An American Werewolf in London (1981) ***½
This has long been one of my favorite werewolf movies. It’s extremely witty, surprisingly well acted (apart from a strangely passionless sex scene), and tautly directed. It also features one of the earliest on-screen transformation scenes in werewolf movie history that was not accomplished solely by stopping the camera and having the makeup crew rush in to glue hair and a latex nose onto the actor’s face. (This may actually be the earliest-- it depends on whether An American Werewolf in London came out earlier in 1981 than The Howling, or vice versa. Either way, this movie’s transformation scene scores extra points for happening in a much better-lit room than The Howling’s .)
The story begins with two American college students, David Kessler (David Naughton, from The Sleeping Car and Body Bags) and his friend Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), hitchhiking their way across northern England. As darkness falls, the pair stop in at a pub with the menacing name of the Slaughtered Lamb, whose sign bears the somewhat counterintuitive image of a wolf’s severed and impaled head. Inside, David and Jack get the same reception from the locals that every out-of-towner receives from tavern patrons in werewolf and vampire movies. Just as it seems that the crowd may come around to the two hitchhikers, Jack makes the fatal mistake of asking the purpose of the pentagram scrawled on the pub’s wall, and he and David are sent away under implied threat of violence with the warning: “Stay on the road, and steer clear of the moors.” (Funny, that’s what the sheep herder who gave them a ride earlier said, too.) As you might have guessed, David and Jack do not stay on the road, and do end up on the moors. And as you might also have guessed, this results in their being attacked by a large, dog-like creature, which kills Jack and injures David before it is gunned down by the folks from the Slaughtered Lamb, who apparently had a change of heart. The last thing David sees before losing consciousness is the body of his attacker, which now looks a lot more like a naked man than an outsized dog.
Flash forward what turns out to be three weeks. David wakes up in a London hospital, where he is told that Jack is dead and that he has been in a catatonic state. Police arrive to question him about the incident, and David is stunned to learn that they believe the attack to have been the work of an escaped lunatic. The police consider the case closed, and have not the slightest interest in David’s stories of being attacked by an animal. That would seem to be the end of the matter; David’s injuries are healed, and he is no longer catatonic. However, he has been having strange and disturbing dreams ever since he regained consciousness. In his dreams, he runs through a forest until he catches a deer or similar woodland creature, kills it with his bare hands, and eats it raw. Sometimes, as a change of pace, he dreams about monsters killing his loved ones. Sometimes the monster is him. This is bad enough, but one day he receives a visitation from Jack, now a badly mangled revenant, who tells him that the creature that attacked them was a werewolf. Jack, of course, was killed, but is now trapped in limbo until the werewolf’s bloodline is severed-- that is, until the last member of his killer’s lycanthropic lineage is dead. Because David was wounded by the werewolf but survived, he is that last werewolf. The ghost of Jack advises David to kill himself within the next two days, before the moon becomes full again.
David takes the whole business as proof positive that he has lost his mind. His only solace comes from telling his story to his attractive young nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter, from Logan’s Run and Dominique is Dead), whom he has befriended, and with whom he becomes romantically involved. Alex takes him in at her flat, the aforementioned passionless sex scene occurs, and is followed in short order by another visit from Jack, who is beginning to decompose noticeably. The overall direction we’re headed in ought to be fairly obvious by now. David isn’t crazy, Jack is real, and the two really were victims of a werewolf attack. Cue the amazing transformation scene and the ensuing carnage.
David wakes up, naked, in the wolf enclosure of the zoo, with no memory of how he got there or what he did last night. His efforts to get back to Alex’s flat provide some of the funniest moments in what is quite a funny movie to begin with. For a little while, David feels better than he has in ages, but then he hears that six people were brutally murdered the night before, and he realizes what we already know. There is one more visit from Jack (in a Piccadilly Circus porno theater), and then the sun sets, and it’s werewolf time again. The climax is suitably climactic, and provides us with our first really good look at the monster. It’s pretty cool, but honestly, it looks more like a cross between a bear and a badger than a wolf.
The long and short of it is: watch this movie. Director John Landis really knew what he was doing here, and got some fine performances out of his cast-- especially Griffin Dunne in the role of Jack the “walking meatloaf”. It’s fairly well paced, it’s funny, and there’s even a solitary second of fear to be had during one of David’s nightmares. It could stand to be a little sexier, and to deliver a bit more werewolfery, but I really can’t complain too much. Check it out.