Two American friends are attacked by a werewolf while hiking on the English moors. One dies of his wounds; the other is taken to London to recuperate from the ordeal. Unfortunately, because he was bitten in the werewolf attack, David (David Naughton) is doomed to become a werewolf during the next full moon. His dead friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) shows up to try to convince him to kill himself and stop the werewolf’s bloodline. But does David listen? If he did, would there have been a movie?
In 1981, two werewolf movies hit America’s movie screens: this one and The Howling. Whichever film came out first was sure to steal some of the other’s thunder, and The Howling happened to beat An American Werewolf in London into theaters by about four months. Both featured man-into-wolf transformations that were light-years beyond anything ever before seen on screen; they made Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformations into the Wolf Man look as archaic as they actually were. Director John Landis had been planning An American Werewolf in London for almost a decade, and he had talked with special effects maestro Rick Baker about doing a transformation scene that actually showed a man changing into a wolf with no cutaways. Baker had worked out how to accomplish this daunting bit of makeup trickery, but Landis wasn’t able to raise the necessary funds to get the movie made. When The Howling went into production, Rick Baker was hired to do its werewolf transformations. He planned out the big transformation sequence with his protégé Rob Bottin, and they went to work creating the most realistic werewolf transformation ever seen…and then John Landis, due to having back-to-back ginormous hits for Universal with Animal House and The Blues Brothers, got the go-ahead to make An American Werewolf in London. So, Baker quit The Howling, leaving Bottin to pull off the werewolf effects, and he went to work on Landis’s film.
If An American Werewolf in London had come out first, it would have had a bit more of a cachet than it ended up having. As things stand, The Howling took away from An American Werewolf in London’s wow factor because it did the big transformation scene first. Whether it did it better is arguable, but for my money, the effects in The Howling are the more impressive ones. Still, there’s a lot to like about An American Werewolf in London: the performances are uniformly great; Griffin Dunne’s post-attack makeup is wonderfully ghoulish; the dream sequences (and sometimes dream sequences inside of dream sequences) are dazzling; and most importantly of all, the film has an air of pathos about it that The Howling is never able to muster. I love the juxtaposition of the music featured in the last shot of the film and that of the end credits that immediately follow it–it’s like a punch to the gut.
A couple of other quick facts about An American Werewolf in London: it features three different versions of the song “Blue Moon”; John Landis’s catch-phrase “See you next Wednesday” has a much larger than usual appearance in the film; there wasn’t an official soundtrack album released, but Meco (of Star Wars…and Other Galactic Funk infamy) recorded an album of music inspired by the film; and Rik Mayall (of The Young Ones) shows up as a guy playing chess in The Slaughtered Lamb.
I can’t imagine that anyone with enough of an interest in horror movies to be reading this blog hasn’t seen An American Werewolf in London yet, but if you’re out there, make sure that you put it on your short list of movies to check out real soon.
Here’s the moody original theatrical trailer from YouTube: