An American Werewolf In London (1980)
If you’re of a certain age, this is probably one of the first horror movies you ever saw. And if, like me, it was one of the first horror films you ever saw, can you honestly say that anything since has even come close to the pant-soiling experience that was the first time you saw it? Be honest…
This reviewer is of the view that enduring such a high watermark in the genre as an introduction to the world of scary movies actually had a detrimental effect. I’m more of a genteel chills kind of guy, really (Dead Of Night, Three Cases Of Murder… you know the score) and I can always find those kind of films quite unnerving, but in the 20-odd years since John Landis “really scared me” (the shit head), I can honestly say that none of the hundreds of jumpy gore-fests I’ve sat through has ever really worked. American Werewolf has had many imitators, but it has never been bettered.
When you actually analyse the film, there’s not a huge amount of plot going on - man gets attacked by werewolf, man becomes werewolf, man kills lots of people, man gets shot. But as with many true classics, it’s the little things that count. For one thing, American Werewolf isn’t just scary, it’s bloody funny and hugely quotable as well.
And that classy, cultish feel oozes from pretty much every scene, even what could have been a simple, throwaway scene-setter in a British pub at the beginning. Many British pubs are still like that – deeply unfriendly, dingy places (although probably minus the pentangle scrawled on the wall). But what most people do is ignore such oddities, keep their heads down and sup their pint. Not the two young American tourists we’ve followed in there, though – they are determined to find out why a pentangle (the “sign of the wolf man”, according to Lon Chaney Jr) is being used as a focal point, and with a cry of “remember the Alamo!”, Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton), our two heroes, descend into a maelstrom of out-and-out terror from which neither is destined to escape.
Kicked out by the suddenly-angry locals onto the moors (“Its-a cold and-a wet out here!”) with only a meagre piece of frankly obvious advice, our two bumbling Yanks begin to realise that they’ve messed up big style: “Keep to the road... ah.”
And then the horror starts. You feel their terror as they realise they are being stalked through the darkness by something huge and unseen, and with a sudden jolt the viewer is assailed with two truly revolting deaths. Jack is quite literally ripped apart by his unseen assailant, and seconds later his killer doesn’t fare much better, shot to pieces by the suddenly conscience-stricken locals and collapsing naked and steaming, great gouts of blood pouring from his flabby white body.
By this point your loud guffaws have turned into stunned amazement. And just in case these mixed emotions hadn’t frazzled your brain too much, once David wakes up in hospital, in walks Jenny Agutter. In a nurses uniform.
Have the dreams stopped? Is the film nearly over? It must be, because David’s arrived home in America, completely cured. Phew, for a minute there we thought something horrible was going to happen! What’s that, a knock at the door? Oh, bloody hell. Nazi zombies, armed with family-shredding machine guns and throat-slicing machetes.
Well, that must be an end of it. David’s awake, and here comes nurse Jenny to open the curtains… Ah. He’s still dreaming. Eek. “Holy shit” indeed.
So, now the audience are all totally wrong-footed and utterly terrified. Surely things can’t get any worse? Well, for one thing we’re all wondering what happened to Jack after he was slashed to ribbons on the moors. Oh look, here he is, asking for a piece of toast, and looking frankly revolting.
David’s reply as he checks out his zombie friend, “I can’t take this,” must have been pretty close to what everyone in the cinema was thinking back in 83, and you can’t really blame them. Every time you think the film’s going to stop shocking you, Landis bungs in another jolt.
Just to digress slightly, the “late 70s England” touches are excellent – and let’s face it, the nostalgia of a bygone age is often one of nice little extras people can take from these films. There are only three channels on the telly, David’s doctor, Doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine) drives a rubber bumper MGB GT, and the London Underground is full of punks. There’s also a wonderful specially-created advert for the News Of The World at one point: “The Naked Truth About Naughty Nina”.
Getting back to the horror, it’s now time for the fantastic change scene, and it is still fantastic, all these years later - transformation has never looked so painful, and the astonishing thing is that it’s all done in broad daylight, with no “cutaways” or jiggery-pokery. These days werewolf transformations in children’s films are ten-a-penny – Van Helsing, Harry Potter, Underworld. But the changes in those films are pathetic, computer-generated cartoons devoid of real horror or nastiness – a means to an end (in other words, to have a pathetic, computer-generated cartoon of a wolfman jumping around and not convincing anyone). Because what is happening to David is happening in front of you, and is all solidly real, you can feel the bones knitting together, the skin stretching – the agony that such a transformation, if it were to happen, would create. Is it really any wonder that werewolves tend to be a bit grumpy?
As wolf about town, David hacks to pieces some cheerful yuppies, assorted tramps and a humourless bloke in the Underground (prompting a thousand refusals to set foot on the escalators during days out in the capital) before waking up in the zoo none the wiser.
After stealing some clothes to get home (yet another necessity which seems to escape the modern film makers – the werewolf in Van Helsing appears to be wearing a pair of amazing reappearing trousers) David is told about the night’s hi-jinks by his taxi driver: “‘E must be a real right maniac, this feller” (there’s a Cockernee understatement, if ever I heard one, guv’nor).
It’s not long before an increasingly revolting-looking zombie Jack has filled David in on exactly what is happening – he’s a werewolf, and while he lives all his victims are doomed to walk the earth as the undead. David finally believes what is going on, which leads to a wonderful exchange with a befuddled police officer in Trafalgar Square as David tries to get arrested: “Queen Elizabeth’s a man! Prince Charles is a faggot! Winston Churchill was full of shit! Shakespeare was French!”
This doesn’t work (“if you carry on like that sir, I shall have to arrest you!” / “That’s what I want you to do, you asshole!”) and zombie Jack ends up luring frantic David into a Leicester Square porn cinema, which is showing the awesome “See You Next Wednesday”, a top-notch, specially shot boobathon which has the most priceless dialogue in the whole film (of course, sex films and horror were bedfellows throughout the 70s - see Norman J Warren’s Terror for more busty “film within a film” antics).
And so the film races towards its uncompromising ending, with a fantastic conversation between David and his undead victims (“Can’t say we’re very pleased to meet you, Mr Kessler”), a hugely entertaining and bone-crunchingly gratuitous Leicester Square massacre as the werewolf runs amok for the last time, and an astonishing downbeat ending as Landis shows that true love can’t save a werewolf after all.
If you haven’t seen American Werewolf for ages, it’s worth searching out. If you haven’t seen it at all, you must, as it’s quite possibly the greatest horror film ever made. And for all the right reasons. Bloody hell - it’s still as scary as it was 20 years ago. How many other films can say that?
Updated: February 10, 2010
Not only is American Werewolf one of the best horror films ever made, but it contains some sparkling dialogue, which actually stands up well on its own. Sample some typically British pub talk, a particularly nasty death, a fantastic old News Of The World TV advert, Oscar nominated "art film" See You Next Wednesday, and more...
Santa Lucia... 45k
Tweets by @britishhorror
All words, logos and drawings are © Chris Wood 2000 to now.
All photos, posters, sounds and videos are reproduced in good faith with the sole intention of promoting these films. Why should I be the only one to suffer watching them? If any film makers feel particularly strongly about abuse of copyright on the site, they obviously haven't got anything better to do. You could try Watchdog, but frankly, I think they've got bigger fish to fry...