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.