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An American Werewolf in London


‘…what a modern film should be; the story is simple and uncontrived, the scope personal and intense, and stakes small but engaging…’

Something of a blast, John Landis’ 1981 horror comedy is one of these few films that gets just about everything right. Written in the 60’s, after an experience while working on WWII action movie Kelly’s Heroes, Landis had shelved the result while his own stature grew via hits like Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers. But horror comedy wasn’t really a thing back then, and few fancied an updated take on the werewolf mythology that last peaked in the 1940’s.

Even forty years later, An American Werewolf in London feels like what a modern film should be; the story is simple and uncontrived, the scope personal and intense, and stakes small but engaging. A young Jewish man David Kessler (David Naughton) is on a backpacking holiday with his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) when they happen on an English pub called the Slaughtered Lamb. The visiting men are able to see a five pointed star on the walls that indicates that they’re destined for grisly things, and sure enough, some kind of creature attacks them on the moors, killing Jack and injuring David. David wakes up in hospital in London under the care of Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter), but Jack’s corpse haunts him, and warns David that at the next full moon, he’s fated to become a werewolf.

And that’s your lot; no world building, no origin story, no sequel promise, even the call-backs to old movies are referential rather than for comic effect. David’s dream sequence, in which his family are murdered by invading grotesque Nazi storm-troopers is genuinely terrifying, and asserts his religion as both his strength and vulnerability. Even Alex’s fellow nurses have peaked beneath the hospital bed covers to uncover the novelty of David’s circumcision. So the subsequent punch-line, in which David feels guilt-tripped by the supernatural victims of his lycanthropic activities in a London cinema, is firmly embedded in his own Jewishness, and it’s something that Landis doesn’t play for cheap laughs.

An American Werewolf In London gave birth to horror comedy as a box-office staple, but is untypical of the genre, with strong British location work, including the startling, nightmarish ending in Piccadilly Circus. Rather than casting familiar stars Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the central roles, Landis’ choices are fresh, and there’s a feeling for freewheeling unpredictability about the whole enterprise. Horror is a tradition, but Landis pours old wine into new bottles with great elan here, and the result pops like vintage champagne.


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  1. This is definitely a blast and as I recall the genre was pretty moribund at the time so this gave it a healthy and very humorous kick in the teeth. As you point, this also took a different view of the quaint English pub. Terrific special effects to boot.

  2. hard to fathom this was made in the 80s when lots of traditions were being punked. In America, I’d go back to the 40s regarding horror comedy, beginning with Arsenic & Old Lace, with awful Abbot & Costello Meets…getting a few groanish laughs in the 60s, along with The Raven, then Young Frankenstein and Rocky Horror Picture Show in mid 70s. Animal House is still a ‘go to’ when I need comic relief. So are actual creature horror classics like The Wolven and several versions of Dracula. The locations and actor choices were perfect and I confess, first trip to England–I inquired about exact location of Slaughtered Lamb pub…

    • Every pub in England is The Slaughtered Lamb! And the ones in Scotland are rather less welcoming. I take your note with gratitude as always, so I’ll modify my criteria. This is a half in half horror comedy, rather than a spoof. It doesn’t make fun of genre tropes, but generates comedy by taking them to the nth degree. Maybe 1932’s The Old Dark House would be a forerunner. But the mask never drops, and for me, that’s what makes this the forerunner for say The Howling, Shaun of the Dead or Get Out…just watched American Werewolf in Paris which is so awful, it makes you appreciate this all the more…

  3. Too much horror, not enough funny. Also- Alex missed this but I’m pretty sure it’s Kentucky FRIED Movie, not Friend Movie- just being helpful in case you confuse your internationals.

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