FANGO Flashback: “AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is one of the rare horror offerings that has near unlimited replay value, primarily because you’re bound to find something new to appreciate about the film with every subsequent viewing. This applies even beyond the in-jokes and moon/werewolf-related visual gags, but even in terms of performances and dialogue, as picking up subtle inflections and cinematic beats can change the dynamics of a scene entirely. For a genre that rarely provides such layering, especially in the horror comedy subgenre, it’s no wonder why AMERICAN WEREWOLF stands the test of time so well.
Of course, the film also benefits from having an uncompromising writer/director in John Landis, working at his prime following THE BLUES BROTHERS and ANIMAL HOUSE. Obviously, with his credits, the humorous elements of AMERICAN WEREWOLF are effortlessly timeless, whether it’s the matter-of-fact suicide conversation in the porn theater or the nude zoo escape. Even the more absurd explosions of violence are tinged with a bit of black humor, which ultimately makes the film feel more realistic despite the fantastic subject matter.
But where Landis really, truly shines in retrospect is his more cinematic impulses, crafting tension and terror with petrifying precision. Whether it’s the first-person POV moments of the tube sequence to the initial attack on the Moor, Landis knows his power in what he doesn’t show and wields it like a visual sword. And when a filmmaker has an ace up his sleeve like Rick Baker for the horror that does make it on-screen, the art of misdirection and sleight-of-hand becomes all-the-more impressive considering lesser filmmakers could have easier hedged their bets on the FX.
That said, 35 years later, Rick Baker’s make-up FX holds up with flying colors, with the transformation scene hiding the seams and providing breath-taking horror simultaneously. Beyond that, even the deteriorating make-up on Griffin Dunne’s Jack Goodman looks unlike anything presented today, with the level of care and detail that few other productions (genre or otherwise) could provide. And considering all the various elements that could have gone wrong, from the animatronics to the lens caps to the prosthetics, the film gods were truly on the side of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which look eerie and perfectly crafted even in the age of high definition.
The performances are also fantastic as well, with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne offering one of the most naturalistic and convincing pairs in horror history. Even when things take their supernatural turn, Naughton and Dunne’s rapport is hilarious and essential to the twisted places the conversation eventually returns; as Jack begs David to end his life, it feels like a friend trying to do the best thing for someone as opposed to asking for a rather steep favor. And that’s not even mentioning the incredible work by the stunning Jenny Agutter, whose chemistry with Naughton provides one of the more engaging (and sadly tragic) relationships in the genre to date.
Overall, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is certainly a film worth revisiting as much as comfortably possible, and even moreover a film whose repeat viewings won’t ever be considered a waste of time. It’s so close to being a pitch-perfect horror film in every way possible, finding strength in how it plays to and subverts expectations ever so carefully. And, of course, who really needs an excuse to watch the greatest werewolf transformation in cinema history?