|Director: John Landis|
|Screenplay: John Landis|
|Stars: David Naughton (David Kessler), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), Don McKillop (Inspector Villiers), Paul Kember (Sergeant McManus), John Woodvine (Dr. Hirsch) |
|MPAA Rating: R|
|Year of Release: 1981|
|Country: U.S. / U.K.|
In the opening credits sequence of An American Werewolf in London, writer/director John Landis makes it clear that this is not going to be your typical werewolf movie. As the plain credits unspool over shots of the Yorkshire moors at dusk, the soundtrack fills with the gentle rhythms of Bobby Vinton crooning “Blue Moon.” It is a disarming opening sequence in a disarming horror movie, and it is key to what Landis is up to: He wants to keep you completely off-balance so you never know what to expect.
This is why no one can agree on what An American Werewolf in London is. Is it a comedy or a horror movie? After all, it is very funny, and when he directed it, Landis was known exclusively as a comedy director, having had several comedic hits in a row with The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), and The Blues Brothers (1980). But, at the same time, it is a grisly, gory horror movie complete with clever jump scares, a creepy soundtrack, spectacular werewolf metamorphosis effects, and graphic blood and guts. Such a mix is, of course, not new, as those dealing in horror have known for ages that the use of comedy from time to time as a tension reliever works very well in priming the audience for the next scare. Yet, few movies had mixed comedy and horror with such utter aplomb as An American Werewolf.
Although it turned out to be a smash hit, this casual oscillation between the humorous and the horrific caused some critics and audience members to miss the boat, including Roger Ebert, who wrote, “Landis never seems very sure whether he’s making a comedy or a horror film.” Actually, it was the other way around: Landis was absolutely sure of what he was making—a funny horror movie—and the uncertainty was in Ebert the viewer, who was not prepared for a movie that was both at the same time in such a flamboyant manner.
An American Werewolf is both a loving homage to the old Universal flicks that kickstarted the horror genre in the 1930s, most notably the The Wolf Man (1940) and its sequels, and a gentle spoof of them. Updated with the best in special effects that, even decades later, retain their full effectiveness and a wicked sense of humor, An American Werewolf in London is a unique horror-comedy hybrid that paved the way for others who realized that the scary and the funny can exist side-by-side without undermining each other’s impact.
The story takes place entirely in England where two American students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), are backpacking for three months. Stranded in the middle of the moors after dark and having received several stern warnings from ominous locals to “stick to the road,” David and Jack are attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf (we only see fleeting glimpses of yellow eyes and huge teeth and fur). Jack is mauled and dies and David is maimed, waking up three weeks later in a London hospital. The doctor (John Woodvine) tells him that the police have closed the case, saying that it was an escaped lunatic who attacked them. But, David is insistent that it was an animal. The only person who seems to listen to him is a nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter), who doesn’t necessarily believe him, but is willing to comfort him.
David begins to believe he is losing his mind as his nights are tormented with strange nightmares that become increasingly bizarre. At one point, he dreams that he is naked in the forest hunting deer like an animal, and in another dream that can only be described as Buñuelean, he sees his entire family massacred by Nazi zombies with machine guns. And, if that weren’t bad enough, Jack suddenly reappears, still bearing the gashes across his face and the torn-out throat inflicted by the wolf, and tells David that he was attacked by a werewolf and that, at the next full moon, he will become one, as well. “Has it occurred to you that it might be unsettling for me to see you rise from the grave to come visit me?” David says in one the movie’s many humorously deadpan responses to the fantastical.
An American Werewolf in London was a groundbreaking movie in more ways than one. Not only did it help to establish the tenor and tone of the modern horror-comedy hybrid, it was immediately recognized as a quantum leap forward in the art of make-up special effects, so much so that Rick Baker, best known at the time for his work on Star Wars (1977), was awarded the first-ever Oscar for best make-up. One of the central ideas Landis had in writing An American Werewolf was a realistic on-screen depiction of the transformation from man to wolf. Not satisfied with the use of lap dissolves that had previously suggested metamorphosis, Landis encouraged Baker to go for broke, which is exactly what he did. The sequence in which David first changes into a wolf remains a stunning achievement in visceral on-screen transformation. Baker’s make-up effects realistically depicy what it might look like for a man to transmute into a wolf—from the elongation of his hands and feet into paws, to the sudden growth of hair, arching of his back, and the expansion of his skull and face from flat human proportions into a long, canine snout. Even modern CGI effects would have a hard time topping the realism that Baker achieved here, and it is made all the more effective by Landis’s smart direction that never lingers on the effect too long —just enough to shock you, but not so much that it becomes redundant. Plus, he has the nerve—the nerve!—to score the whole sequence with yet another version of “Blue Moon” in the background.
Landis isn’t content to stop there, as he continually pushes the envelope in both horror and humor. Jack reappears twice more, each time further decomposed until, at the end, he is little more than a talking skull. Jack tries to convince David to kill himself so that Jack can rest in peace (because he died an “unnatural” death at the claws of a werewolf, he is doomed to walk the earth as the living dead until the werewolf’s bloodline has been severed). One of the movie’s funniest and most surreal moments finds David in a porn theater, sitting next to Jack the talking skull and surrounded by the bloody living-dead reincarnations of the six people he had killed the night before as a werewolf, a few of whom absurdly maintain their oh-so-British politeness.
The movie climaxes in the infamous scene in which David the werewolf rampages through the internationally known Piccadilly Circus in London, causing utter, bloody mayhem. Yet, what is even more impressive is that Landis still manages to convey the essentially tragic nature of the werewolf at the end—the monster as victim of its own curse. Despite all the blood and laughs that have gone before it, An American Werewolf finds a note of poignancy in its final moments, which is perhaps its biggest and most effective surprise.
|An American Werewolf in London 4K UHD + Blu-ray|
|Audio||DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surroundDTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements||Audio commentary by filmmaker Paul Davis Audio commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf documentary“An American Filmmaker in London,” interview with writer/director John Landis“I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret,” video essay by Jon Spira “The Werewolf’s Call,” discussion between fiilmmaker Corin Hardy and writer Simon Ward“Wares of the Wolf” featuretteBeware the Moon documentary“An American Werewolf in Bob’s Basement” featurette“Causing a Disturbance: Piccadilly Revisited” featuretteMaking An American Werewolf in London, a short archival featurette on the film’s production Video interview with John LandisVideo interview with make-up artist Rick Baker“I Walked with a Werewolf,” archival interview with Rick Baker“Casting of the Hand,” archival footage from Rick Baker’s workshopOuttakes Storyboards featurette Original trailer and teaser, TV spots, and radio spots Image gallery of stills, posters, and other ephemeraDouble-sided fold-out poster Six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions Limited edition 60-page, perfect-bound book featuring new writing by Craig Ian Mann and Simon Ward, archival articles, and original reviews|
|Release Date||March 15, 2022|
|An American Werewolf in London has seen a lot of releases over the years on DVD and Blu-ray, but longtime fans of the film will certainly want to get their hands on Arrow Video’s new special edition, which boasts a brand new 4K restoration from the original 35mm camera negative. According to the liner notes, the negative was scanned in 4K 16-bit resolution at NBC Universal Post and then restored in 4K and graded in HDR10 & Dolby Vision at Silver Salt Restoration, London using a prior H master approved by director John Landis as the major grading reference. The resulting 2160p/Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible) image is simply spectacular, with incredible detail, color, and depth. It maintains an appropriately filmlike appearance, with a good veneer of grain throughout that lends it the early ’80s celluloid feel that is so essential to its effectiveness (some scenes are definitely grainier than others, but it all feels right). Nighttime scenes and dark rooms are well presented, with good shadow detail and strong black levels, while bright colors (including copious amounts of red blood and David Naughton’s blood-red puffer jacket) pop with great clarity. In terms of the soundtrack, purists can opt for the original one-channel monaural track, which was sourced from the original mono mix reels and remastered at Deluxe Audio and is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio, or a newly mixed 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The 5.1 mix was originally created by NBC Universal at Twickenham Film Studios, however the original 5.1 master print mag reels were newly remastered by Arrow Films at Deluxe Audio to correct for a pitch error introduced in the original mix. Both sound good, although the multi-channel mix obviously opens up the soundtrack quite a bit, creating some good surround effects without making it sound artificial or forced.|
As for the supplements … well, get ready to buckle down and clear your calendar, because it will likely take you several days to get through it all. Many of the supplements have been compiled from previous releases, although there is a hefty dose of new material, as well. There is an audio commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne that dates back to Universal’s 2001 “Collector’s Edition” DVD. Their commentary is enjoyably amusing, if somewhat spotty, with lots of joking as they reminisce about the movie’s production. They come up with some interesting trivia, such as the fact that the attack sequence at the beginning of the movie was filmed on a lot behind the Queen’s castle, but they come up short in explaining why John Landis includes “See You Next Wednesday” in all of his movies. Added to that is a brand-new audio commentary by filmmaker Paul Davis that is packed with all manner of information and insight, which is not surprising given that Davis directed a 2009 feature-length documentary on the film, Beware the Moon: Remembering An American Werewolf in London, which is included here. It runs an hour and 47 minutes and includes extensive cast and crew interviews,. And that’s not the only feature-length documentary on the disc. We also get Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, a 2019 documentary by filmmaker Daniel Griffith that runs an hour and 18 minutes. It includes interviews with Landis, Naughton, director Joe Dante, and a number of film historians and scholars and is quite excellent in tracing the history of werewolf iconography and myth from folklore, to literature, to films, with a particular emphasis on Universal and Hammer’s werewolf films. Also new to this disc is “An American Filmmaker in London,” an 11-minute interview with John Landis in which he discusses his love of British cinema and what it was like being an American filmmaker working in England; “The Werewolf’s Call,” a 12-minute discussion between director Corin Hardy (The Hallow, The Nun) and writer Simon Ward about how American Werewolf helped to shape them as artists; “Wares of the Wolf,” an 8-minute featurette in which SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store look at some of the few remaining props from the film, including Naughton’s iconic red puffer jacket (the only one of a half dozen used during the filming to have survived), one of the Nazi zombie masks, and the original mechanics for the expanding werewolf transformation face. Perhaps my favorite of the new featurettes is “I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret,” a fascinating 11-minute video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira that traces the film’s extensive Jewish subtext, which leads Spira to the conclusion that it is one of the most important postwar films about Jewish identity.
From previous DVD releases, we have an 18-minute video interview with Landis from 2001 in which he talks about the long road it took to get the movie made (he wrote it in 1969 when he was only 19 years old) and what he was trying to accomplish (he starts off the interview by emphatically denying that it;s a comedy), and an 11-minute video interview with innovative special effects pioneer Rick Baker, which includes some interesting behind-the-scenes footage of his work that will please FX aficionados. “The Making of An American Werewolf in London” is a 5-minute promotional piece from 1981. It is obviously meant to be pure advertising, but it does include some nice footage of the production, as well as interviews with Landis. (It is a bit unnerving, though, to see Landis discussing the Piccadilly Circus sequence and smiling as he declares that no stunt is worth hurting someone for, considering that a scant year later actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children would die in a helicopter accident during the filming of Landis’s segment from The Twilight Zone: The Movie.) Other supplements include four minutes of outtakes that have no soundtrack, but include some good alternate footage of the werewolf, as well as Landis joking around in front of the camera in a bit of “mystery footage” that simply has to be seen. A 13-minute bit of archival footage called “Casting of the Hand” shows how much work was involved for Baker to make a simple plaster cast of Naughton’s hand and forearm for the transformation sequence, the 8-minute “I Walked With a Werewolf” finds Baker talking the history of Universal’s werewolf characters. There is also a brief film-to-storyboard comparison shows the initial conception of the Piccadilly Circus sequence compared to the finished scene in the movie, an original trailer and teaser plus TV and radio spots, and an extensive image gallery featuring over 200 stills, posters and other ephemera. As always with Arrow’s special editions, the physical packaging is impressive, with a reversible sleeve featuring original poster art and artwork by Graham Humphreys, a double-sided fold-out poster, six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions, and a limited edition 60-page, perfect-bound book featuring new writing by Craig Ian Mann and Simon Ward, archival articles and original reviews.
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