“Keep clear of the moors.”
Dir. John Landis
Runtime: 99 minutes
Rating: 15 (but was an X originally, and then downgraded to 18)
Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Joe Belcher
1981 was a good year for Werewolf films with this film, and Joe Dante’s “The Howling” both scaring audiences. For me “American Werewolf in London” comes out on top, but both are equally good and marked a turning point in the supernatural sub genre, seeing werewolves lose their muttonchops and underbites, and star walking on all-fours and ripping people’s faces off.
During a walking tour around Britain, two Americans ignore the advice of pub locals to “Beware of the moon” and “stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors”. They are subsequently attacked by a werewolf, killing one of them and leaving the other mauled. The survivor, David, recovers in hospital thanks to the watchful eye of Nurse Alex Price, but he is experiencing weird nightmares. When he begins to see his reanimated friend, David starts questioning his sanity, but his friend assures him that it is not his sanity that is the issue, for David has become a werewolf.
In 180 characters: Hitchhikers attacked by werewolf on the Yorkshire Moors, curse is passed on. After recovering in London, one of the survivors must come to terms with what he might have become.
Despite some perceptions, this is not an out and out horror film although it is dripping in blood and guts at times. Prior to making this film director/writer John Landis had previously been on a hot streak making comedy films but he decided to mix in horror for this 1981 outing. If you look closely enough, you will find some nice tongue in cheek laughs and dry humour scattered around it, but a horror it still is, with the usual kind of scares, action, and tension that makes for a great horror. Some fans must surely have been left wondering, with how much of a dive into horror this film takes, were there two John Landis’ – but no, it’s the same guy that brought audiences “The Kentucky Fried Movie”, “National Lampoons Animal House”, and the “The Blues Brothers“, before this werewolf film.
No werewolf film captured the visceral body metamorphosis quite like this one did in the 1980’s. Other werewolf films might have showed glimmers of the lycanthropic transformation but this one captured a brutal and painful side of it and everything that comes with it, from the unbearable hot sweats as the body changes, to the crunching of bones as the physical form transforms. Technically this is a masterpiece of cinema and still looks good nearly half a century later. It’s not just the transformation that stands out visually but there is an epic scene at the climax of the film with Piccadilly circus in disarray as the werewolf attacks the streets of London – buses crashing, people being knocked down, drivers being thrown out of cars, people being injured and maimed all over the place.
The visual technicalities are not the only standout points. The musical score is fantastic and adds a life of its own to scenes. Where some scenes could be flat, the musical score keeps an air of tension going. There are some wonderful juxtapositions with the music too, with lighthearted music playing over what would usually be a gory scene to make it easier to digest and at times funny too.
The pace of the film keeps everything flowing nicely, there are even some fun twists and jump scares to keep audiences on their toes – the Zombie Nazi dream within a dream springs to mind! At almost half a century old you might expect that the film may have aged significantly, but other than background locations, fashion, and maybe vehicles, the film is still relevant. This is down to a strong story and beautifully written dialogue; it does not matter how dated Piccadilly Circus looks, or how archaic the hospital looks, the film might be strong visually, but it does not rely on it. There is a lovely budding relationship between David and Nurse Alex; there is the dry fun of the locals from the ‘Slaughtered Lamb Inn’; David’s journey of self-realization and acceptance thanks to his zombie friend(s). In fact, when it comes to the end of the film, you might just be left feeling sad for what happens.
As far as the casting goes, the parts are extremely well acted. Some of the cast were relatively unknown to audiences, that was certainly the case for David Naughton in the lead role yet he brings a good performance. It’s the likes of Brian Glover, and John Woodvine who were more seasoned actors, even a young Jenny Agutter had a lot more experience than some of the cast did. I keep forgetting that there are some lovely cameos in the film and rejoice every time I see Rick Mayall playing chess and spitting his pint out.
As this film came out a year after I was born, I did not get the joy of watching it the 1990’s, but even then, it was hailed as an important film in both horror and for visual effects. I first encounter it as a trailer on the “Making of Thriller” (1983) VHS, around 1986, so I was still far too young – but I was not phased. Because of the early introduction to it, I found that it was one of the first films I rented when I got my first video rental card and enough facial fuzz not to look like an early teenager. To this day I still adore this film and hold it in high regard, certainly more so than the sequel that was attempted in 1997; “American Werewolf in Paris”. In fact, as a rule of thumb, if you plan on sitting down to watch this, make 100% sure that it says “London” in the title, and not “Paris” or you might be in for some disappointment.
A film I love with plenty of blood, guts, and belly laughs, this a treat to your entertainment absorbing senses and it would be rude of me to award it anything less than an 9 out of 10.