Plagued by nightmares and recovering from the animal attack that injured him and killed his best friend, David Kessler awakens in his hospital room just as the orderly from India enters his room to serve him breakfast.
It’s been three long weeks… his best friend was torn to pieces in front of him by some large beast, the nightmares are getting worse and worse, and the police don’t believe his story about the creature, instead going with the fabricated account that he and his friend were attacked by a mad man.
“Ah, you are up. Good morning and good day to you!” the order says more cheerily than he should be allowed to as he opens the window allowing the daylight to infiltrate the room. The orderly takes the food tray and places it in front of David. “We have quite a meal for you. Bacon and eggs, porridge, orange juice, and toast with jam,” he says pointing out each one on the plate. “Good stuff there. Now you eat it up and I’ll be back for the dishes when you are finished!”
And then, just as abruptly as he invaded the room, the orderly leaves.
David groggily rises out of the bed. “Good morning,” he says to the empty room.
He shakes it off and tries to start the day with a good breakfast, but the breakfast looks anything but good… a fact only confirmed when David sticks his spoon into the porridge to find it has the consistency of wet cement.
He cautiously looks through the rest of the hospital breakfast hoping to find something worth eating when he happens to look up.
There, standing on the other side of the room is his friend, Jack… killed weeks ago by the creature on the moors. His body covered in the gaping wounds the creature inflicted on him. Large chunks of his skin are torn open and blood oozes from the scratches running up and down his face. David’s friend is back from the grave! What could he want?
“Can I have a piece of toast?” Jack asks.
While it may lack in style and atmosphere, An American Werewolf in London single-handedly reinvented the werewolf movie and horror movie for generations by blending amazing transformation effects and a script that walked the thin line between comedy and horror.
In case you aren’t familiar with the plot, here it is! David and Jack are best friends from America touring Europe. While in North England, the two of them are attacked by a creature. Jack is killed and David is taken to a hospital where he learns from his now undead friend that he has been bitten by a werewolf and will turn into one by the next full moon.
David’s only escape appears to be death, but how could you kill yourself when you’re getting hot and heavy with a beautiful British nurse?
Obviously, David has his doubts, but they all wash away when the moon rises and he begins to change.
Many argue the 1981 werewolf trio, Wolfen, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London are the last great werewolf movies. Admittedly, I have to somewhat agree even though I have enjoyed a couple of the modern offerings. Simply put, the holy hairy trinity hasn’t been matched in almost 25 years by anything that Hollywood has put out. Not Ginger Snaps, not Bad Moon, not Underworld, and not American Werewolf‘s own sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris.
It’s odd when you look at the movie because, plot-wise, there is really nothing that makes it special or unusual. Granted, it’s a good plot… full of suspense and tragedy, but that doesn’t really make it unique from the other werewolf flicks.
What does set An American Werewolf in London apart from the others is its near-perfect blend of horror and comedy. It’s a thin line… a line that kills many horror movies today. But American Werewolf walks it skillfully thanks to a witty script, some oddball moments, and some great actors… all mixed in with the gore, blood, jumps, and scariness that makes a good horror movie horrific.
First the horror… I know a lot of people do not find this movie frightening or scary. Well, to be honest… it’s not scary or frightening in the way you may think it is. The genius of American Werewolf is that it spends a good ten minutes of the beginning of the film giving the audience a crash course into Jack and David’s personality. John Landis lets us really get to know and really get to like the two main characters. We care about what happens to this goofy duo from the very beginning and, when things go from bad to worse and finally straight to hell, you want them to make it through unscathed and, when they don’t… it hurts a little. When they are hurt, it affects you personally and, after all… there’s nothing worse than watching someone you care about get hurt while there’s nothing you can do about it.
While a lot of scary movies usually populate their casts with easy characters… vampant, shallow caricatures you couldn’t care less about who are really only there to serve as machete fodder, American Werewolf and the few great films like it devote more time into characterization because, let’s face it… the more you like someone, the more gruesome it is to watch them splatter.
When the attack comes, it’s swift, merciless, and bloody and it really hits you in the gut since you’ve already identified with both of these kids.
More horror in this movie comes from David’s dreams… several strange and disturbing sequences in the movie that accompany the unknowing David as he begins his slow transformation. They are horrific and hard to watch… especially when grotesque stormtrooper Nazis raid David’s home and slaughter his entire family… including a couple of cute little kids.
Of course, one of the quintessential elements for a good horror movie is gore and lots of it and that is one department that An American Werewolf in London does not disappoint in. Flesh is ripped up, blood is slung everywhere, and thanks to some still-impressive make-up effects by Rock Baker, American Werewolf has some of the best zombies of all time.
Of course, you cannot discuss this film without mentioning the amazing transformation scene when David becomes the werewolf for the first time. In an age without CGI or digital manipulation, the transformation scene still holds its own when compared to today’s movies. In fact, in many cases… the transformation scene looks better than most modern day special effects.
While an amazing scene, it’s very raw and almost hard to watch because of the flesh-stretching and bone popping that goes on in it. Still, it’s hard to look away at the impressive display.
The transformation scene also introduces a different kind of werewolf all together. Instead of the two-legged creature that had been seen on screen since the days of Lon Chaney’s The Wolf-Man, Landis decided on an sophisticated combination of different kinds of puppetry to create a whole new kind of animal – pun intended. A four legged creature that was more wolf than man. It’s just another special touch that made this movie unique and unforgettable.
As I stated earlier, another element that gives this movie another huge boost is the addition of humor. While this kills a lot of horror movies, An American Werewolf in London has just the right amount to make you laugh when you’re supposed to laugh while still scaring you when you’re supposed to be scared.
The dialogue is witty, memorable, and quotable and even the odd situations… like an undead friend periodically paying visits all while he’s in a progressive state of decay or waking up naked in a zoo after a long night of killing and eating people or a conversation with zombies in a porno theater… are disturbing and yet humorous at the same time.
You can’t think of the werewolf movie without thinking of three movies… The Wolf-man, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London. This is an important movie with poignancy, tragedy, humor, and horror that single-handedly re-invented a movie monster has has never ever been topped.
It’s sick, gruesome, and definitely not for the easily squeamish. It’s definitely shocking for first-time viewers as well.
At the same time, it’s funny, it’s touching, and boasts some incredible on-screen effects that are still cutting edge almost 25 years later.
This movie is a landmark. That much is certain. It’s one of the most prominent and celebrated horror movies of the ladder half of the 20th century. It’ll make you giggle and then make you jump in fright while it actually contains a story that will keep you interested and, in some ways, break your heart.
This is just a great movie that only seems to get better every time I watch it.