GUEST MOVIE REVIEW: An American Werewolf in London

In the final part of CM Saunders’ five-part series, he talks about An American Werewolf in London. I hope you enjoyed this series as much as I did and please follow the link at the end so you can see some other movie reviews he’s done.

Top 5 Eighties Horror Flicks #1

Title: An American Werewolf in London
Year of Release: 1981
Director: John Landis
Length: 97 mins
Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine

It’s been a long month. So far in our countdown of the top 5 Eighties Horror Flicks we’ve met vampires, ancient forest-dwelling spirits, vengeful ghosts, and all kinds of other nasties. A lot of blood has been spilled. It’s all been building up to this, the final instalment. Number one on the list, top of the pile, king of the hill. Some films you see during those impressionable childhood years make an indelible mark on you. Others scar you for life. For me, An American werewolf in London undoubtedly belongs in the latter category, and not just because I was obsessed with Jenny Agutter.

          It should need no introduction, but for those unfamiliar with it, the film starts with a pair of American tourists David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne) hiking across the Yorkshire Moors (this part was actually filmed on the Black Mountains in Wales). When night falls they take refuge in a charming little pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they find Rik Mayall having a game of darts and Brian Glover in a particularly prickly mood, but leave when things turn frosty with the words “Stay on the path!” ringing in their ears. Needless to say, they don’t heed the warning and and find themselves lost on the moors. As if that wasn’t bad enough, things take a huge downward turn when they are attacked and Jack is ripped to pieces by a huge wild animal, later revealed to be a werewolf. There’s no helping Jack, but a crowd from the pub arrive and kill the werewolf just in time to save David.

          Some time later David wakes up in a hospital in London. We don’t know how he got there, or why he was taken there rather than somewhere closer as it’s about 200 miles from Yorkshire to the capital as the crow flies and you’d pass a few dozen hospitals on the way. But let’s not focus too much on pesky common sense and practicalities. It’s a werewolf film for fuck’s sake. Jack returns from the dead as either a ghost or a hallucination (we are never really told which) to warn his friend that next time there is a full moon, he too will turn into a werewolf. The banter between David and Dead Jack, fast, witty, and shot-through with humour, form some of my favourite parts of the film (example: “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”).

          The anticipated change does indeed occur in a gut-wrenching yet iconic sequence which won an Academy Award for special effects (the man responsible, Rick Baker, went on to win six more from eleven nominations. A record.) and David goes on a bloody rampage across London’s West End. One of the defining scenes was set and filmed at Tottenham Court Road tube station, and anyone who has ever used that particular transport hub will surely agree that the only time you are likely to see it quite so empty is when there is a blood-crazed werewolf riding the escalator. Here’s the scene, in all its glory:

          The next we see of David he’s waking up naked in the wolf enclosure of the local zoo, and as soon as he’s dressed again he sets about piecing together the events of the night before with the help of Alice (Agutter), a nurse who he somehow managed to pull whilst being laid up at the hospital. It has to be said that she takes all the “I’m a werewolf” stuff remarkably well, which was just one more reason to love the woman.

          One of the most terrifying scenes ever committed to celluloid is the dream sequence where David witnesses his family being brutally slayed by a bunch of mutant Nazi demons brandishing machine guns in a home invasion. It’s as weird as it is shocking, and has been the cause of endless debate over the years. Was it included just for the shock factor? An extra element of controversy (as if it were needed)? Or is it a remnant of a sub-plot which was otherwise edited out?

          It’s interesting to note that earlier on in proceedings, nurse Alice and her friend make what appears to be an off-hand Jewish remark dressed up as a dick joke, and the movie has been lauded in certain circles as a significant piece of Jewish cinema. A little digging reveals John Landis was born into a Jewish family, and with that kernel of knowledge, the sub-text swims into focus. David (the name of the first monarch of the Israelite tribes) is a walking allegory for Judaism itself. A displaced, wounded hero, a stranger in a strange land, struggling to come to terms with a tragic past. This article does a pretty good job of further exploring the Jewish connection, which I’d never even considered until I re-watched it recently and started wondering what the fuck those mutant Nazi demons with machine guns had to do with anything.

          When it was released in 1981, An American Werewolf in London formed one third of a holy trinity of werewolf films, which all came out the same year, the others being Wolfen and The Howling (see number three on our list!). Director John Landis (who is more commonly associated with comedy having been involved with such seminal films as Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places) claimed he was inspired to write the script after working on the film Kelly’s Heros in Yugoslavia. Whilst out driving, he stumbled across a group of gypsies performing a ritual on a corpse so it wouldn’t ‘rise again,’ which must have been quite the mindfuck.

          At first he had trouble securing finances, with most would-be investors claiming the script was too frightening to be a comedy and too funny to be frightening, before PolyGram Pictures eventually put up the $10 million budget. Happily, their faith was repayed as the movie became a box office smash grossing over $62 million worldwide. It is now rightfully hailed as one of the greatest horror movies ever made.

          In contrast, a 1997 sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, which featured a completely different cast and crew, was a critical and commercial failure. As a curious postscript, in 2016 it was reported that John Landis’s son Max was writing and directing a remake. There’s been nothing but the sound of crickets ever since.        

Trivia Corner:

Landis has expressed regret over cutting certain sequences from the final cut of the film in order to earn an R rating in the US. The sex scene between Alex and David was edited to be less explicit, and a scene showing the homeless men along the Thames being attacked was cut after a test audience reacted negatively to it. Yet another cut scene showed the undead Jack eating a piece of toast which falls out of a hole in his torn throat.

On the 13th of every month I put a fresh spin on a classic movie in my RetView series over at my blog. Go here to check out the archive:

Boo-graphy: Christian Saunders, a constant reader who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, the Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published.

The fifth volume in my X series featuring ten (X, geddit?) slices of twisted horror and dark fiction plucked from the blood-soaked pages of ParABnormal magazine, Demonic Tome, Haunted MTL, Fantasia Diversity, and industry-defining anthologies including 100 Word Horrors, The Corona Book of Ghost Stories, DOA 3, and Trigger Warning: Body Horror.

Meet the local reporter on an assignment which takes him far beyond the realms of reality, join the fishing trip that goes sideways when a fish unlike any other is hooked, and find out the hidden cost of human trafficking in China. Along the way, meet the hiker who stumbles across something unexpected in the woods, the office worker who’s life is inexorably changed after a medical drug trial goes wrong, and many more.

Also features extensive notes, and original artwork by Stoker award-winning Greg Chapman.

Table of Contents:
Demon Tree
Revenge of the Toothfish
The Sharpest Tool
Something Bad
Down the Road
Coming Around
Where a Town Once Stood
The Last Night Shift
Subject #270374

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