Movie: 'An American Werewolf in London'
Release Date: August 21, 1981
How It Got Made: John Landis' 'An American Werewolf in London' was just one of three big werewolf movies released in 1981, but it may have been the one with the most far-reaching impact. Much of the credit goes to Rick Baker, the makeup and special-effects artist who created one of the most terrifying werewolf transformations ever, a sequence so impressive it inspired the Academy to initiate a Best Makeup category at the Oscars. The film would also serve as a template for horror comedies to come, as well as for Michael Jackson's celebrated 'Thriller' video, which saw Landis and Baker expand upon their ghoulish innovations from 'American Werewolf.'
Landis has said he came up with the idea for the film back in 1969, when he was working in Yugoslavia as a production assistant on Clint Eastwood's World War II picture 'Kelly's Heroes.' He supposedly saw a group of Gypsies performing a ritual meant to keep a person from rising from the dead. He wrote a screenplay that went unproduced for 12 years, until Landis had become a bankable director, thanks to such hits as 'Animal House' and 'The Blues Brothers.'
Landis managed to raise $10 million to make the movie, despite producers' concerns that the movie's mixture of horror and comedy wouldn't work. They also wanted Landis' 'Blues Brothers' stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to star as David (the tourist who becomes a wolf himself after a werewolf attack) and his friend Jack (who is killed in the attack but whose decomposing ghost keeps visiting David to urge him to kill himself before he becomes a rampaging wolf). Instead, Landis went with relative unknowns David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Rounding out the cast was British actress Jenny Agutter ('Logan's Run') as the nurse who falls in love with David and tries to save him from himself.
At the time, Naughton was best known for singing "I'm a Pepper" in Dr. Pepper commercials. During production on this movie, the crew reportedly taunted him by singing, "I'm a werewolf, you're a werewolf... wouldn't you like to be a werewolf too?"
The key sequence in the film was David's full-moon-induced transformation, a sequence that went on for several minutes as his bones elongated painfully, his haunches grew muscles, and his body became covered with hair. Baker's realistic work here with latex, prosthetics and robotic limbs -- as well as his work elsewhere in the film on the progressively decaying but still chatty Jack -- stood in sharp contrast to the film's more comic elements, yet neither detracted from the other.
How It Was Received: Despite following on the heels of such recent releases as 'The Howling' and 'Wolfen,' 'American Werewolf' was a hit in theaters, grossing more than $30 million. Baker's work had an immediate impact on the Academy, which decided to create a Best Makeup Oscar. Its first winner the following winter was Baker for his 'American Werewolf' work.
Long-Term Impact: 'American Werewolf' fan Michael Jackson hired Landis and Baker to oversee his landmark 'Thriller' video in 1983, featuring Jackson's own wolf-like transformation and an army of dancing, Jack-like ghouls. The extended-length music clip became perhaps the most important and influential music video of all time and set a sales record, moving 9 million copies on videocassette. Landis would also direct Jackson's landmark 1991 'Black or White' video, as well as such hit movies as 'Trading Places' and 'Coming to America.' His latest work, 'Burke & Hare' (opening Sept. 9), finds him returning to England-set horror comedy with a tale of 19th-century grave robbers. It stars Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg, whose 2004 film 'Shaun of the Dead' took the 'American Werewolf' style of horror comedy to its extreme.
Baker would go on to win seven Oscars for his makeup, including his work on 'The Nutty Professor,' 'Men in Black,' and (coming full circle) 2010's 'The Wolfman' (in which Baker played a cameo as one of the wolf's early victims).
Naughton and Agutter went on to long careers on TV on their respective sides of the pond. Dunne, after starring in such films as Martin Scorsese's 'After Hours,' became a director whose credits included the Oscar-nominated short 'The Duke of Groove' and the features 'Practical Magic' and 'Addicted to Love.'
In 1997, the sequel 'An American Werewolf in Paris' was released. It had none of the same filmmakers, actors or characters as the 1981 film, just a similar premise (young American tourists, European capital, lycanthropy). Last year, Dimension Films announced plans for a remake, but those plans have yet to come to fruition.
How It Plays Today: Some elements of the movie are dated (all that helmet hair, the once-squalid Piccadilly Circus), but otherwise, the film has aged well. (It helps that Landis built a soundtrack of timeless pop songs that were already vintage then, selected because they all had to do with the moon.) As for the transformation and the other gruesome effects? Still scary.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.