An American Werewolf in London is one of those cult movies I always meant to see but never did (much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I’ll review later in the month). I knew it by reputation as a darkly comic horror film, perhaps similar to Evil Dead II or Dead Alive.
One of the reasons it took me a while to see it was that it was a werewolf movie. I’m not a big fan of werewolves. I understand the appeal of vampires; Frankenstein’s monster is cool; demons, sea monsters, zombies I like. But werewolves seem boring to me. They’re big dogs, essentially. And their gimmick strains even the most flexible imagination: the victim only turns into a werewolf at each full moon? Why? Are werewolves affected by gravitational forces, like the tides? And then there’s the problem of mass conversion. Whether the victim turns into a giant wolf-man or a pure wolf, the weight ratios are going to be different, and that just bugs me; where does the extra mass come from (or go to)?
I have enjoyed the occasional werewolf story—usually when the conventions are thrown out. One of Peter David‘s first novels is Howling Mad, in which a wolf is bitten by a werewolf and turns into a man every full moon. My favorite werewolf movie is probably Dog Soldiers, which was written and directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent). I don’t mind Seth Green’s “Oz” character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but that’s largely because he won me over with a good old-fashioned monster fight (in the episode “Beauty and the Beasts”). Underworld was somewhat interesting too (haven’t seen the sequel yet).
Probably the best werewolf story I’ve read is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy story “The Wolves of Saint August,” available in The Chained Coffin and Others, which is based on the legend of the Werewolves of Ossory.
But back to the matter at hand—An American Werewolf in London. The film begins with two American backpackers, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunn) arriving in a small town in Northern England. They make their way to a small pub, ominously called The Slaughtered Lamb, where they are gawked at by the creepy, subdued townsfolk before deciding to continue on their journey across the moors under a full moon. No points for guessing what happens next.
Yes, our dynamic duo meets up with a werewolf. Jack gets killed and David ends up “in hospital” in London, where his nurse (played by the quite hot Jenny Agutter) makes rather unprofessional advances toward him while he has bizarre nightmares and nightly visits from his dead friend Jack, who it turns out is only mostly dead. All the while we wait for the next full moon, and when it comes, all hell predictably breaks loose.
The film is probably best known for the fantastic werewolf transformation sequence by Rick Baker, which still holds up more than twenty-five years later. Most of the horror comes from David’s bizarre nightmares and the surreal visits from the increasingly-decomposed Jack. I did appreciate some of the darkly comic touches; the scenes with the bizarre townsfolk were amusing, as is the scene where David tries to get himself arrested.
Overall, I can’t say I’m destined to be as great a fan of An American Werewolf in London as I am, say, Evil Dead II, but it’s an entertaining cult classic and well worth the viewing.