Jack and David, two American backpackers get lost on the English moors, despite dire warnings. They are attacked by a werewolf and Jack is killed, but David is rescued by the locals feeling guilty for not helping them earlier. Weeks later David awakes in hospital, but a full moon is due…
An American Werewolf in London is rightly a horror classic, but an oddity all the same. Directed with gusto by John Landis, some accuse it of not knowing what it wants to be. It’s genuinely funny and genuinely scary, sometimes at the same time, which means despite its confidence, it can’t be a genuine comedy or a genuine horror.
First time viewers may indeed struggle with the ever-changing tone, but it rewards repeat viewings and first-timers well versed in horror mythology, because this movie works best as a love letter to horror. As such Landis takes nothing seriously, plays the whole thing with a tongue wedged firmly into his cheek, yet gives us well rounded memorable characters who are treated with respect and affection, even if what they do is absurd, and it never dips into sentimentality. A frightened David phones home at one point and it could easily have been mawkish, but it’s actually very funny and -there’s that word again- genuine.
So we end up with situations like bumbling coppers in a rather quaint view of London, or The Slaughtered Lamb pub, populated with a typical Hammer style group of superstitious locals. The fact is, we British don’t give pubs names like that and the moors aren’t populated by such folk keeping terrible, murderous secrets and Satanic symbols on the walls. Well I bloody hope not anyway! As the inquisitive doctor who helps David says, “we’d have seen it on the telly”.
It’s all part of the in-joke and works so well because Landis is having as much fun as us, channelling his inner child who probably sat up late watching horror movies when he was a kid. As such it sits in a sadly little-used sub-genre along with Joe Dante’s werewolf flick The Howling or Gremlins. It’s little-used because the entries have to be bloody good and there aren’t many directors who can pull it off. I’d also include the marvellous Shaun of the Dead, but even that is more of a full-time comedy with the gory scenes being as funny as anything else and an awkward serious scene near the end.
Here the gore is often part of the absurd comedy, with visits from Jack’s corpse being freakishly fun highlights, but when it wants to be scary, it pulls no punches. The early sequence on the moors, the random attacks in London. Though not so much the final rampage! It’s great, but it’s Landis cutting loose, not trying to scare us. So lots of blood, bouncing heads, car crashes. Wonderful stuff! He did the scary stuff earlier to most effect on the Underground. London’s tube system can be lonely and full of echoes anyway, without a sodding werewolf wandering around. Of course in keeping with the tone, the victims confront the human David when he meets Jack in a porn cinema with hilarious results.
It’s all held together with the central performances of David and his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter) who run straight and true throughout. And if you need someone to hold your hand while having bad dreams, Jenny is perfect. That’s right, you get horror, comedy and even a genuine (sorry) romance too. Am I twisted for finding the innocent scene of her spoon-feeding and chastising him very sexual? Probably. Don’t care.
Those dreams are another opportunity for classic sequences of random horror, letting the make-up guys have fun. When they play serious though you get the famous changing sequence. Still the best, still beats CGi. This and The Thing will stand the test of time because of that hard work and dedication.