Have You Seen… An American Werewolf in London (1981)

BY MICHAEL GRANT

Growing up, I used to watch videos about monster movies on YouTube. I remember seeing the thumbnail for a video review of a film called An American Werewolf In London. I never watched that video, but I did remember the title of the movie, as I thought it sounded much more like a comedy than a monster movie. Ten years later when I finally watched the movie itself, I discovered it was actually both a comedy and a horror film. Quite the combination.

The movie is about two college students, David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), who backpack across England. One night, they get attacked by a werewolf. Jack dies, but David survives and is taken to a hospital, and falls in love with a nurse (played by Jenny Agutter). 

Soon, David has several weird dreams, and eventually sees a ghost version of Jack, telling David that he will become a werewolf. I’m sure you can guess that he eventually becomes a werewolf. The plot itself is pretty standard for a werewolf film (aside from the ghost of the main character’s best friend), but the way this film progresses after he gets attacked is something you just have to see to believe. It’s really more of a dark comedy at times rather than a full-on horror film. There are parts that are genuinely very funny, and then there are parts that are genuinely very horrifying.

Left to right: Rick Baker, David Naughton, and John Landis

The film was a passion project by director John Landis. He first came up with the idea for this film in 1969 and spent ten years trying to pitch the film around various studios, who all told him either “it’s too scary to be funny” or it’s too funny to be scary.” Before he was finally able to make this film, he directed the comedies Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers, and I’m sure that the success of those films finally convinced Universal to greenlight his weird werewolf film. 

If you have seen any of those previous films, you’re probably familiar with his style of comedy, and expect this film to match that, a predecessor to the raunch comedies of today. Not so much. Sometimes the humor is very dark, and other times it’s sudden. I don’t know how to describe some of the things that happen in the film. Some moments you have to see to believe. If you’re a fan of Edgar Wright, then some of the film might remind you of Shaun of the Dead, which isn’t coincidental as Edgar Wright has stated that this film was one of his biggest inspirations.

This film was the first of many Oscar wins for Rick Baker. Others include Henry and the Hendersons, Men In Black, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

One of the main highlights of the film is the makeup and special effects by Rick Baker. Before he retired in 2015, Rick Baker was one of the best makeup effects artists in Hollywood from the 1970s-2010s, and his designs and effects can be seen in many films, such as The Exorcist, the 1976 remake of King Kong, Star Wars, Henry and the Hendersons, How the Grinch stole Christmas and many others. He is a true master of his craft, and his work on this film paid off when he won the first Academy Award for Best Makeup for this film. 

There is not a single design in this film I don’t believe. I remember when I first saw the scene where David transforms into the werewolf, I just froze as when you watch it; you just feel the pain that this character is going through. It’s a great sequence. Sadly as stated before, Rick Baker retired in 2015, due to the ever-growing presence of CGI being used in films instead of more practical effects.

There’s been a lot of talk about doing a remake of this movie in recent years, because everything needs a remake at this point… I personally vote no on this idea. This movie is a great werewolf movie, but it’s also a very different sort of movie. Different in a way that I don’t think can be topped. And if they ever did remake it, it would undoubtedly be done with CGI effects. 

I’m not personally against CGI, but I feel that it’s overused. So, I vote just to leave it alone. Regardless of whether or not they ever eventually remake it, this movie (in my opinion at least) will still be one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Just pretend that the “sequel” they made to this film never happened. In any case, stay tuned for more weird films in the future…

If you have any films suggestions to torture me with, please email me here: haveyouseen2224@gmail.com

Two Side notes: If you are familiar with the Thriller music video, elements of this film will seem familiar as John Landis was the director and Rick Baker did the effects in that video. And, all the songs licensed for the film share a common theme. The songs are Blue Moon, Moondance, and Bad Moon Rising. See the connection?

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