Today marks the 40th anniversary of An American Werewolf in London’s release and appropriately a full moon is on the horizon. Back in the 80s, the Jonathan Landis horror comedy brought a new perspective to the werewolf genre. The movie tells the story of two American friends who encounter a werewolf while backpacking through England. Jack (Griffin Dunne) is violently ripped apart while David (David Naughton) is attacked but survives. Later in the hospital, an undead Jack (who’s stuck in limbo) warns David that the bite turned him into a werewolf and he’ll have to kill himself to end the curse. David thinks it’s just a bad dream, until the killings start happening.
What sets London apart from similar films made up until that point is the comedy that Landis infuses into his script and direction. You go from being scared of this menacing werewolf to laughing at the crazy situations David gets thrown into. Like waking up naked in a wolf den at the zoo, post-transition, and having to get back home. Who knew a bunch of balloons could provide such coverage. And good on Landis for including full frontal male nudity here. You weren’t seeing much of that in 1981. Naughton is a natural comedic actor. He easily jumps into the physical aspects required of the role. Dunne brings a lot, as well, with his character’s dry wit.
The special effects and makeup are fairly revolutionary. We get to see David transform into his werewolf self, complete with expanding limbs and hair growth. No wonder the film won the innagural Oscar for Best Makeup. It’s smart that Landis waits until the tail end of the movie to show the transformation and a full view of the wolf. The audience can only imagine what the beast looks like, which can sometimes be scarier than the actual thing. There isn’t a ton of gore either. Subtlety definitely makes for better horror and London still holds up all these years later.