I think we can all agree that John Landis’ American Werewolf in London is the quintessential werewolf movie. Never in the history of cinema has there been a monster film that featured such a perfect blend of witty humor, a budding romance, and drawn out violence, all centered around the story of a young man who suffers agonizing transformations when he catches a glimpse of the full moon. What really makes American Werewolf stand out from the rest of the pack is it’s outstanding special effects, courtesy of special effects guru Rick Baker. Sure, every werewolf movie features a transformations scene of some sort, whether it is a man who gradually becomes hairier, or a man who will slip into the shadows and emerge a fully transformed wolf. Rick Baker takes the notion of the man-to-wolf transformation to new heights, staging a full transformation in bright fluorescent lighting with no cut away. This scene has set a standard for monster movies, and until this day, artists are still trying (and failing) to top what Baker created over 30 years ago. While the writing and directing is top notch, and the acting is high above par for a film of this caliber, any horror fan worth his weight in wolfs-bane can agree that this transformation scene is the real star of the show. In fact, it was so highly regarded that the Academy created a new category for ‘Best Special Effects’ to recognize the talent of special effects artists at the Oscars.
A bit about the director:
John Landis may be known for his comedy films, having directed some of the most highly acclaimed (and funniest) comedies of all time; The Blues Brother, Animal House, The Kentucky Fried Movie, he is still a monster lover at heart. American Werewolf is his perfect love letter to the horror genre, and this past year he published his own monstrous book of movie monsters, fittingly entitled Monster In The Movies. In it he goes into detail of each and every sub-genre of horror, having a critique on everything from vampires to giant radioactive monsters. In the past decade, Landis has appeared in several documentaries discusng various horror films. You can feel his pason and love for all things horrific and monstrous. To think he almost started his carrier as a director of underground porno films.
My thoughts on the film:
There’s really nothing more I can say about this film that hasn’t been said before; American Werewolf in London clearly is the perfect monster movie. I’ve always been interested in movies involving werewolves, starting of course with the original Universal Pictures’ Wolfman film featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as the tortured soul who suffers from a horrific curse. American Werewolf takes that mple formula and gothic setting and sets it in a modern setting. Landis stated “this was my attempt to make a movie dealing with the supernatural in a completely realistic way.” We all know there is no such thing as men who become monstrous wolves in the presence of a full moon, Landis took this surreal tuation and placed it in a realistic setting. “What do you do when the surreal is real?” as much as I love monster movies, I’ll never be afraid of them because I know said monsters don’t exist in the real world. With American Werewolf, you can picture such an outlandish tuation taking place. If a gigantic ferocious beast really were loose in a crowded city street, panic really would ensue, as implied in the epic climax.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film, ade from Baker’s fantastic special effects, is the setting and atmosphere. While American Werewolf is vastly different from the Universal and Hammer renditions of the werewolf story, it still retains the gothic horror settings of foggy moors and landscapes featuring gothic architecture, despite its modern setting. The addition of sleazy prostitute infested back alleys and grimy porno theaters help add a modern feel, and add a level of grime and realism.
Like I mentioned, the real star of the show is Baker’s special effects. Not only is the transformation scene breath taking, but also the fully formed werewolf itself is a ght to behold. Without a doubt the most terrifying lycanthrope committed to celluloid. Ade from werewolves, the film also features Nazi demons and talking corpses. Griffin Dunne’s character, Jack Goodman, is torn to pieces by the original werewolf, and through out the film he haunts David and tries persuading him to commit suicide and free himself, and all the unfortunate victims of David’s lunar activities, from the curse of roaming the Earth as an accursed UnDead. Goodman appears to David several times, with each appearance he is more and more decomposed. The aforementioned Nazi demons appear in one of David’s several dreams, introduced in a twisted home invaon scenario where they slaughter his entire family before his eyes, before ending his life with a knife across his throat. The makeup on these brutes is as horrific as the werewolf itself; each resembling hideous half-man half-wolf atrocities dressed head to toe in Nazi attire.
The point is:
American Werewolf in London is without question the best example of a perfectly executed monster movie. John Landis manages to blend comedy, romance, and horror in a splendid and intriguing manor. He combines the over-the-top monster movies of years past, with their gothic setting and atmosphere, with the gritty and realistic modern horror films. Rick Baker creates an ensemble of monstroties to bring a wide grin to any horror fan’s face; decompong corpses, murderous Nazi demons, and the scariest lycanthrope to roam God’s green earth. American Werewolf is one of, if not the, greatest monster movie of all time, and among my favorite and most cherished movies of all time.
★★★★★ out of 5.
Story written by the new great HorrorBid columnist Steve Dziedziak