BY BRIAN BELAK
When making An American Werewolf in London, showing at Doc Films at the University of Chicago on Saturday, July 5, writer/director John Landis (of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame) drew upon his comedic background to inform his take on the horrors of lycanthropy. The resulting film, at times hilarious and frightening, has become a cult classic since its release in 1981, with its pre-CGI special effects aging particularly well in the past thirty years.
While backpacking the northern England countryside, two Americans – Jack and David – ignore the warnings of the local villagers to “beware the moon” and “stay on the road” and subsequently end up attacked by a mysterious beast. Although David survives, Jack is less fortunate, and when David wakes up in the hospital three weeks later, he begins to have visions of Jack’s corpse, among other nightmares. Jack tells David that David is now a werewolf and urges him to kill himself, thereby ending the werewolf’s curse and releasing Jack into the afterlife.
In terms of the horror/comedy blend, the comedic elements of the film win over the horrific. The chemistry between David and Jack, quick to spit out sarcastic remarks at each other, is given ample room to develop, both during their time wandering the countryside and during Jack’s visits from beyond the grave. Furthermore, a porn theater provides the setting of one of the final scenes between David and Jack’s decaying corpse, provoking comedy through absurdity as they discuss werewolves and ghosts while soundtracked by moans and cheap porn dialogue.
The best horror scenes then come not from the werewolf attacks, which are still well done, but from the nightmares that haunt David during his time in the hospital. While they start out fairly innocuous, a sense of dread pervades, as in the first dream of the camera rushing through a forest with supernatural speed. In the next dream, it is revealed to be David running naked through the forest, eventually attacking a deer by biting its neck, blood spilling everywhere.
However, the greatest of David’s nightmares is one in which he and his family are peacefully at home – his younger siblings watching The Muppet Show, his father reading the paper – when demon Nazi figures burst through the windows and attack the entire family in gruesome ways. All of the other nightmares are related to David becoming a werewolf, so the Nazi sequence is a little out of place, but that strangeness is a major part of why it is so successful as a blend of horror and comedy. The attack is grotesque, and therefore horrific, but the whole sequence is so absurd and unrelated that it also simultaneously provokes a laugh.
Additionally, Landis clearly has an extensive knowledge of the history of horror films, and he peppers references to them through his own film, particularly to classic horror like the Universal Studios’ Frankenstein. One notable exchange between David and dead Jack includes David exclaiming, “You’re talking like Boris Karloff! That’s movie dialogue!” after Jack predicts David will become “a creature of the night.”
Taking a note from those classic horror films is the special effects and make-up that feature in the film, all done before the dominance of CGI effects in modern cinema. Designer Rick Baker actually won the first Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup, and the artistry shows especially in the scenes of Jack’s visits, each one showing him more and more deteriorated until he becomes practically only a skull by the end of the film.
The crown jewel of the special effects is the famous scene of David’s first transformation into a werewolf. A large amount of build-up leads to this scene, and the special effects do not disappoint. On the first full moon after the attack, David spends two minutes in agony during which his bones stretch, hair sprouts on his body, and his teeth turn into fangs. The final change, David’s face into a wolf’s, borders on the uncanny valley and is the most unsettling as a result.
The only part of the film that falls completely flat is the forced romance between David and his nurse, Alex. After David’s discharge from the hospital, he goes home with Alex, and the two suddenly burst into an extended shower sex scene brought on by little more than Alex abruptly telling David, “I find you very attractive.” Even after that, the rest of the film leaves it to the viewer to remember the two have feelings for each other, so Alex’s declaration of love at the finale ultimately feels unearned and hollow. Never once does the viewer really care about their relationship.
Among the slew of horror films that came out during the boom of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, An American Werewolf in London proved that not all horror films must be serious and only scary. Instead, the blend of comedy and horror – a mixture that would later become a staple of the genre in films like Evil Dead II or the Scream series – is overall very successful at both genres, even if some of the film’s story elements don’t always work so well.
For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.