John Landis‘ seminal werewolf horror succeeds in both redefining (by virtue of cutting edge practical effects) and re-establishing (in the wake of a swathe of sub-par movies) a neglected sub-genre. This effort seemed to jump-start an interest in lycanthropy with The Howling, Wolfen, Full Moon High, The Company of Wolves and Teen Wolf following soon after.
The deceptively simplistic fish-out-of-water first act is effective because it draws on Landis’ personal experiences as a visiting director in the UK. His experience of the cultural landscape of eighties Britain is incorporated in the travails of David Kessler, played by newcomer David Naughton and Jack Goodman portrayed with charm and wit by soon to be After Hours Griffin Dunne.
The evident chemistry between the two cinematic newcomers allows their brief sojourn around the Yorkshire Moors to magnify the tragic incident that befalls Jack. What could have been a mere plot mechanism is transformed into something genuinely tragic and sets the uneasy tone of the the next two acts.
Relocating to London David recovers with the help of Nurse Alex Price (nominally the flimsy female role) but on this occasion given some substance by the impressively committed Jenny Agutter. Alex and David embark on a brief fling whilst David’s psyche slowly crumbles amidst ghostly visitations and vivid nightmares signposting impending doom.
Whilst Landis handles the horror with the reverence and skill of a Universal Monsters fanboy he displays equal interest and respect for the comedic elements of the screenplay. This provides the perfect accompaniment to the moments of terror which punctuate the tight structure and streamline the execution.
Stand out moments are Rick Baker’s daylight werewolf transformation. Though oft copied it has rarely been bettered, and is accompanied by an unusually believable performance for a character in an absurd circumstance. Since this was his first cinematic lead it appears that Landis was able to identify an actor who would be malleable and willing enough to go through the indignation of the role along with the theatricality of the trauma of transformation.
An American Werewolf in London remains a very enjoyable and effective horror film buoyed by the unique talent Landis had in both comedy and horror. The cast includes such British alumni as Brian Glover, John Goodvine, Lila Kaye and Rik Mayall, all of whose reactions and characterisations acclimatise the audience in this slightly off-beat world. A final flourish is a soundtrack that musically supports the theme through Van Morrison, Credence Clearwater Revival and Sam Cooke lunar ditties.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 28 Oct 2019