31 Days Of Horror continues at Last Movie Outpost as our Halloween countdown nears the conclusion. Today we tackle one of the all-time greats. A genre-straddling classic, An American Werewolf In London.
Let us start by getting this out of the way. This is the best werewolf movie ever made. It is just a fact.
Jaws dominates the shark movie genre so utterly that even other valiant, or big-budget, attempts such as Deep Blue Sea or The Meg are forever in its shadow. It is the same for werewolf movies. Dog Soldiers is an excellent concept. The Howling is unsettling and creepy. However, they are simply not in the same league as An American Werewolf In London – the Jaws of werewolf movies.
The story is almost timelessly simple and plays up well-established horror tropes such as the villagers with a secret and science vs. superstition. It does this while weaving in some of the amusement you would expect from the director of National Lampoons Animal House and The Blues Brothers – John Landis.
Beware The Moon
The dramatic Yorkshire moors of the opening scenes are actually the Black Mountains in Wales, standing in for their more Northern cousins. It is here that we meet two American backpackers, David and Jack, who are making their way around Europe, post-college. As night draws in they reach the tiny village of East Proctor (in reality the village of Crickadarn, about six miles southeast of Builth Wells) and meet the eccentric locals of the village pub, The Slaughtered Lamb. Clearly, the villagers are distrustful of the outsiders and hiding something.
A series of unfortunate events unfolds that leads to them being asked to leave the pub with a warning ringing in their ears:
“Beware the moon, and stick to the roads!”
As they try to find somewhere else to stay, they find themselves being stalked by an unidentified creature. It attacks and Jack is killed. David only survives after the guilt-ridden villagers come to his aid and shoot the mysterious beast.
After mysterious, vivid, and troubling dreams, David awakes in hospital in London and begins his recovery. He is visited by a badly mauled, decomposing Jack who warns him supernatural forces are at work, and when the next full moon arrives a great tragedy will strike.
David ignores him. As the full moon rises something terrible happens and David wakes up somewhere strange with no knowledge of the night just passed. Meanwhile, the whole of London is buzzing with the news that several gruesome murders happened the previous night across the city, with victims mauled and torn apart.
Jack visits David again, and David realizes the awful truth. Meanwhile, the doctor who treated David travels to East Proctor and is forced to confront the same terrifying reality as his patient.
Sever The Bloodline
The movie is referred to as a horror-comedy but it skews very, very far towards horror to me. Any laughs that are to be had come mainly from the ridiculousness of the situation being played with an extremely straight face, while acknowledging this ridiculousness. It treads a very fine line and that is one of the great strengths of the movie. Horror and comedy are notoriously strange bedfellows however the tone of the movie is never confused. This is an achievement.
The villagers in the pub are wonderfully bizarre, featuring Brian Glover and a mute Rik Mayall. Their determination to hide their dark secret makes for some sinister scenes, including some of my favorite parts of the movie when Dr. Hirsch, played by the wonderfully stoic John Woodvine, begins to piece together the awful truth in East Proctor.
Jenny Agutter melted even more teenage boys hearts than she did in Logan’s Run with this movie as the love interest. However, the MVP of the whole movie is the staggeringly good special effects.
The wolf is barely glimpsed to start with, just like the aforementioned shark in Jaws. This adds to its sinister nature as it stalks various Londoners. Just a glimpse here and there, even in the chillingly executed attack on a late-night commuter in a London subway station.
By the time it is finally revealed in all its glory, it is a snapping, growling, and biting animatronic masterpiece.
It is fully on display in a wonderfully bloodthirsty rampage through a seedy West End porn theater and out into the heart of busy Picadilly Circus and on towards a final showdown in the alleyways of Soho – in reality, Clink Street in Southwark.
The Oscar-winning transformation effects by Rick Baker, which changed the face of horror makeup forever, are so far ahead of their time for the 1980s and still stand up pretty well today. There is some nice gore, but it is not over the top. A werewolf happily chowing down on a movie theater usher is as blood splattered as it gets… well, that and a semi-amusing beheading.
This movie stands up, and still terrifies and delights in equal measure. As it ages it doesn’t really date, more like somehow seems to evolve a certain timelessness. An amazing achievement. That is also what stands it apart from what is probably its closes competitor – The Howling.
While that movie has aged quite badly, An American Werewolf In London has not. In fact, the age seems to have matured it like a fine cheddar.
There are going to be some in the talkback below who will claim that The Howling is the superior movie. While varying opinions are part of life’s rich tapestry, in this case those people are wrong.
The Howling is to An American Werewolf In London as Piranha is to Jaws. Fun, a bit silly, reverential, and rooted in the genre. Yet at the same time very much of its time, and unable to escape that faint whiff of Corman. It is no coincidence that The Howling and Piranha share a director in Joe Dante
In fact, it has been a couple of years since I last saw An American Werewolf In London. Writing this up has just made me realize it needs to be booked in for a rewatch as soon as possible. Probably on Halloween night!
Beware the moon, lads!