American Werewolf in London, An

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 10/27/04 00:14:06

"Insert obligatory pop song with the word 'moon' in the title here."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I'm an avowed hater of humour in horror. It may have seemed clever at first, but being ironic and winking at the audience while saying "See what we're doing? It's like the characters KNOW they're in a horror film!", ultimately became annoying. There is no more guaranteed way to drain the horror out of a horror film, than to laden it with bad, corny jokes. But when humour does actually work in a horror film, like the recent 'Shaun of the Dead', the result can be something quite brilliant. 'An American Werewolf In London' shows just how it should be done.

'An American Werewolf In London' starts off like so many horrors, with two students on a hiking trip across the Yorkshire Moors. Jack (Griffin Dunne) and David (David Naughton) are on a Europe-wide holiday and are currently stuck in the wet and windy Moors with night fast approaching. They seek temporary refuge in a pub full of hostile locals practically growling "We don't like strangers 'ere zurr", before hitting the wilderness at midnight and quickly getting lost.

To make things worse they're quickly attacked by a savage beast which kills Jack and wounds David. He recovers in a London hospital and falls in with the posh-yet-naughty nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter). David however is being haunted by visions of a decaying Jack who tells him that he is a werewolf and come the next full moon will be on the prowl for victims.

John Landis is clearly someone who loves movies. And not someone who loves special effects, but someone who loves atmosphere and even the cliches, but knows how to turn them on their head and come up with something fresh.

His love of the Universal horror films of the 30's and 40's is clear in his introduction on the shadowy and fog-bound moors. This is clearly the work of someone who knows that the best aspects of the 30's 'Dracula' and 'The Wolfman', aren't the make-up and special effects, but the atmosphere that they're shrouded in. The isolated foggy countryside at night may be a cliche, but Landis crucially approaches it with reverence and not irony, making it an opening thick with tension and creepy howls in the midnight sky. It's an opening that still urinates heavily on 'Scream's' much vaunted opening.

He also makes his protagonists interesting and very likeable, which usually doesn't happen in horror films about teenagers where you usually end up hoping that they'll bite the big one. Jack and David are funny and easy to watch however and played with lots of subtlety by Dunne and Naughton, drawing you into their predicament easily, and giving the film the tragic undercurrent that every werewolf film needs. Agutter is also fine in her role, rounding out the human element of the film.

This film is a clear labour of love for Landis, who loves his characters and loves the idea. His direction is fast and full of invention without being overly 'look at me!'. There's a nightmare sequence that completely wrongfoots you every time. He captures the scruffy essence of London without resorting to the usual American cliches, and the werewolf itself is used sparingly but effectively. The werewolf attacks are brutal and grisly from the opening attack on the Moors to a final werewolf on the loose/car pile up in the middle of London, that's a masterpiece of editing and location action.

The humour is a major factor as to why 'American Werewolf' is so beloved to horror fans, and Landis never lets it unbalance the horror. It's humour that's not smug or crude, it's humour that's grisly and black, as an increasingly decomposed Jack comes back to warn David what's going to happen to him. It's the matter of fact way that dead Jacks first words to David are "Can I have a piece of toast?". It's the way that the ghosts of David's victims gather in a porn cinema to suggest just how David should kill himself. It's the increasingly witty soundtrack peppering allusions to the moon throughout the film. It's still the benchmark of how comedy can be wove throughout a horror without lessening the impact.

And no review of 'An American Werewolf In London' would be complete without paying tribute to Rick Bakers astonishing make-up and specifically, the werewolf transformation scene that takes place in a well-lit room with nothing to hide behind. There's no rapid cutting-away, and it's a jaw dropping achievement of imagination and talent that beats seven shades of crap out of Steven Sommers' CGI bucket of shit that was the cartoon Wolfman in 'Van Helsing'.

It just skims past the full five stars, because it's not quite terrifying enough and there's arguably room for a little more wolf action. But nevertheless, 'An American Werewolf In London' is an 80's horror flick that still has the best werewolf transformation scene and still beats down all young pretenders who try to mix horror and humour and usually make an unholy balls up of it. For a Friday night in with pizza and beer, 'An American Werewolf In London' may be the best film of the last 30 years.

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