"A naked American man stole my balloons."
1981 was the year of the werewolf. April saw the release of Joe Dante's The Howling, a dark, tense thriller laced with cynical humor, followed by an environmental call for action, Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen in July. (I'll be writing more about both next week.) An American Werewolf in London was the last of the unrelated modern "wolf meets man" trilogy to be released that August, but is probably the best loved and most remembered of the three.
In part that's because John Landis was at the top of his game. Just 31 at the time of the film's release, the writer/director had demonstrated his skill with low-budget comedies (Schlock, 1973; The Kentucky Fried Movie, 1977) and moved with great success into the studio system (Animal House, 1978; The Blues Brothers, 1980), capturing the zeitgeist of a movie-loving generation eager for irreverent, frat boy humor that was still deeply rooted in conservative, Middle American values.
Indeed, David Kessler, the hero of American Werewolf, is a cheery, jocular, modest, responsible everyman. As played by David Naughton, who had achieved a degree of fame by singing the theme song to a failed sitcom ("Makin' It") and starring in a series of soft-drink commercials ("Wouldn't you like to be a pepper too?"), David always strives to do the right thing, no matter how stereotypical it may be.
He and his best friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) set off on a three-month backpacking tour of Europe. For some unexplained reason, David wants to start their trip in Northern England, and the film begins with the two exiting a sheep truck to hike across a beautiful, completely barren landscape as the sun sets. The joking banter between the two is light and mocking, and continues as they seek refuge from the weather in The Slaughtered Lamb, a typical British pub with atypically unfriendly locals and a pentagram painted on the wall. Hurried out into the night with odd warnings ("Beware the moon!" "Stay off the moors!"), the two soon find themselves bathed in the light of a full moon, smack dab in the middle of the moors, and listening with increasing disbelief to the howling of a wild animal in the night.
David wakes up from a coma in a London hospital three weeks later, only to discover that Jack is dead and the authorities concluding that the two were attacked by an insane lunatic. David knows better, especially when he has a series of bizarre, monstrous nightmares, and even more so when Jack comes back from the dead to visit him. He begins to question his own sanity, though Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) is sympathetic and Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) is attracted to him.
When David is discharged from hospital, Alex takes him home with her. They enjoy a romantic interlude before the steadily decomposing Jack visits again, this time telling David explicitly the rules of the werewolf game and what he must do to break the cycle before the next full moon, the only way that Jack can be released from the undead limbo in which he is stranded. Still unable to overcome his disbelief, David transforms into the titular character, terrorizing the city, and finally must come to grips with what he has become.
Throughout the tall tale, Landis works hard to maintain the appropriate tone. In the most obvious sense, the film is a modern update of The Wolf Man (1941), explicitly mentioned twice in the opening scenes, wherein Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) travels from America to Wales, is bitten by a wolf, and ultimately must confront his father (Claude Rains). Yet it also mixes in elements of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a book which Alex reads to David late one night, as well as the original Werewolf of London (1935), in which a botanist on an expedition to Tibet is bitten by a werewolf, returns to London, and starts feeding on its citizens.
The film is not entirely successful in melding horror with comedy. It's interesting to compare Landis as a writer with a contemporary like John Sayles, who wrote or co-wrote Piranha (1978, directed by Joe Dante), Alligator (1980, directed by Lewis Teague) and The Howling (1981, directed by Joe Dante) in the same time period. Sayles created a series of embattled, tough-minded, sarcastic characters who do the right thing only when they have no other option remaining; his heroes are reluctant, fatalistic, and a bit wistful.
Landis' approach in American Werewolf is more that of a bright-eyed optimist. His protagonist, David Kessler, is hopelessly naive. He was the one eager to start a European trip in the cold climes of Northern England, but can't quite believe he talked his friend into it. He responds quickly to Alex's interest, but can't quite believe his good luck that she finds him handsome rather than out of his gourd (neither can we). At the same time, when push comes to shove, he puts himself first. When Jack is attacked, David's first instinct is to run away, though he does quickly return. When presented with the opportunity to avoid hurting others, he can't bring himself to follow through because he'll be hurting himself.
The secondary characters are lightly sketched, carried more by one-liners and convincing performances than well-written roles. Griffin Dunne is mercilessly good as Jack, bewailing the unpleasant side effects of being undead ("Have you ever talked to dead people? They're boooring!!") and skewering his former best friend for his selfishness. John Woodvine provides able support as the kindly Dr. Hirsch, while Jenny Agutter creates a believable, endearing romantic dynamic with Naughton. Agutter is a very beautiful woman -- I confess a longtime crush on her -- who somehow made herself appear a bit plain, not through make-up but in her understated delivery of the lines. She plays Alex as a woman at a point in her life where she doesn't expect much, which probably helps her to look favorably on David's good points and ignore his more troubling neuroses.
David Naughton is surprisingly good. There are moments when his dramatic limitations are exposed and you wish that he and Griffin Dunne had exchanged roles, but for the most part he carries off a difficult role with straightforward panache. Speaking of exposure, I never thought I'd see so much of the "Dr Pepper commercial guy" scampering around London naked. "Beware the moon," indeed.
The generally good performances highlight one of Landis' strengths that is rarely remarked upon: he could be very good with actors. Oddly enough, it also highlights a weakness. When I first saw the film, in a packed theater early in its original theatrical engagement, it felt like it was full to the brim with laughter and terror. Watching it on DVD twice within the last few months by myself, some sequences appear fitfully edited and poorly paced. Finally, I realized that in a crowded theater with a responsive audience, the laughs, cheers, and groans would probably fill in the empty spaces that are now apparent. If certain lines or situations don't make you laugh (either now or ever), those same scenes play like arid stretches of the desert.
American Werewolf has a few other marks against it. I know this may sound incredibly nit-picky, but I've never liked the lighting in certain scenes. Cinematographer Robert Paynter throws unnatural brightness into the first full moon on the moors, which may have been shot on a set -- it certainly looks that way -- and the widely-celebrated transformation scene is also lit far too flat and bright for an interior room in a woman's cozy apartment at night. The transformation itself, with special makeup effects by Rick Baker, simply stops the film cold, begging the audience to appreciate all the fine work that went into it. It was pretty cool and an impressive achievement, but not as good as the key transformation in The Howling, on which Baker consulted, with his disciple Rob Bottin credited as creator. And the excessive automotive mayhem in Piccadilly Square is jarringly out of character with the rest of the scene and almost entirely unnecessary.
Enough with the nits. There are huge chunks of the film that are pitch perfect, especially near the end: the werewolf stalking a man in an Underground station, the zoo/balloon episode, the phone call home, the fake porno, the undead encounter group, the final scene.
Landis also deserves kudos for knowing when to keep quiet. Some of the more effective sequences have no underscore at all, raising the tension. It's also wryly humorous when you realize the theme that ties all the songs together.
American Werewolf met the mainstream studio gore challenge head on, perhaps as bloody disgusting as anything released by a major studio up to that time. The explicit gore bar had been set: humans torn apart and eaten alive (Jaws, 1975; Dawn of the Dead, 1978), sliced body parts (Dressed to Kill, 1980), ax in the face, arrow through neck, beheading (Friday the 13th, 1980), exploding heads (Scanners, 1981). Landis filled the screen with blood and gore, but never lingered. The mainstream gore bar would be met or exceeded when Paul Schrader (Cat People, 1982) and John Carpenter (The Thing, 1982) provided their own, very different takes of Universal horror classics.
Landis continued his hot streak with Trading Places and directed a segment of the ill-fated Twilight Zone: The Movie in 1983. His career eventually wound down from the dizzying heights he had reached, but he continues to work, with his most recent project, Mr. Warmth, screening at the New York Film Festival. On a personal note, during the time that I lived in Los Angeles most recently (2002-2004), Landis was a regular presence at the retrospective screenings presented by the American Cinematheque, always dressed in a tie and jacket, and always appeared very warm to anyone who approached him.
An American Werewolf in London was remade as the woefully inept An American Werewolf in Paris in 1997; the less said about that catastrophe, the better. With allowances for its blemishes, Landis' film holds up very well and its influence can be seen in many of the horror comedies that followed in its wake. It's essential viewing for any would-be horror fan.