Today we celebrate the birth of a classic that redefined the horror movie as we know it…

Today sees the 30th anniversary of the release of An American Werewolf in London. In the years since its release in 1981, the film has gathered a cult following of a comparatively small but highly dedicated group of fans.  An American Werewolf in London was written and directed by John Landis, and was a project that he had been planning to make since 1969. At this time, Landis had directed four films, including the B-Movie spoof Schlock, as well as the wildly successful Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

An American Werewolf in London is now considered to be one of the best horror movies of the 1980s, due to it being grounded in a reality that the audience can relate to. The film tells the story of two young American men – David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) who are attacked by a werewolf on the moors of England. One of the men dies and the other, through dream sequences and apparitions of his dead friend, learns that he will transform into a wolf at the next full moon. On paper, this sounds like the kind of film that should have stayed unmade, but on screen, it was actually something special.

David and Jack are just average guys on a backpacking holiday in England. They do what most tourists do and stray into the wrong area. While most of us make it out without serious complications, everything goes wrong for David. Ever have the feeling you can’t do right for doing wrong? That is what this movie plays on, and in a very simple way makes the characters completely relatable.
The incredibly talented and experienced Rick Baker won an Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for An American Werewolf in London and his use of makeup is another reason the film is so beloved. Nowdays it is easy to make a modern horror with CGI characters, but somehow, they always feel a little less believable than something that we know we could reach out and touch. Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is certainly strong and perhaps the best thing about the film, but the character lacks some of the realness of people running around in monkey suits. The film stuck with things that were real and physically created; this was what made the audience’s skin crawl.

At this stage of his career, John Landis was best known for making comedy films, and this actually stood to him while making An American Werewolf in London. There is often a very thin line between horror and humour – who hasn’t laughed out loud at the sometimes silly gory deaths in horror films? – and Landis was able to find the right balance in this film. There are too many comedy horrors to count that have not found the right mix and fallen flat on their face, but An American Werewolf on London is not one of them. There are plenty of low-key buddy sequences between the two friends, as well as in jokes (See You Next Wednesday), a car crash reminiscent of The Blues Brothers and a triple cameo from Frank Oz as himself, Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog. The soundtrack is also just the right balance of tongue in cheek humour; it features songs including Bad Moon Rising, Blue Moon and Moondance.

We all know John Landis could make great comedies though, so what about the horror? Well, the attack that changes everything is swift and merciless and the transformation scenes are uncomfortable to watch. With the rise of the slasher film in the late 1970s, Landis knew he had to make a gruesome horror or face failure so he does not skimp on the gore. There are actually not that many moments of real horror in the film, but this makes these few even more shocking.

Of course there have been werewolf movies since An American Werewolf in London – not least the dreadful sequel An American Werewolf in Paris – but few have come close to walking the horror comedy line that this film does. Yes, there are issues with the film, but it is not a send up of the genre and nor is it a dark and broody drama and this – as well as poking fun at the American perception of British strangeness and the deliberate digs at conventions of the genre – is where the odd charm of this film lies.

So 30 years after Rick Baker’s werewolf first stalked the streets of England’s capital, we salute one of the most beloved films in the horror comedy genre and wish An American Werewolf in London a very happy birthday!

Words – Brogen Hayes