Running time: 97 min.
Release date: August 21, 1981
Two young Americans, David (played by David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), backpack across the English countryside, encounter some less-than-friendly locals at a pub with the suspicious moniker of The Slaughtered Lamb, and are then ultimately attacked by a werewolf after being warned several times to "stick to the roads" and then, of course, not following that advice. Thus begins the plot premise revolving around one of the young men being cursed with lycanthropy. It sounds like the beginnings of yet another in a long line of werewolf genre films, but director John Landis adds his own brand of humor to mix with the gory proceedings.
David is the survivor of a werewolf attack and wakes up in a hospital after being in a coma for three weeks. He is told that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic, but David disputes this story, claiming that they were attacked by something very unhuman-like. While staying in the hospital, David is tended to by a kind and attractive nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter), and it's inevitable that they fall in love. Meanwhile, David has very intense nightmares and is even visited by the decaying corpse of Jack. The visits alternate between funny and creepy in tone, as Jack warns David to beware the full moon. The story builds upon these dire warnings and graphic images until we finally get the expected transformation of David into werewolf which comes on so suddenly after a bout of restless boredom by David. What unfolds afterward is a combination of suspenseful frights and dark humor that is well-balanced by Landis.
John Landis makes great use of the English countryside, which is seen as lush and murky simultaneously. Filming his own screenplay, Landis has already shown that he can direct a comedy very well, after Animal House and The Blues Brothers, so it's not surprising to see him temper the violent horror with some very witty and dark humor, especially in a scene where David meets Jack's corpse in a porno theatre along with other victims of David's lunar activities. The porno-within-a-movie called "See You Next Wednesday" is one of the more hilarious highlights of the film, as well as David attempting to navigate London while naked, after returning to his human self. The variations of the song "Blue Moon" that litter the soundtrack provide plenty of irony during key moments such as the transformation scene. Landis makes some curious choices with the lack of transitions as well as abruptly ending the story, not allowing the audience to dwell on anyone's fate. Of course, Landis can't help himself by adding a chaotic and violent car crash sequence near the end of the film, which may come off as a little gratuitous but is still well-crafted. Rick Baker's gory special effects and the CGI-free transformation scene threaten to steal the movie, which is par for the course for the Oscar-winning Baker.
David Naughton became well-known for his work in Dr. Pepper commercials, but appearing nude in this film ended that relationship. Naughton comes off as an all-American guy next door in scenes with co-star Griffin Dunne. Naughton seems more comfortable in comedic scenes than he does in more serious scenes where he questions his sanity. However, overall he makes on-screen David a likable character. Jenny Agutter, as Alex, is flirtatious, kind and maybe even a little desperate as she cares for a guy who isn't sure if he's losing his mind or not. Griffin Dunne is a scene-stealer, especially after he starts decomposing. It can't be easy making your character funny even with grotesque make-up, but Dunne pulls it off. The rest of the cast is made up of English actors like John Woodvine as Dr. Hirsch, he begins investigating David's werewolf claims. David Schofield and Brian Glover play a couple of the testy pub resident and Paul Kember is funny as a police sergeant investigating the attack on David. This is a good cast that are able to keep up with Landis' frequent shifts in tone.
An American Werewolf in London is a great film that seeks to entertain, and is quite successful at it. Equal doses of humor and horror, with gory special effects, the movie never slows down, even for a scene where David is pacing around Alex's flat in nervous boredom. Landis still wants to scare, but then he wants to ease your tension with some solid wit. This film probably sets the bar for horror-comedy hybrids that followed.