a critiQal film review An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Plot: While backpacking across Europe, best friends David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne) are viciously attacked. When the survivor wakes up, he slowly realizes they were attacked by a werewolf, and, by the light of the next full moon, he's cursed to become a monstrous killing machine himself.

608 words (Est. Reading Time 3m 2s)
  • ...fails to live up to the promise that only the transformation sequence ever truly delivers on.

Looking for an older horror film to watch on NetFlix®, my first choice was Poltergeist (1982). That was until I ran across An American Werewolf in London, the comedy/horror classic directed by John Landis.

Since I’ve heard nothing but good things about this film, yet had never actually gotten around to seeing it, I figured today was a good day to give it a shot. Could it match up with the horror/comedy I judge all others by: Shaun of the Dead (2004)?

Despite 30 years passing since the making of An American Werewolf in London, it’s stars aren’t exactly household names. David Naughton heads up the cast, and while he does a decent job as main character David, he just doesn’t have that star quality that draws viewers in. Jenny Agutter, as his nurse-turned-lover, does a better job of involving the audience. Griffin Dunne as David’s friend Jack has a bit of that spark as well, but even that isn’t enough to really draw viewers into the film.

With a remake-a-minute on the werewolf theme (Cursed (2005)) and it’s offshoots (Beauty and the Beast (1991)), werewolf films are plentiful. So, a good one has to have a lot going for it to set it aside from it’s fellow contenders.

Unfortunately, aside from a solid transformation sequence that stands up to this day and an ongoing sheep-to-the-slaughter theme, An American Werewolf in London really doesn’t have much going for it. The much talked about humor of the film is really only two sequences, one of which is the typically inane victims-to-the-slaughter rubbish. David’s escape from the park is a delight though. But, with only one solid comedy sequence, how is that really “blending” horror and comedy?

The special effects vary. With the transformation sequence a stand-out even 30 years later, viewers will be expecting great things when it comes to seeing the fleshed-out werewolf. Unfortunatelty, they will be incredibly disappointed by the animatronic puffball they are later presented with. The transformation sequence is so far ahead of it’s time it makes the typically disappointing early-80’s special effects look even worse in comparison. Sadly, that only helps in making the film itself feel largely unbalanced.

While director Landis – normally known for his comedies – does stay true to the werewolf genre, and delivers an occasionally solid chase sequence (the chase sequence through the subway is particularly well done), he never really manages to carry any tension build-up from sequence to sequence. Instead, the viewer is left with snippets of a film that seems to have been mostly left on the cutting room floor. What’s left is an odd mish-mash of horrific sound bites. These include, as is typical of horror films, drawn-out sequences of sex and/or nudity, most of it for no apparent reason (a meeting with the dead near the finale takes place in a porn theater, apparently only to showcase an obviously looped, and rather pedantic at that, sex scene in the background).

Unfortunately, the “classic” horror/comedy An American Werewolf in London turns out to be a major disappointment. It’s jerky, unconnected style that suggests this film could have been much better if the editor wasn’t so heavy-handed. Sadly, the film fails to live up to the promise that only the transformation sequence ever truly delivers on.

As it turns out, even werewolf films of the 80’s were disappointing. So, don’t think that the bad reviews of Red Riding Hood (2011) or the recent Beastly (2011) are something new for werewolf films. And as for horror/comedies? Stick with Shaun of the Dead (2004) rather than the highly overrated An American Werewolf in London – at least until we get to see a director’s cut.

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