When discussing An American Werewolf In London and its impact, it seems that the groundbreaking makeup and effects, including the famous werewolf transformation sequence, precede the film itself. While the transformation is truly spectacular, especially for 1981, we shouldn’t just judge a movie by how visually stunning it is. Especially when most of those visuals come within the 3rd act.
Two Americans–best friends David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne)–are backpacking in northern England when they stumble upon a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, a tiny establishment full of regulars who drink beer, play darts, and tell jokes about Americans. David and Jack are seemingly unwelcome there, but before they leave they’re warned by the men to stick to the main road and beware the full moon. Soon after David and Jack leave they’re attacked by a hairy creature.
David wakes up three weeks later in a hospital in London. He’s informed that Jack died in the attack, which the doctors say was by a mad man–not an animal of any sort. Upon further inquiry it’s discovered that Jack’s body was never found and the details surrounding the attack are a bit muddled. Jack appears to David as a gruesomely bloodied corpse and says that David must kill himself because he’s now a werewolf. In fact, he’s the last in the bloodline of werewolves, and Jack will remain in limbo, undead until the last werewolf (David) is killed.
The details are simple, like most werewolf movies are. But the twist in this film is its lighter take on a familiar tale. David is goofy and his banter with Jack is filled with levity. Writer/director John Landis, known for comedies himself, gives us a somewhat of a dark comedy, even though it’s not terribly funny. It’s not that the jokes are falling flat. They’re just not there at all.
The film isn’t quite in touch with its dark humor as it wants to be. Perhaps effecting the desired result is the poor acting of both Naughton and Dunne, almost like they don’t ever believe the lines they’re saying. Their performances compromise the tone of the film since not only are the men not that funny, but they fail to provide us with solid dramatic takes either. An American Werewolf In London is a horror-comedy, yet the balance between the two genres can’t be offset because both sides are shaky to begin with.
Landis is truly a comedic director, and his unfamiliarity with the horror genre shows through here. There are some decent jump scares, but the intensity seems to be lost all the time.
As a writer, he does a good job filling the story with details to keep us intrigued–even if we can always see where it’s going–but we have a hard time getting much deeper than that. Often times he’s strictly telling the story at hand. There’s no subtext. No symbolism. It’s not poetic at all.
A truly great script–or even just a good one–shouldn’t have to say when it’s being emotional. We should just know. But this film only tells us of any sentiment when it absolutely needs to.
Despite an underwhelming overall experience despite all the acclaim, I highly enjoyed the final act of An American Werewolf In London. The special effects and makeup are truly out of this world and the highlight really is the transformation sequence as Sam Cooke sings Blue Moon in the background. I just wish there was more to this film than that.