Back in 1981, combining horror and comedy seemed like a risky move. While both genres were hitting new strides commercially and critically, they don't seem that complementary. In truth, they had met many times before, and very successfully. James Whale used comedy to elevate 'The Bride of Frankenstein' to the status of an instant classic in 1935, and George A. Romero's 1978 masterpiece 'Dawn of the Dead' is almost more of a comedy than a horror film, even with its spectacular use of blood and gore. This was the tradition from which < href="/crew/John-Landis">John Landis' magnificent 'An American Werewolf in London' emerged, a jaw-dropping feat of storytelling and technical wizardry. The riskier aspect was more so Landis himself - a filmmaker who was, at that point, wholly associated with comedy. It would have been easy to imagine the director of 'Animal House' (1978) and 'The Blues Brothers' (1980) knowing his way with the comedic aspects of the film, but would he have the skills not only to handle the horror elements, but effectively balance the two? The degree to which he and the entire team behind 'American Werewolf' were able to do so is why we're still drawn to the film four decades later.
I first watched 'American Werewolf' in my 20s. I'm not even sure why I picked it up from the shelf at the video store where I worked; I knew basically nothing about it, not even that it was a horror-comedy, or that it had an iconic sequence at its centre. Yet seeing the film for the first time was like being hit by a bolt of lightning. After 40 years, there are still very few films like it, very few that feature such a bizarre mix of tones and textures, and yet feel as cohesive, satisfying and surprising as this one. Even Edgar Wright's beloved 'Shaun of the Dead' (2008) never achieves the same level of thematic and tonal sophistication. I've now seen the film countless times, sat numerous friends down and made them watch it, and even with my familiarity, the film leaves me in a state of minor shock. It still feels miraculous that it works at all, let alone this well. Landis is, at best, a perfunctory filmmaker, and yet here he is making choices that very few horror films, even today, would have the guts to.
This is only partly to do with the comedy. The use of humour in the film doesn't seem revelatory, certainly compared to Whale or Romero. It is deployed in an irreverent, goofy tone that feels very familiar, rather than as a form of satire. It's a means through which we can quickly learn all we can about David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), the two hapless and horny young American tourists traipsing ill-prepared across the English countryside. They are yet another in the long line of obnoxious cinematic American tourists forcing their personality and needs upon a foreign country, but the obviousness and self-consciousness of their banter make them easy to fall for. They have all the "gee-whiz" qualities of the wholesome American teenager, but also an openness to talk about sex and violence. They're dumb kids who don't know how annoying they can be, but there is a love and affection between them that is infectious, and if you don't care about your protagonists in a horror film, then the film itself has to work much harder to succeed in the end. Their entrance into the film in the back of a sheep-filled truck (literal lambs for the slaughter) clashes drastically with the moody, mysterious English moors, but that contrast allows us to fall in love with them, care about them, feel for them. Landis often uses this as a tool in the film, placing David and Jack helplessly into dominant landscapes in which they do not fit.
The role of comedy in 'American Werewolf' is ultimately not as a driving force, but as a deception. The great surprise of the film is not how funny it is, but how incredibly brutal it is, both visually and thematically. Each frame is constructed with a deliberate sense of menace, a cold and calculated inevitability that is almost voyeuristic. There's a sense that the film is waiting for David and Jack's demise, charting it with keen, almost gleeful interest. It's a maniacal technique utilised in many of the most brutal horror films, from 'Picnic at Hanging Rock' (1975) to 'Funny Games' (1996) to 'Hereditary' (2018), to place the audience in a position of helplessness where we are forced to watch the demise of characters we care about through a lens calibrated to celebrate their downfall. You don't expect it though in this film, with its cheeky needle-drops and almost Grimm's fairy tale premise. It's all the more unsettling in a film as witty and irreverent as 'American Werewolf', and the moment of realisation, when you understand the extent to which this film is not screwing around, is a sobering one. Almost without your noticing, it slips from a charming buddy comedy to a nihilistic, spiritually-shattering nightmare.
The central conceit behind the film is to add a level of realism to the werewolf mythos, on what physical, psychological and spiritual damage it would inflict on a person caught in this curse and those around them. The images are nightmarish and often deeply shocking, a deep dive into the subconscious of a mind battling between reason and animal instinct. The film may be willing to make fun of horny young men or British/American culture clash, even the philosophical conundrums of death and the soul, but the destruction and desecration of the human body is never a joke. All of the deaths shown on-screen are swift, bloody and horrifying, flesh torn apart without mercy, and the centrepiece of the film, the still-fucking-extraordinary transformation sequence, is a symphony of cracking bones, stretched skin and David's deep, guttural screams of pain and horror. In 'American Werewolf', even with its goofiness, the threat is palpable, imminent and completely uncontrollable, and everyone - even the person inflicting that threat - is a victim to it.
Unlike the protagonist in 'The Wolf Man' (1941), David doesn't come from privilege or power, and he doesn't have the resources to accommodate for his affliction. He is a young man alone in a strange land, where the rules of interaction, decorum and attraction are very different. His openness is what attracts us and his nurse Alex Price (a superb Jenny Agutter) to him, but it is also his openness that is ultimately his undoing. He is a good man in conflict with an animal nature he has no control over, and just when you think you have its number, the film places David in an even more horrifying position - take your own life, or continue to take the lives of others. The Greek chorus of undead victims is the most successful element of black comedy in the film, but here the openness and frankness of the film translate into a black-and-white assessment of life and death completely at odds with David's humanity. The film isn't the slightest bit afraid of facing David's conundrum head-on and forcing us to contend with it. One of the most moving scenes in the film sees David calling his family to say goodbye, facing directly into the inevitability of his death. His second transformation is all the more devastating because he knows he has failed, knows he has lost control, knows that David Kessler will now cease to exist and the imprint he leaves in the world will be filled with blood.
Almost without your noticing, it slips from a charming buddy comedy to a nihilistic, spiritually-shattering nightmare.
His hope is Alex, a genuine connection for this Jewish Yankee in King Arthur's court. The beauty of Agutter's performance is her stability compared to David Naughton's rambunctious David, giving the film and the central relationship a necessary grounding. In order for the film to work, she must have the same pragmatism as Dr Hirsch (John Woodvine), but also the empathy to see David as an (albeit foolish) human being. Alex isn't interested in playing games with him; she says exactly what she means and expresses exactly what she wants, and this makes her the clearest path to David's salvation. Where others are concerned for those he will kill (even the undead Jack has little sympathy for David), Alex is equally concerned for him. This brings the unexpected power and tragedy of 'American Werewolf', and ultimately that is what the film is. A comedy, certainly. A horror film, without question. But the inevitability of David's fate and the terrible choices both he and Alex must make lead the film towards its tragic ending, as powerful as the other great horror masterpiece of the 80s on transformation and monstrosity, 'The Fly'.
And yet, even though the end of the path is sudden and devastating, the path itself is absurdly entertaining. Amongst the suffering are moments of irreverent, often seemingly unrelated brevity, whether it be the little boy in the hospital who answers every question with "No!", the bumbling Sergeant McManus (Paul Kembler), the hysterical News of the World advertisement and 'See You Next Wednesday' porno film, or the show-stopping line, "A naked American man stole my balloon." Any fears that Landis wouldn't know how to balance the comedy and horror quickly disappear with the palpable tension of David and Jack's arrival at The Slaughtered Lamb, the incredible hunt in the London Underground or the horrifying collision of a cover of 'Blue Moon' against Rick Baker's legendary make-up effects in the transformation sequence. There is a control to this film, a singularity of vision, a careful construction that leaves you breathless, all the more surprising from a filmmaker who would never make another film as affecting as this again.
The legacy of 'An American Werewolf in London' has survived the downfall of its creator, and justifiably so. The ways in which the film feels singular have nothing to do with its use of genre but in its daring, to balance the mundane with the supernatural, the goofy with the brutal, the humane and the animalistic. It has a primal nature in keeping with the moors on which David and Jack meet their fate, ancient and earthly and unknowable, something written into our DNA since the beginning of time. The film is also a reminder of the ultimate power of the great horror films, not to jolt us with a jump scare but to burrow into our soul, force us to face the most difficult questions of our existence through a lens that renders them visually and aurally in all their fury. 'An American Werewolf in London' could be called a classic comedy or a classic horror film, but it is undeniably a classic.