Jarv’s Birthday Series: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Welcome back to The Birthday Series. After the unintentional horror of Xanadu, I gleefully unwrap my next present and am ecstatic to see John Landis’ seminal intentional horror American Werewolf in London pop out. As with Life of Brian, this is rightly regarded as a stone-cold classic and as such there are reams and reams of proper reviews by enlightened scribes out there, so I haven’t got a huge amount to add that hasn’t already been written. Nevertheless, I’ll give it my best.

Not too long ago, Mrs. Jarv informed me that the Curzon Soho were showing a series of Horror films at midnight. Being rather chuffed at this novel idea, I pulled the list, and instantly An American Werewolf in London jumped out at me. We booked the tickets, trundled along and were doubly pleased to see Jenny Agutter in attendance and John Landis himself giving a talk on the film before it started. Landis always seems like a nice bloke when interviewed on TV, and in the flesh he was a hugely enthusiastic about this film. He waxed lyrical about how, although he did acknowledge that there were elements of comedy to it, AWIL is in his mind a “pure” horror film, saying things like “COME ON! I put them turning up with sheep, and the pub is called The Slaughtered Lamb! It was unsubtle!”. His enthusiasm was actually hugely infectious, particularly when he ripped the sequel a new asshole, specifically noting that the finished film bore no resemblance to the original idea/ script that he signed off on. He did, admittedly, blot his copybook by being insanely chuffed with himself for having just sold the rights for a remake.

An American Werewolf in London is a really simple film. David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two boneheaded yank tourists mooching around England. We first see them in the back of, as Landis noted, a sheep truck somewhere in Yorkshire. They stop off at the most unwelcoming pub in the UK, the aforementioned Slaughtered Lamb, where after a frosty exchange with the local inbreds they set out to walk across the moors. No sooner than you can say “fuck me is that the Hound of the Baskervilles” they’re attacked. Jack is killed and David is rescued by the penitent locals mere inches from death. Cut to London, and he’s coming back to health. Nurse Alex Price (an intensely fuckable Jenny Agutter) befriends him, but he’s being hassled by the decomposing ghost of Jack who has the helpful advice “kill yourself” for him. Eventually, he transforms into a wolf, kills some people before going on a batshit insane rampage in Piccadilly Circus before being gunned down by the cops.

This is a fan-fucking-tastic movie. It is legitimately a horror film, and it is also very funny on occasion. Landis was in the midst of a truly awesome hot streak at this point, and AWIL is arguably the best of a very good bunch of films. It helps that Naughton and Dunne are incredibly likeable in the leads, and although Jack’s advice for David is undoubtedly hard to take, he always turns up with a smile and a cheeky remark. The exchange with David’s victims in the porno theatre is genuinely funny, and Jack’s ghostly visits are a noted high point of a film full of high points.

However, the real show-stopper in this film is the werewolf transformation. Set to Bad Moon Rising (hehehehe), David’s transformation into a wolf is an agonising bone-crunching sequence as his body twists and reforms itself. This is a superb scene, and the practical effects here are truly stunning. This has a deserved reputation as being the best transformation scene ever filmed, and looking at these effects 30 years later, it is astonishing how well they still hold up. I find it amazing that in this day of CGI, a well acted (and it is really well acted) practical scene can still look this good. Rick Baker was in charge of Makeup here, and rightly received an Oscar for some truly astounding work, particularly when you take into account that it still hasn’t been bettered 30 years later.

Talking about the acting, Naughton is likeable and a bit boneheaded as the central character, and Dunne is, as mentioned, a fun presence. However, Agutter never really gets mentioned here and this strikes me as unfair. Agutter has made a career out of supporting roles in films, she was good in Logan’s Run as well, for example. However, here she’s on a level that she didn’t really hit again: being sweetly naive and stubborn- her exhortation towards the wolf at the climax of the film is really quite touching and it is a genuinely surprising turn from her.

I don’t want to waffle on too long here, but this is one of the founding fathers of postmodernism. While this is an extremely good film, it is also one of the first “knowing” films that I can think of. Landis filled the first section full of “winks” to the audience that foreshadow what’s going on, and the soundtrack itself is stuffed full of songs about the moon and some such. While we are now jaded by movies that play to the audience like this, watching this one again it didn’t feel as pleased with itself as it tends to now. Rather, the touches to it feel fun, and playful. There’s nothing here that could be truly described as smug and I can honestly believe that at the time this was an amazingly fresh approach to take to a genre as tired as the werewolf movie.

Overall, this is a champion film. It’s one of my favourite films of all time, and I was ecstatic to see its release date. It is legitimately and rightly regarded as a classic and it is one that I recommend everyone sees. The stand-out sequence is still as effective now as it was then, and even if Landis continues to make shite and whore his back-catalogue out Carpenter style, he keeps in the good books due to the lifetime pass that this film earns. An American Werewolf in London is simply a great film, and it can also have a maximum Four Chubby Yank Werewolves out of Four.

Next up is Mark “Commando” Lester’s 1984 dopey sci-fi action fest Class of 1984. Not as good as this, but still worth a few chuckles.

Until then,

Jarv

The full list in this series:

  • 1978 – The Driver (3 out of 4)
  • 1979 – Life of Brian (4 out of 4)
  • 1980 –Xanadu (Orangutan of Doom)
  • 1981 – An American Werewolf in London
  • 1982 – Class of 1984
  • 1983 – Fire and Ice
  • 1984 – Cal
  • 1985 – Teen Wolf
  • 1986 –Reform School Girls
  • 1987 – Dirty Dancing
  • 1988 – Married to the Mob
  • 1989 – Millennium
  • 1990 – Darkman
  • 1991 – Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
  • 1992 – Christopher Columbus: The Discovery(TBC)
  • 1993 – Hard Target
  • 1994 – Natural Born Killers
  • 1995 – Desperado
  • 1996 – Freeway
  • 1997 – Mimic
  • 1998 – Blade
  • 1999 – Teaching Mrs. Tingle
  • 2000 – Bring it On
  • 2001 – Heartbreakers
  • 2002 – Simone
  • 2003 – My Boss’s Daughter
  • 2004 –  Exorcist: The beginning
  • 2005 – The Cave
  • 2006 – Invincible
  • 2007 – War
  • 2008 – Death Race
  • 2009 – Der Baader Meinhof Komplex
  • 2010 – Piranha 3D
  • 2011 – Conan the Barbarian

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

11 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series: An American Werewolf in London (1981)”

  1. Col. Tigh-Fighter says :

    Excellent film! I think the overhead shot of thje werewolf approaching the man on the underground escalator is one of my favourites. The wolf is genuinely scary, something that I dont think has been done since.

    I could do with watching this again soon.

  2. Spud McSpud says :

    And Jenny Agutter… My God, Jenny Agutter…

    England will never produce women of this calibre again. Jarv, I am jealous of you at a level hitherto never experienced…

  3. DocPazuzu says :

    Like you said: a stone cold classic. This movie is indeed one of the all-time horror greats and is just as amazing today as it was back in 1981.

    When I first saw it back in 1981, I was living in Sweden which at the time was much more draconian in terms of censorship than Britain was. I knew it had been cut, but not by how much. Among other things, the ENTIRE nightmare sequence had been excised so all you saw was Agutter reading to Naughton after which he wakes up with a start. Needless to say, when I obtained and watched an uncut VHS bootleg about a year later, I nearly shit myself when the nightmare scene popped up. Good times, good times…

  4. Continentalop says :

    Fuck, 1981 goes down as the greatest year in Werewolf cinema history, with this and the Howling, the Beatles and Rolling Stones of lycanthrope movies (I guess that makes Wolfen the Beach Boys).

    Great review Jarv.

  5. Xiphos0311 says :

    This is the one and only time Bad Moon Rising worked in a film.

    • Jarv says :

      Yup. Totally agree. The whole soundtrack is moon-related, though.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        That is true about the sound track, I had forgot the moon theme it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Is Werewolves of London in the sound track or had it not been written yet?

  6. redfishybluefishy says :

    Love this movie, it’s one of my favorites; there is just something of brilliance in it. It holds up as more than just a great horror film, it holds up as a great film. Best wolf transformation, best werewolf in wolf form (i have never found any as scary), exceptional cast, excellent script. I love that balance of darkness and cheeky humour. I could pretty much watch this movie any day of the week. I think they missed out on quite a few good ‘moon’ songs. werewolves of london was definitely written, but i guess they had problems getting the rights. glad you wrote this one up, it makes me want to watch it again.

  7. Droid says :

    I’ve only ever seen this once. I really liked it but I barely remember anything from it, apart from some of the imagery of the transformation and the initial attack on the moors. I need to watch it again.

  8. ThereWolf says :

    Yeh, a classic, no arguments from me (though I’ve always thought the wolf looked more like bear during the finale).

    Basically, if anyone mentions this film I usually start drooling & muttering ‘Jenny Agutter… as a nurse…’ over and over again.

    And the mighty Brian Glover – “That’s enough!”

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