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Classic Horror on Disc: Arrow’s An American Werewolf in London (1981)

It was way back in 1969 that the seed that was to grow into An American Werewolf in London was planted like a bulb of garlic. Young John Landis, in Yugoslavia as a production assistant on the comic war film Kelly’s Heroes (1970), witnessed the gypsy burial of a criminal, interred feet first in a roadway to stop the corpse becoming one of the undead. This made Landis think about an ordinary, rational person confronting a supernatural creature or threat. Though Landis wrote the script shortly thereafter, he wasn’t able to line up financing for the movie for over a decade. The film was eventually shot in Wales, London, and Twickenham Film Studios in Middlesex, England. It was released in August 1981, to some mixed reviews and commercial success.

Everyone should know the story by now, but in brief, it follows two American backpackers in northern England, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), who run afoul of a werewolf on the moors on a rainy, full moonlit night. Jack is killed, but David is wounded and survives, which makes him next in line to inherit the curse of the lycanthrope. Hospitalized in London, David romances a nurse (Alex, played by Jenny Agutter) and is haunted by the undead Jack, who warns him that he is now part of the werewolf’s bloodline, which “must be severed.”

Despite the varied initial reaction, Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is now a film that sits so comfortably in its position as a genre classic that It’s difficult to write anything fresh about it. Back in the ‘80s, I recall the movie being referred to as a “spoof”, but it’s now blindingly obvious that it’s not. Instead, Landis crafted a full-blooded monster movie, complete with shocks, gore, and sex, that happens to boast a razor-sharp sense of the comic.

In terms of tone, the movie is expertly balanced. The film nimbly shifts from funny to serious or horrific, often within the same scene. One of the most notable examples of this is the first appearance of the undead Jack, who visits David while he’s recuperating in the hospital. “Can I have a piece of toast?” says Jack, spattered with gore and tattered flesh, setting a blackly comic tone. Towards the end of the scene it then dexterously shifts to weightiness as Jack warns “Beware the moon, David” and an ominous orchestral sting blares on the soundtrack.

Throughout the film, Landis also plays with cinematic werewolf lore. Some aspects are similar to previous lycanthrope films, such as the curse of the beast being passed on through a bite to a surviving victim. Others are different like the werewolf’s victims stuck in limbo and haunting the wolf-man. One of the most playful bits has David suggesting that he needs a silver bullet to commit suicide with, to which a decaying Jack responds “Oh, be serious would you?”

The central setpiece of the film is, of course, the man-to-werewolf transformation sequence. Achieved with groundbreaking makeup prosthetics designed by Rick Baker, this came from Landis’ desire to do the man-to-wolf without using optical effects, which is how it had been done in werewolf movies up to this point. Eschewing the lap dissolves in shadowy photography, Landis and Baker turn up the lights and show the painful, body-twisting horror of a man being popped and stretched into a vicious supernatural beast. Winner of the first Academy Award for Makeup, a category that was created in 1981, it still holds up today, unmatched even in the age of digital trickery.

The film is perfectly cast. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are immensely likable. Given only a brief time to make their friendship believable before they shift into a mortal/undead relationship, they make a palpable impression that carries many of the tonal shifts later in the story. Jenny Agutter nails the part of nurse Alex, who develops a romantic attachment to David and is the tragic pivot point for the Wolfman’s injunction that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him. John Woodvine ably provides a rational and sympathetic center as Dr. Hirsch. And Brian Glover makes a big impression in a small role as the elder who locks down the village of East Procter from outsiders to guard its terrible secret. Glover also appeared in Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) and was an assistant cameraman who worked on Steven Seagal’s action flicks Above the Law (1988) and Under Siege (1992).

With a dynamite script and cast, trailblazing makeup effects, a beautiful music score by Elmer Bernstein, and an interesting subtext of Jewish identify, An American Werewolf in London is one of those genre films that has, and always will endure. Arrow’s Blu ray edition does the film justice to such an extent that, beyond the addition of a 4K disc, it’s hard to imagine a better and more lovingly designed package.

Transfer

Taken from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative, Arrow’s transfer sports fine detail, deep blacks, and a pleasing level of film grain. This is many orders of magnitude better than the first way I ever saw this film: on a grainy, pan and scan VHS tape way back in 1982. I envy anyone seeing this film for the first time via Arrow’s Blu ray.

Special Features

Audio commentary with Paul Davis – This full-length commentary is by the writer, director, and producer of the documentary Beware the Moon (which is also included on this disc; see below) and author of the book based on that feature. As one would expect, this is a treasure trove of information about the production of the film.

Audio commentary with Actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne – A delightful commentary track with two of the lead actors. Naughton and Dunne have great fun regaling us with anecdotes about the shooting of the movie.

Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf (77 mins.) – A documentary feature that tracks the origins of werewolf folklore, literature, and cinema. As indicated by the subtitle, much of the emphasis is on the Universal films, Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man, etc. It’s an informative piece built from multiple interviews with various writers, filmmakers, and makeup artists.

An American Filmmaker in London (11 mins.) – A brief interview with John Landis, shot in 2019, in which he talks about his love of British cinema.

Wares of the Wolf  (8 mins.) – Dan Martin (special effects artist) and Tim Lawes (of the Prop Store) talk about some of the few remaining effects artifacts from the movie.

I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret  (11 mins.) – A video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira on the place of Jewish identity in An American Werewolf in London.

The Werewolf’s Call  (11 mins.) – Director Corin Hardy and writer Simon Ward discuss the importance of the film to them and their experiences with watching it over the years.

Beware the Moon (97 mins.) – Paul Davis’ feature-length documentary on the making of the movie. It has interviews with all the key actors and filmmakers. Davis also appears, visiting the famous locations in Wales and London.

Making An American Werewolf in London (5 mins) – A brief contemporary promotional piece.

An Interview with John Landis (18 mins) – This short interview duplicates information in the other special features, and so could have easily been left off the disc. It looks like it was made for an earlier DVD edition.

Make-up Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London (11 mins.) – Another fairly disposable interview that adds little new information.

I Walked with a Werewolf (7 mins.) – A short interview with Rick Baker in which he chats about his fondness for Universal monsters and how that led to his film career.

Casting of the Hand (11 mins.) – In footage shot in 1980, we get a glimpse into Rick Baker’s workshop as David Naughton has his hand-cast for some of the makeup effects.

Outtakes (3 mins.) – A short selection of outtakes, with the soundtrack missing.

Storyboard Featurette (2 mins.) – A comparison of a segment of the Piccadilly Circus sequence with the storyboards.

Original Trailers – A teaser, trailer, and TV spot.

Image Galleries – A selection of production stills, behind the scenes shots, posters, lobby cards, and storyboards.

Items in the set:

  • 58-page book, which includes: Cast and Crew; Sick as a Dog: Body Horror in An American Werewolf in London by Craig Ian Mann (2019); One Full Moon, Two Young Stars by Simon Ward (2019); An American Werewolf in London: Can Rick Baker and John Landis Top The Howling?  by Jordan R. Fox (1981); Original Reviews (from Films and Filming, Starburst, and Monthly Film Bulletin); and About the Restoration.
  • Six reproduction lobby cards.
  • Reversible disc case cover. One side has the new painting that graces the slipcase, the other the 1981 poster.
  • A folded, double-sided poster with the new painting on one side and a different 1981 poster on the reverse.

Bottom Line

Frankly, this is an amazing set, with a beautiful transfer and a boatload of extras with enough information about the film to fill several grimoires. Arrow has produced an essential purchase for horror fans. Beware the moon!

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About Paul Sparrow-Clarke

A child of the ’60s and ’70s, I was born in Caerleon, Wales, where I spent my formative years. The ubiquitous ghost stories of the region piqued my interest in horror at an early age and from there I gravitated to books on horror films, with Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Films, Alan Frank’s Horror Movies, and Ed Naha’s Horrors: From Screen to Scream being particularly influential. With the help of these books, I became an “expert” on screen terror far before I was allowed to see any of the films on the telly. I moved to Alberta, Canada in 1981, and the culture shock (and the cold winters) did nothing to dim my interest in genre cinema. Here I discovered Fangoria magazine, VHS tapes, and the fact that my tall height was a ticket to sneaking into Restricted movies in the theatre. Thus began a banquet of terror treats that continues to this day, though I no longer fear being asked for ID at the box office. I have worked as a retailer, cinema usher, invertebrate zoology technician, map cataloguer, bureaucrat, teacher, freelance business/technical writer, and now earn my keep in university administration. I have previously written about genre cinema for Her Majesty’s Secret Servant and We Belong Dead magazines and books, and I’ve hosted public film screenings and co-hosted film podcasts.

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