Octoberween: ‘An American Werewolf in London’ Is Really Not That Great

Rooster Illusion’s manifest destiny has been going off without a hitch. Four new writers have burst forth from the John Hurt-like cavities of this blog and into the isolated spaceship of your hearts, with more yet to come. The numbers say that you, the teeming masses, are loving the changes. Numbers don’t lie. I’m not giving you actual, concrete statistics because I respect you too much to lie to you, and that is exactly what I would be doing. So just imagine how much you, the teeming masses, love the fact that Rooster Illusion is willing to change for you. We thrive on your support. You are the Alfred to our Batman, giving us soup and words of encouragement as we prepare for our ongoing mission to stare boldly at the face of cinema and say “this is good” or “hey, I didn’t like this, but I can see how other people might.” Now we find ourselves at this week’s Octoberween review, which falls under a third category not discussed in the previous sentence: “hey, I get why people like this so much, but it’s really not that great.”

An American Werewolf in London (1981):

Universal Studios

The Plot: Two thirty year-old American students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), get attacked by a werewolf while backpacking through Britain. Jack is killed. David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital. For some reason, his well-off and supposedly loving parents never come to visit him. This is never addressed. A somewhat confused David begins falling for Alex (Jenny Agutter), the beautiful and kindhearted nurse charged with looking after him. Matters are complicated by the return of Jack as a zombie that only David can see. In an artful twist on the classic Dickensian Your Dead Friend Is Telling You How to Fix Your Life trope, Jack cordially informs David that he’s a werewolf and that he should kill himself before the next full moon. As expected, David does not kill himself, because if he did then how would we shoehorn in a sex scene and what would we do with this special effects budget?

When was the last time you saw a really, really good werewolf movie? I guess that might be an unfair question. People look for different things in their movies. I thought that Slither was a great horror comedy because it had likeable, emotionally grounded characters, and managed to blend the two genres in a way that felt natural. Some people were really turned off by how gross it was, and maybe others prefer their horror without any humor. That’s fine. Now that I mention it, though, Slither is a much better movie than An American Werewolf in London. That’s because American Werewolf only succeeds as a horror comedy for maybe the first twenty minutes.

The film starts out well enough, with two likeable, fairly realistic 30 year-old college students hiking through the English moors, which are very pretty but can also be very creepy. Think The Hound of the Baskervilles. I say that David and Jack are realistic because they behave like real people, instead of horror movie characters. Naughton and Dunne have great chemistry and good dialogue to work with. In the scenes leading up to that first werewolf attack, the comedy is there because people make jokes in real life, even when they’re scared. It’s as good way to make the audience engage with the characters.

Universal Studios
“Knock knock.” “We’re seriously about to die.” “Way to kill the joke, man.”

David and Jack are both likeable, decent guys. Normal people placed in an outlandish situation. They end up in a pub full of almost comedically tight-lipped people, but the exaggeration works. It’s like the film is placing two modern characters in a classic horror movie, where the locals try to overcome thick accents and broad gestures in order to warn these stupid tourists away from the haunted castle or whatever. The film undermines the trope by having characters who feel pretty normal. Watching them, the audience thinks, “Okay, yeah, that’s pretty much what I would do.” And the movie runs with that for a little while. It’s when the action shifts to London that things kind of fall apart, which is a shame.

As I mentioned in the plot synopsis, David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital. His well-off parents, who apparently don’t love him, don’t visit him at all during or after his coma, even though his best friend died. This is when it starts to sink in that the whole horror/comedic realism thing isn’t what the movie is going for. Why? My theory is that somewhere along the line, writer/director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) or one of the producers thought: “Hey, what college student wants to deal with his parents after a traumatic accident? Wouldn’t it be better for him to hook up with a hot nurse while everyone just kind of ignores his vivid nightmares and hallucinations until he literally starts eating people alive?” Incidentally, that is the latter part of the movie in a nutshell. It’s entertaining, I guess, but is it good? Not really, no.

Universal Studios
Although they may have had a point about the nurse thing.

Ultimately, this is kind of a heartless film. American Werewolf teases you, offering character development and tension before tossing it away in favor of more special effects and some frat boy wish-fulfillment. David is likeable enough, but he doesn’t grow at all. Nor does anyone else. On top of that, the romance is pretty stupid. Sure, Jenny Agutter is attractive and nice, but Alex is a very forgettable character, and the idea that the two are in love—which they make clear by saying it to each other—isn’t all that convincing. Why? They’ve known each other for like a week. If they were going to do that, they should have made David a thirty year-old high school student. College students take at least a month. Maybe it was different in the 80s.

Universal Studios
It wasn’t.

There’s a late attempt at a Beauty tamed the Beast type deal, but it falls flat, because really, why? The ending comes suddenly, which in a comedy would have been fine. But the film doesn’t end with a joke. It ends with something that should have been sad, but isn’t. It just kind of happens. There’s no emotional gut-punch, because, again, it’s not believable that David and Jenny are in love. It doesn’t help that Naughton and Agutter have chemistry that doesn’t go beyond sexual attraction. Any emotional weight the film has comes from Jack appearing to tell David to kill himself, and even that gets old after the first couple times. American Werewolf starts out strong, but quickly loses its way.

So this is not a very good film. It tries, and almost makes it a few times. But at the end of the day, who really cares? How does this hold up as a werewolf movie? As far as I can tell, there’s three things that you should look for in a classic werewolf film:

1) The transformation scene. This is super goddamn important, apparently, even though it’s probably more effective to have the transformation and even most of the actual werewolf stuff off-screen. But whatever. American Werewolf’s transformation scene is rated as one of the all-time best in the genre. I’d say it lives up to its reputation. Watching David transform is gruesome and kind of harrowing. His pain seems real; it’s more like watching someone being violently ill than seeing a magic gypsy curse manifest itself. It’s an impressive technical feat, made all the more impressive by Naughton’s performance.

Universal Studios
Feel the pain of a thousand hangovers.

2) The kills. Once David finally transforms, he goes on a rampage throughout London, and we get a string of scenes with people getting attacked by a werewolf. We mostly just see people before and after, most likely due to special effects restrictions. I think it’s actually better that way, in terms of creating effective horror. There’s a great sequence where werewolf David hunts a lone businessman through an empty Tube (London’s subway system) station. Shots of the man running terrified through empty hallways and scrambling up escalators are the most frightening thing since the first werewolf attack on the moors.

3) The howl. Does it sound like an actual wolf? Nope. Does it sound like the tortured cry of an unholy human/wolf hybrid? I’ve never met one, but yes. Yes it does.

An American Werewolf in London is really not that great. It is an iconic werewolf movie, so if you’re watching it to see a monster eating some dudes then, yeah, it’s pretty good. Otherwise, maybe give it a pass.

3 thoughts on “Octoberween: ‘An American Werewolf in London’ Is Really Not That Great

  1. Pingback: The Tuesday Zone: An Octoberween Kick-Off with ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ | Rooster Illusion

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