century. Landis carried a similar cinematic vision to the even more iconic production of Thriller, but that’s a discussion for another day. Finding humor in the macabre is a skill seldom achieved, but John Landis perfected the art.
Stick to the roads, beware the moon, but most importantly be sure to enjoy yourself for a howl of a good time
Screamfest Presents An American Werewolf in London this Saturday, January 20th.