The 1980’s no doubt saw an unprecedented surge of werewolf films; the original Howling starring Dee Wallace spawned a franchise full of endless sequels, while Stephen King’s Silver Bullet was adapted in to a feature film starring Corey Haim in 1984. And who can forget when Michael J. Fox became a Teen Wolf in 1985 (and when Jason Bateman followed in his paw prints for its sequel just two years after that?)? But out of all of these films, none of them reached the sheer surrealism (or weirdness) of 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, which just reached its fortieth birthday mark this past week.
Originally released on August 21 of that year, the plot found two best friends, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) attacked by a werewolf while backpacking through England together. Jack is killed mercilessly, while David survives the bloody ordeal, only to carry the curse of the lycanthropy with him until his eventual transformation.
In the meantime, David is taken in by the beautiful young nurse (Jenny Agutter) who befriended him while his stay in the hospital. Unbeknownst to her, David is not only suffering from terrifyingly vivid nightmares, he’s also being paid visits from a decaying Jack, warning David of his grim fate, and urging him to take his own life before it’s too late. When the inevitable finally happens and David turns, it causes for some of the most tense animal rampage moments ever captured on screen up until that time, eventually leading to its near tear-jerking climax.
The film was written and directed by John Landis, who was previously known primarily for such slapstick hits as National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), which no doubt aided in the levels of dark comedy found within Werewolf. The award-winning makeup effects were handled by the legendary Rick Baker, whose resume not only includes such Hollywood blockbusters as Star Wars, but numerous other werewolf films as well, including not only the previously mentioned The Howling from the same year, but also Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller two years later (for which he and Landis were both handpicked by Jackson for their work on the film). But it was Baker’s revolutionary work on Werewolf that would forever help shape the face of the genre to come.
Even the music in the film stands out with its own sense of irony; not only are two different versions of the hit pop song “Blue Moon” featured, so is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” (a band Rewind It Magazine was also there to cover live in 2019 – the “Revisited” version anyway). These songs (among others) are brilliantly inserted at prime moments throughout the movie.
Since it’s release, An American Werewolf in London has become somewhat of a cult classic, and was one of those films that seemed to always be on cable TV any given Saturday afternoon in the ’90s (I still even have the VHS copy of it that I picked up at a Kmart at some point in my teens). By the end of the decade, it even spawned it’s own stunningly predictable sequel, 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris, starring Tom Everett Scott.
But it’s the original film that will no doubt be remembered for years to come. In 2007, I was lucky enough to meet the film’s star, David Naughton (see photo below). Even then, I asked him something along the lines of why he felt the film had such a lasting effect with audiences (my early journalistic instincts obviously kicking in), to which he said (and I’m completely paraphrasing here) something along the lines of; “I think it just struck a nerve because of how different and shocking it was at the time. People were not expecting what unfolded before them at all.” I couldn’t agree with you more, David.