Possibly The Most Entertaining Horror Film Ever Made…
“I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf!” – David Kessler.
For me, there is no horror movie more shocking, more deliriously funny, more exhilarating than An American Werewolf In London.
Having gained considerable success with the riotous comedy: Animal House (1978), John Landis unleashed “a different kind of animal” in 1981. People went into Landis’ next feature expecting something just as hilarious. Many walked out, clearly not prepared for the gory and grisly drama that would unfold.
The UK TV premiere came (very late at night, of course) in 1984. It was shown not long after we had bought our very first VCR. After much pleading, my father agreed to stay up and tape it for me. The morning after, watching it avidly, a strange, spine-tingling sensation soon gripped me and held my attention throughout all 97 minutes of it.
One thing for sure: there would be many repeat viewings.
“I mean, look around. Isn’t this a fun place?”
The film’s opening shot features the Yorkshire moors at dawn. Over a montage of such serene vistas, the first of three versions of Blue Moon (by Bobby Vinton) is played. Actually, in his original script, Landis wanted Moonshadow by Cat Stevens, but Yusuf Islam wouldn’t budge.
After hitching a ride in the back of a farmer’s truck, backpackers: David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) arrive at East Proctor, supposedly in Yorkshire, Northern England, but the location photography was done in Powys, Wales. Especially love the gentle piano score by Elmer Bernstein as they find a traditional little pub called: The Slaughtered Lamb. These exterior shots were taken outside a private house in Crickadarn, a village in Powys.
“Those sheep shit on my pack…”
“‘Ere, Gladys! Tom! Did you hear the one about the crashing plane?”
The “nice-looking group” inside the warm and cosy Slaughtered Lamb just happens to include some of the most recognisable character actors in the British film industry at that time.
That’s Brian Glover (the warden from Alien 3), the chess player telling that Alamo joke; his opponent is Rick Mayall, a well-loved TV comedy actor; David Schofield (a scheming senator in Gladiator), a disturbed darts player; and there’s even Pat Roach (who challenged Indiana Jones to a bare-knuckle fight in Raiders of the Lost Ark that very same year). These interior shots were filmed inside The Black Swan, at Martyr’s Green, in Surrey.
“Excuse me, but what’s that star on the wall for?”
“You made me miss! I’ve never missed that board before…”
This is certainly going to go down as the highlight of David Schofield’s career. No action, no gore: just a genuinely chilling moment. Still gets me three decades later.
Taking drastic leave from The Slaughtered Lamb, after Jack dropped that bombshell, it’s back to the moors they (inexplicably) go.
As they trudge away, the heavens open. Love the way they’re bawling Italian opera without a care in the world…
“Then murder it is! It’s in God’s hands now…”
“Ah shit! What is it?!”
Feel the tension as we cut back to The Slaughtered Lamb and the frightened expressions on the locals’ faces as the distant cry of the werewolf is clearly audible.
“You hear that?” “I heard nothing!”
Of course, the two boys have to stop in the middle of the cold, dark and wet moorland to reassure themselves that there are no coyotes in England…
With every viewing, the gradual loudness of the wolf’s howls is unsettling – fantastic sound effects and a skilful upsurge in suspense as the boys have nowhere to run.
And then! The howl comes (from offscreen) directly in front of them! In their panic, David slips, Jack leans in to help, and suddenly, the beast attacks. Jack is mauled to death; the wolf is shot down by the villagers – who arrived a minute too late. Before passing out, David turns to look at the beast, only to find a dead man lying beside him…
“Maybe that pentangle was for something supernatural…”
“Mr. Kessler, try not to excite yourself!”
Here you go: yet another reason why An American Werewolf In London is well-cherished – especially among my generation.
Confused and disorientated in a London hospital, David receives a visit by a Mr. Collins from the American Embassy. As soon as you hear the voice you realise: yes! That’s Bert from Sesame Street! Miss Piggy (who actually has a cameo during a dream sequence – how freaky is that?) and of course: Yoda from the Star Wars saga.
Up until then, Frank Oz had been an anonymous, yet amazing, puppeteer and voice artist, but to see him here:
one couldn’t help but get excited!
“These dumbass kids, they never appreciate anything you do for ’em…”
“I’ll send someone in to keep you company…”
Just as you are convinced that this is five-star fare, Landis (and Baker) crank it up to an even more awesome level. Having suffered a few dream sequences already, David drifts off into his most terrifying yet: at home, his siblings are watching The Muppet Show; there’s frantic knocking at the door…
Get this: a band of Nazi ghouls wielding sub-machine guns shoot up and burn down his home, slaughter his family (even kicking Kermit – the fiends!) then kill him. Will never forget how exhilarating it was watching this scene for the first time all those years ago; reckon the tape was rewound twice to savour each delicious, unbelievable frame!
At such a young age, this was by far the most mind-blowing sight these wide, disbelieving eyes had ever seen! It remains one of my all-time goosebump moments. As this sequence was sooo cool, it gets two pics.
And – hey! – we haven’t even got to David’s transformation yet…
“That’s Punch and Judy – they’ve always been violent.”
“Can I have a piece of toast?”
With every viewing, the first view of the undead Goodman boy never fails to astound. The make-up applied to Griffin Dunne here by Rick Baker is sensational, but would this scene be outstanding if it did not begin with that absurd line?
This is a pivotal intervention as Jack explains how he died “an unnatural death and now walk the Earth in limbo until the werewolf curse is lifted.”
“The wolf’s bloodline must be severed; the last remaining werewolf must be destroyed… It’s you, David!”
This is my kinda drama!
It’s kinda creepy how Jack just carries on as he did before, talking about that girl he fancied, only this time complaining about the insipid company of the undead.
“You ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”
“I didn’t mean to call you a meatloaf, Jack.”
Amazing how Nurse Price takes David back to her place – which just happens to be:
64 Coleherne Road,
– where he receives even better treatment. You simply can’t get that kind of care on the NHS nowadays…
Actually, Dad pressed Pause when the shower scene came on. He let me sit through the gore, but Van Morrison was strictly off-limits…
Another visit from Jack – he is decomposing rapidly; after taking a quick butcher’s at the nurse’s pad, he sits down to repeat much of what he said earlier, although more desperately this time.
This is where my deep admiration for Creedence Clearwater Revival came from. In that far-off pre-internet era it took years to find out who did that killer song: Bad Moon Rising.
“I’m still not hungry…”
At last, the full moon; David burns up.
Naughton admitted later that the transformation scene took a whole week to accomplish, with approximately ten hours a day applying make-up, five hours on set, and three hours just to remove it! The Academy honoured Rick Baker’s stupendous contribution to this film, with the inaugural Award for Best Make-up.
In any other werewolf movie, an ominous (and ultimately forgettable) score would have heralded the coming of the lycanthrope, but here, it’s the highly unexpected choice of Sam Cooke’s Blue Moon. This arrangement is not supposed to work, but somehow, surreally, it does.
Could not proceed without putting up this scene. In addition to gasping at the ingenuity of the effects, listen to those bloodcurdling sound effects, enhancing what turns out to be a credible and undeniably excruciating transformation.
Modern CGI be damned…
Especially dig the nice touch at 2:04, just to remind you that –yes – this dramatic scene takes place in somebody else’s living room…
“I can assure you I don’t find this the least bit amusing… I shall report this!”
The first victims: the unfortunate couple – Harry and Judith – arrive at Sean’s place:
East Heath Road,
Then there are the three tramps; Tower Bridge is clearly visible in the background.
The sixth and final murder: Gerald Bringsley in the London Underground holds a particular personal fascination. A regular user of the “Tube” whenever in the capital, it’s always a great thrill to follow the same route through Tottenham Court Road station where a horror legend was made. To see for yourself, take the Northbound Northern Line service (not the Central Line), disembark at Tottenham Court Road and make sure to take the middle Exit.
Amusing how Gerald could buy chocolate from a confectionary machine on the platform – another privilege denied to us now.
“Oh, Good Lord!”
“I’m genuinely pleased to see you…”
David wakes up naked in London Zoo.
How he manages to get back to Alex’s flat involves a string of hilarious set-pieces, including my all-time favourite line from any horror movie – why not make it the title of this Post?
When Alex tries to bring David back to the hospital, they hail a taxi (on Wilton Crescent, Belgravia).And yes, the driver is played by none other than Alan Ford (best-known as Brick Top from Snatch).
There then follows a very bizarre scene: Jack beckons David over to a porn cinema in Piccadilly to meet his victims. Fresh and still blood-spattered, they each offer ways on how David can take his own life, thus breaking them from the curse.
Jack – in another finely-detailed make-up job – is now a gruesome cadaver, but still keen to help.
“Do you mind? The man’s a friend of mine!”
“There’s been a disturbance in Piccadilly…”
The climax involves the chaos as David runs amok once more. The above behind-the-scenes pic could not be resisted. To perfect the sequence in which the police inspector gets his head bitten off, Rick Baker literally had to operate one of his model wolf heads himself.
The director’s cameo is very difficult to spot. Landis is the bearded man who is hit by a car and thrown through a plate glass window.
The end comes far too hurriedly. Always bewildering how Alex doesn’t get shot accidentally; there’s plenty of police marksmen in that dark alley, and she’s standing just yards in front of them…
“What do you mean: how did he look? I’m an orderly, not a bleeding psychiatrist; I push things around!”
Over thirty years later, An American Werewolf In London remains a unique and original feat of film-making – still scary and spellbinding, but has never failed to enthrall… and split my sides.
The current crop of horror directors – who consistently fail to create anything half as clever and creepy as this – should be forced to study the ways in which this masterpiece came to be, and succeeded on so many levels.
How best to describe it?
Is it a zany outing with truly horrific moments:
…or a horror movie with the most unexpected comedic moments?
Final Thought: To think that studio execs wanted Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to play the two leads.
The Blues Brothers: as backpackers?! Come off it…
A naked Aykroyd scampering around London Zoo?! That would have been truly horrific…
Beware the moon… and stick to the road…