Today marks the 40th anniversary of John Landis’ cult horror-comedy An American Werewolf in London and it’s still just as terrifying today as it was back in 1981.
It would be an understatement to say that Landis set the bar exceptionally high for lycanthrope cinema. There have been countless werewolf features over the years ranging from spoof to gore-fest yet for some reason, none have managed to live up to American Werewolf, not even the sequel. So, what is it about this 80’s flick that has made it irrefutably untouchable?
Short answer – the simplicity of the entire feature is all too appealing for audiences to grasp on to. Take the premise for example, two Americans backpacking through the moors – already an idealistic setup for a spooky horror – only to be stalked by an unknown beast. It’s an easily relatable situation to find yourself in, perhaps not being preyed upon by a werewolf mind you, but the fear of being isolated in unfamiliar terrain – in the middle of the night – with nothing but your imagination to keep you sane.
Then, the attack happens. Jack is mauled. David is bitten. All of which happens within the first twenty minutes. Landis isn’t messing around, literally going straight for the jugular. No drawn out exposition, just pure suspenseful terror from the get-go. The tension could be cut with a knife leading up to the horrific ordeal. Something is bound to happen, all we can do is wait for a couple of nail-biting moments.
Jump scares are sparse throughout the film but they are highly effective every time, fulfilling their namesake rather than coming across as cheap, out-of-place gags. The nightmare sequence alone is enough to traumatise you from sheer shock and when Jack’s decomposing, mangled corpse pops up on occasion, it’ll make your skin crawl with unease.
Eighties horrors weren’t exactly known for their praiseworthy effects, and werewolf features have been notoriously comical for how they’ve chosen to depict the creatures. Landis is a rare exception. A diamond in the rough if you will. An American Werewolf in London took a bold stance towards the progression of the genre. For the first time in cinematic history, the transformation from human to wolf was portrayed and what a tremendously sickening experience it was.
Thanks to the creative wizard that is Rick Baker – deserving of his Academy Award – and his prosthetics, David’s metamorphosis feels and looks authentic. Extraordinary is the probably the best word to describe the scene but at the same time doesn’t seem to do Baker’s work justice. It’s a difficult section of the movie to get through; David writhes in pain as the torturous crunching of his bones haunts the air, his body contorts abnormally. Every detail is shown, nothing left to interpretation, which was and remains the movie’s most impressive feature. This is what Landis has been leading towards. The grand reveal. A beast that no other adaptation has measured up to.
An American Werewolf in London remains iconic. The soundtrack, the story, the visuals, all are enough to excuse the sometimes cringeworthy dialogue. A masterpiece that never gets old. There’s a unique quality rooted within that we often fail to find in modern horror. Landis’ approach was executed to perfection. For a film of its age, the effects used maintain their ability to shake us to our core.
Happy 40th to a true classic!