The year is 1981, the year “An American Werewolf in London” was released, and the words “horror” and “comedy” were considered two incompatible cinematic beasts. Sure, one could always find some humour (of the blackest variety) in the classic Universal monster movies of yesteryear, but if you wanted to laugh as well as scream, it was strictly an old episode of “The Three Stooges” or vintage “Abbott & Costello” – and those were straight spoofs. It wasn’t until John Landis’ “An American Werewolf In London” that a mainstream American picture would arguably succeed at equally balancing the laughs and the guts.
Though written by Landis in the late ’60s, it wasn’t until after the success of his mega-hits “Animal House” and the “The Blues Brothers” that Universal greenlit the ambitious “An American Werewolf In London,” which many had said was an unfilmable, incongruent mishmash of no-holds-barred gruesome horror and ribald, juvenile comedy. But it’s to the credit of Landis’ oddball amalgam that, thirty four years later, the film holds up as the rare hybrid whose laughs actually increase the tension rather than deflate it. What Landis does so smartly in “An American Werewolf In London” is recognise that we often resort to uncomfortable laughter in situations of terror. “An American Werewolf In London” remains so effective not just because it’s funny, and scary – both of which it is – but because the combination of the two heightens the tension to an unnerving degree.
Landis’ tale begins with two backpacking American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne). Lost on the moors, they fall prey to a werewolf, with Jack killed and David left injured – meaning that David will change come the next full moon. Waking up at a local British hospital, David is put under the care of Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) and a beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter), with whom he eventually begins a steamy affair. But despite increasingly bizarre dreams, random visits from the increasingly decaying Jack, and an eventual “mad dog” massacre that rips apart London, David is unable to do what he must – end his life, or be doomed forever to haunt the countryside as a lycanthrope.
“An American Werewolf in London” is a John Landis film through and through. Any fan familiar with “Animal House” or “The Blues Brothers” will instantly recognise his cheerful brand of adolescent humour and wacky situations. From the stagey early scenes at the local Slaughtered Lamb pub (especially its troupe of Brit actors, who look and sound like they just stepped off the stage of a local London repertory company) to goofy comedic scenes of a fish-out-of-water David running naked in a London Zoo, Landis pushes the comedy in “horror comedy” to the limit. We even get a pretty raunchy climax involving a cheesy Piccadilly Circus porn theatre, a bouncing decapitated head, and the most arbitrary car-crash scene in movie history. Yet, “An American Werewolf In London” is surprisingly effective despite the incredulity of much of the plot, because it still manages to involve us in David’s plight, while being pretty damn scary in the process.
It’s a bit dated in spots, and the once ground-breaking special effects, while impressive, now seem somewhat quaint. But Landis certainly knows how to pack an unexpected wallop. The opening werewolf attack on the moors is a fine example of how to use humour to set-up a great scare (the first appearance of the wolf, as it pounces on Jack, remains a corker). Landis then continues to punctuate the atmosphere with still-shocking outbursts of savage violence, which even today push the boundaries of the film’s rating. And then there’s the garish Jack, played by Dunne with just the correct mixture of pathos, wry humor and anger. Landis ups the ante for David quite severely, so by film’s end we are fully drawn into his futile plight.
Undoubtedly, “An American Werewolf In London” remains best remembered for its ground-breaking werewolf transformations. Effects pioneer Rick Baker won an Oscar for his efforts, and it’s an honour richly deserved. Some may now laugh at the latex illusions and animatronics (made a bit more obvious by Landis’ insistence on filming the effects in brightly lit interiors), but Baker’s work remains trend-setting, and is a glorious example of ingenuity and resourcefulness. (They sure beat CGI in my book, too.) Kudos should go to Landis, though, for incorporating the effects sparingly throughout his film, as “An American Werewolf In London” is ultimately no mere smoke and mirrors show. The combination of likable characters, a good story, high production values and classic effects work makes it still one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Despite some clunky spots and a few dated elements here and there, “An American Werewolf In London” still has the power to make you laugh as hard as you scream. (My Movie Rating: 4/5)
THE IMAGE QUALITY
Universal has issued “An American Werewolf in London” on Blu-ray, in a new 1080p/VC-1 (1.78:1) transfer. Despite a few rough patches here and there, it’s the best I’ve ever seen the film look.
“An American Werewolf In London” suffered for years from dark and grainy VHS and laserdisc transfers. Quite frankly, the film was so dank you could hardly see what was happening for much of the first act. Thankfully, this Blu-ray is much, much brighter and bolder. Though still quite grainy in select shots, there’s at last real detail in the shadows. Fine textures are much more clearly visible, and the transfer has noticeable depth. Colours are nicely improved, even upon the previous DVD (which wasn’t bad), especially reds and greens, which are quite vivid now. It remains a product of its time, however, so don’t expect a level of sharpness equal to a new release. There are also a bit of print defects, though the amount of visible dirt and specks is minimal. The encoding is also solid, with only slight noise perceptible. Thankfully, the edge enhancement that plagued the previous DVD is absent. Overall, this Blu-ray is a very fine presentation of difficult source material. (Video Rating: 3.5/5)
THE AUDIO QUALITY
A new English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) has been produced for “An American Werewolf in London.” The film has always possessed a rather effective mix for a 1981 horror picture, and it has been upgraded nicely here.
Surround deployment is impressive considering the film’s age. The rears are active for the big scare moments, particularly the creepy wolf sound effects, and general atmosphere. Elmer Bernstein’s underrated score is also nicely balanced, which gives a decent heft to the soundfield. Dialogue is pretty crisp and intelligible, with only some of the hushed tones and British accents a bit muffled. Low bass isn’t particularly impactful (the mix sounds a bit brittle, particularly high-end) but it’s strong enough to give some kick to the wolf attack scenes. Again, considering the age of the material, I was happy with this mix. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
DIGGING INTO THE SUPPLEMENTS
Universal previously released a special edition DVD of “An American Werewolf in London” back in 2001. It was OK, if not particularly special – one got the feeling that the studio lumped in some standard bonus features, but didn’t really go the extra mile to give fans the deluxe treatment expected. This Blu-ray rights that wrong, at last giving us ‘Werewolf’ lovers the full-length, in-depth documentary we’ve been craving.
- Documentary: “Beware the Moon” (HD, 89 minutes) – This is the real meat of the new extras. Produced by lifelong ‘American Werewolf’ fan Paul Davis (who writes, directs and hosts), this is a lovingly created full-length doc that leaves no stone unturned. ‘Beware the Moon‘ greatly benefits from the participation of every single major participant in the film, including director John Landis and producer George Folsey, effects guru Rick Baker, all the top-billed cast, and many key crew members. Davis’ guided tour of the film’s locations is the backbone upon which the new interviews are hung, chronicling the film’s production from conception, through production and release. If “Beware the Moon” can be forgiven for being a bit laudatory in its praise of the film’s legacy (this is, after all, merely a cult film, not “Citizen Kane”), and also for being rather lengthy at 90 minutes, so much detail is crammed in that no fan is going to complain. Kudos must also go to Davis for digging up so much rare making-of footage – it exceeds what one normally finds in documentaries about thirty year-old films. My only nitpick? I wanted to know about that weird-ass Meco soundtrack album released in 1981, which goes untouched here. (What the heck was that thing, anyway?)
- Audio Commentary – All the remaining extras appear ported over from past video releases. The best of ’em is probably this screen-specific chat with actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. The duo ease back into a friendly banter as if they made the film the day before – certainly not the twenty years that had passed at the time this was recorded. Filled with enjoyable anecdotes on the casting, the horrors of latex makeup, successfully mixing genres, working on location, and the joys of snot, the two address a lot of interesting points. I’m usually suspicious of “actor commentaries,” but this one gets a pass mark.
- Interviews (SD, 29 minutes) – Also included are 2001-era chats with Landis and Baker, running 18 and 10 minutes, respectively. Landis recalls the tough journey from his original idea to final execution and the initial aversion by most towards a “horror comedy.” Landis is jovial as always and quite informative on developing the story, the audience reactions, the film’s dream sequence and a guided tour of the effects set pieces. Baker also fondly remembers his American Werewolf experience, though his somewhat jaundiced eye towards the outdated effects may surprise some fans. Unfortunately, most of this info is redundant with “Beware The Moon,” so you can skip these, or at least start with the full doc.
- Outtakes (SD) – Two segments of unearthed footage are included here, though again much has now been integrated into “Beware The Moon.” “Casting the Hand” is an amusing 13 minutes devoted to the making a mold out of Naughton’s digits, and though lacking narration, is fun to watch. Since I love 80’s latex makeup effects (CGI be damned) this was a treat. Even more fun is the 4-minute “Outtakes” reel. Though lacking any sound, these are really funny, with Landis mugging with the cast and the titular werewolf, some gaffs from the crash sequence, prepping the makeup, and cool shots of the wolf rampaging through Piccadilly Circus.
- Montages (SD) – More archival video material includes a “Storyboard-to-Screen Comparison.” The storyboards feature part of the climatic crash, with the original sketches on the top right of the screen and the final film version on the bottom right. Also here is a “Photograph Montage” that contains a collection of publicity stills, most of which I’ve never seen before. What is cool about this 9-minute segment is that it includes select cues from Elmer Bernstein’s underrated score, which has never been released on any pre-recorded format.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD) – Finally, we’ve got the film’s original theatrical trailer.
(Special Features Rating: 4/5)
“An American Werewolf in London” is definitely a horror cult classic. Though a decent-sized hit upon first release, it has really gained its reputation over the years on video, and still holds up today as an effective mix of comedy and horror. This Blu-ray is the best version of the film yet, with fine video and audio, plenty of ported-over supplements, and a great newly-produced documentary. Even if you own past versions, I say this is worth another upgrade. (Overall Blu-ray Disc Rating: 4/5)