If you were a monster kid at the time and asked to pick your favorite werewolf movie released in 1981, you were faced with a real Sophie’s Choice between An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. The latter was released four months earlier and is the one to which I declared my love. Conversely, when the former opened, it’s the one for which I declared no love. I hate to tell you, but I’ve never liked it… until now.
I saw American Werewolf in London on opening night in Kansas City, en route to Fulton, Missouri, where I would spend the next four years of my life at Westminster College. Reflecting upon the experience, it was probably the circumstances rather than the movie to which I attached my distaste. I sat in the audience with my parents and remember being more concerned about their reactions to the film than mine, and they did not react favorably.
I don’t recall seeing it a second time until I watched it recently to participate in Nightmare Junkhead’s annual journey into the “Mouth of March Madness.” Memory can play tricks on you; two things I remembered turn out to not be true. What I recall as being a long, slow movie, actually runs at a quick hour and a half (plus a few minutes) and the chaotic mess of destruction in Piccadilly Circus, is actually a well-crafted and fun highlight (although still incredibly gory.)
One of the reasons I abhor spoilers is that Fangoria ruined one of the best ones for me. I knew the dream-within-a-dream sequence was coming, so it failed to startle me. Neither did it startle me forty years later. Of course, I’ve seen that novelty many times by now in many other movies. It’s just a shame that it’s ruined for me here forever based on something I read in a magazine before I saw it the first time.
It turns out that I admire a lot about An American Werewolf in London, not the least of which is its soundtrack comprised only of popular rock songs related to the moon. Could Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival be any more perfect? (That’s a rhetorical question.) While I notice the songs, I didn’t notice a lack of instrumental music. I looked, though; there was no composer for the movie.
I also admire the special effects. This sounds backwards, but at the time they seemed unrealistically mechanical to me, and lasted too long. Watching now, in the age of bad computer-generated effects, I’m impressed by the accomplishment of the practical transformation of man to wolf. I was completely engaged and enthralled, studying the mechanics of it. Plus, it’s more sudden and surprising to me than the dream-within-a-dream.
Another thing I remember disliking about my original viewing was the continued presence of David’s backpacking friend, Jack (Griffin Dunne), long after he’d been torn apart by a werewolf on the moors of England. Why was he always there? It turns out, he’s actually in only 3-4 scenes, much less screen time than I remembered, and his character serves a valid purpose and evolves in ways I didn’t recall.
In retrospect, I think I didn’t originally “get” An American Werewolf in London. In a way, and in terms of my moviegoing history up to that point, it was ahead of its time. I didn’t understand the humor or John Landis’s homages to classic horror. Or, without putting that much thought into it, I was probably overly obsessed with the major life change of moving away from home to go to college. I’d soon be haunted by metaphorical monsters more terrifying than werewolves.
Written by John Landis
Directed by John Landis
Starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter
RT 97 min.
Released Aug. 21, 1981
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