John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) proved to be an incredibly successful, highly innovative and stylish pop-cultural phenomenon that did something that no other film had done in relation to the history of awarding cinema excellence. It created a distinguished Academy Award for achievement in best make-up, something that had never been a mainstay at the Oscar ceremonies until then. Certainly films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), Planet of the Apes (1968) and more had won honorary awards for their efforts in special character make-up design and execution but this werewolf opus was so impressive in it’s innovation and technique that it sparked a specific award and birthed the category. Rick Baker’s phenomenal work is a thing of filmic legend and having his werewolf transform in a brightly lit apartment living room with all the transitions from man to wolf photographed in stark openness is an incredible vision of “monster in the midst of the contemporary”.
David Kessler (David Naughton) is the titular lycanthrope – a middle class Jewish American on a trip across Europe with his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne). From the beginning of the film, our protagonist (and his friend) is warned to stick to the road and “beware the Moors”, so the film instantly sets up new world Americans and dumps them into an old European sensibility. These two young men are fish out of water, and are almost systematically set up for dire circumstance. In The Howling (1981), the hard working Karen White is set out into the Los Angeles urban jungle to meet a werewolf and narrowly escapes an attack, while David and Jack trek it through the foggy English countryside trying to enjoy the benefits of the middle classes summarised by a lengthy European vacation which ends up resulting in an equally terrifying, but more fatal, attack by a werewolf. Karen is an outsider when she enters the male-dominated world of the pornographic store and David and Jack are outsiders wandering through the grassy mountain ranges of England. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis who costumed the film decided on giving the two boys heavy and large, awkward-looking puffy coats to resemble the outfits that astronauts would wear. So when David and Jack are walking through the dark and oppressive Moors, it looks as though they are spacemen exploring the dark desolate grounds of a strange planet. Here we have two middle class American boys; Jewish, from New York and educated wandering the plains of working class England, just having left the epitome of the British blue collar (represented by the Slaughtered Lamb pub). It is a foreign land for these two rich kids, and Nadoolman-Landis emphasizes this with her choice of outfits for them.
The imagery and staging of this sequence is pure “horror film” – as much as the young men try and make light of the situation, John Landis truly does want to scare his audience. He uses panicky camera angles, he corners his characters, he dwarfs them in importance, he stalks them with his lens and then lays on the werewolf attack with a blood soaked frenzy that is truly horrific. When Jack is torn to shreds upon the frosty plains of the Moors it is genuinely grotesque, and finally when David is mauled, attacked and dropped onto his back, he turns to his side and sees the culprit – now a naked man bleeding profusely after being gunned down by a local. After this incredibly scary sequence, the image of the patrons of the Slaughtered Lamb looking over the bleeding David somehow reflects the image of the Los Angeles dwelling “weirdos” that circle Karen in The Howling after she is escorted out of the porno shop.
Griffin Dunne lights up the screen with impish elfin-like semi-bravado, and he is a perfect counter to David Naughton’s more traditionally handsome, muscular and athletic principle who becomes the tormented monster of the piece. Dunne however eventually (in after life) becomes an extension of the principle’s “best friend” in that he transitions into the role of the friendly un-dead who gradually decomposes whilst offering his lycan-pal some much needed advice.
Before the boys are attacked, Jack refers to The Wolf Man (1941) early in the piece when he notices a pentacle painted up in the Slaughtered Lamb. The film refers to the Lon Chaney Jr. outing a number of times, and even Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) is referenced by the nurturing and lonely nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) when she asks “Is that the one with Oliver Reed?” when David tries to confess his lycanthropy to her in bed. Much like in The Howling, An American Werewolf in London makes a statement about the overall existence of werewolves in pop-culture outside of the main course of action (the references to The Wolf Man, Terry Fisher and Chris Halloran watching the film while in bed and so forth), so similarly to Joe Dante’s film, Landis has created a post-modern monster movie where werewolves exist in and outside of the “perceived fabricated.”
Class is also something that sits as a narrative co-function in that Alex’s working class background (a young woman who lives incredibly humbly as a nurse) is in contrast to David’s upper-middle class existence. However, culturally the two can connect because she is worldly and understanding, and he is young and impressionable – therefore, the film delivers the concept of societal difference in a more measured and tailored fashion that can interweave and prosper, whereas in The Howling, Karen and her husband are refined and urbane compared to the neurotic, hillbilly and primal werewolves that occupy The Colony.
Along with the running comparison of werewolf transformations in both films, An American Werewolf in London delivers it’s comedic elements far more overtly. There are a lot of jokes peppered throughout the film and one that stands out for pop-culture fans is Frank Oz’s comical cameo as an American embassy worker. When he sneers “These dumb ass kids never appreciate anything you do for them” it is a reference to The Muppet Show being cancelled that year (something that shook Oz and his working partner Jim Henson at the time).
Unfortunately, the humour in John Landis’s film is far too broad and obvious, so it sticks out like a sore thumb and detracts from the romance and horror that the film excels at. The bumbling police officer who reminds us of the physical comedy of Monty Python – a British institution – is a nuisance compared to the straight laced integrity from John Woodvine who plays the senior doctor as a stoic authority (who is also permitted some comic moments, but is reigned in and controlled). Woodvine does have a nice handle on some of the humorous elements of the film, but for the most part (and thankfully) is given more dramatic turns, while Jenny Agutter’s performance is sincere, straight, serene, calming and is the gravitas for the doomed romance element of the movie which works so magnificently in contrast to the monster-show that the film is. She reads to David: “He attracted me by three things”, and this summarises the sheer loneliness of two characters who are drawn to one another by overwhelming unspoken sadness. Juxtaposed with the maudlin romance is the terror that John Landis is able to manage and maintain throughout the film. It is also commented upon by the “film-within-the-film” which is something that The Howling does so sublimely as well. The violence on The Muppet Show that Miss Piggy and Kermit watch (in the form of a Punch and Judy puppet show) is a direct reference to what unfolds later where Nazi werewolves fire machine guns at David’s family in a frenzied nightmare sequence. Both David and Karen White from The Howling suffer from endless nightmares that accumulate and comment on the situation at hand. In The Howling, the threat of rape permeates Karen’s dreams, while in David’s visions, Jewish nightmares comes to realization. Alex’s imagined throat slitting adds to an early incarnation of the “is it a dream? Or isn’t it?” motif where it has itself presenting a first instalment as a dream and then also the second which is something that throws the audience to both give them two deals of fright as well as not being the safe option for film formalities. On top of all this is the return of the dead Jack who throws out smart little quips such as “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!” This is where the film works best – the dark humour plays against the grotesque imagery, this is black comedy at its finest, and this is where the film runs the best with it’s genuinely frightening moments of sheer terror. We hear Jack discussing his very own funeral which is funny but then we are pushed into a dark corner when he gets serious and announces to David that “We were attacked by a werewolf.” As aforementioned, John Landis is a master at jilting his audience, from easing them in with the side giggles and then bringing them back to the horror. Jack’s rules set up the motion of the film – he explains to David that he is now a werewolf and must kill himself. But of course, this young lycanthrope can’t do such a thing before we, the audience, get to see him transition.
The transformation sequence in comparison to Eddie Quist’s in The Howling is painful and disorientating. Eddie celebrates his lycanthropy while David is thrown by it and tormented by it. It is also interesting to note that both Eddie and David transform while pornographic films screen – a nice parallel made between the sexual act as voyeuristic art form made to be “watched” and a metamorphosis of the body in a literal sense that moves from highly sexed young male to lecherous hairy beast. Alex tells David: “I find you very attractive and a little bit sad” while she introduces him to her apartment (the place where he first transforms into a werewolf) and this capitalizes on the detachment an alienation of young men lost in the wilderness, which is exactly what Eddie is and precisely who David has become. Ultimately, An American Werewolf in London is a modern movie masterpiece, and much like The Howling it brings a classic literary, folkloric and golden age movie monster of the celluloid screen to the foreground for a modern sensibility. And on the same wave length as The Howling, John Landis’s tragic contemporary gothic romance is fuelled by social satire, pitting cultures against each other and the concept of aimless young adult males being lost in the throes of meaningless and isolation.
The storyboard artist John Bruno shares his insight into his work on An American Werewolf in London:
I had done design work for John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) in the past for Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Young Frankenstein. Argo. I worked out of his garage in Burbank. I understood make-up and make-up design. It was Chambers who suggested that I meet John Landis. Landis was looking for someone to illustrate some ideas he had for his next picture. Chambers made the call and I was sent a script. #15 for An American Werewolf in London. I first met Rick when John Landis drove us to his lab in North Hollywood. Rick showed me preproduction drawings of the final wolf creature and explained how the mechanisms for the David transformations would work. Face/snout extension. Hand, feet, airbladders for the back etc. That was the first time I met Rick. Landis and I then drove back to his office at Universal to discuss his ideas for what he wanted to see on camera. I drew what John wanted to see with no regard as to how it would be done. That was to be Rick Bakers problem. It was to be a real time, on set, in camera, practical effect. Remember that was 10 years before computers and digital imaging. The Werewolf films of the past were more about becoming “Wolf-like,” with the on-camera transformation happening in slow “dissolves.” Hair, teeth, claws. Still human in form, these apex predators would still manage to wear their “clothes.” With The Howling and An American Werewolf in London the werewolf folklore was taken literally. Suggesting that the affected character actually turn into a wolf before your very eyes. No one before had the technical expertise to do that or have the balls to approach it in that way. If the transformation were possible, a human transitioning into a four-legged wolf would be a seriously physical and dangerous event. The human form would have to reshape itself into something closely resembling a wolf (on screen in under a minute) with the same body mass and size as David Naughton — An anthropomorphic wolf — similar mass and weight and with human characteristics. While seated on his office floor, Landis would describe what he wanted to see in conceptual terms. He wanted to take something impossible and make the audience believe it. He wanted the transformations to involve pain… It was to be a very painful and frightening process. Skin and muscles stretching. Internal hemorrhaging. Bones breaking. Blood. Even the rapid hair growth should hurt. There was an order to the transformation. Hands, Back, feet, face. I made quick, rough sketches as we talked. There were a few angles from David’s point of view and a few angles that were explanatory for the audience. The minimum shots with the most bang for the buck — in real time. Something you had never seen before. When I asked him about lighting for the living room scene, I assumed he wanted the room to be dark. Backlit. Very dramatic with silhouettes and cast shadows. But he was so positive that Rick Baker was going to do groundbreaking work that he wanted none of that. He wanted to show it off. Shoot the scene in a brightly lit room. It was an expensive process, so the storyboards were more than suggestions, they were blueprints of the action, they were each given a dollar number and that’s what Rick Baker would stick to.