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An American Werewolf in London

It’s probably of no surprise that part of this was filmed in London, and that a prominent character is a werewolf. That said, I’ll take this opportunity to warn you that, if you’ve not seen this yet, it might be better to go and watch it before you read the rest of this review. Now that that’s out of the way, something that I thought was very cool about this when I was doing some background research was that Alex’s flat, the flat where David first transforms into the beast, is on Lupus street in Pimlico. Lupus is the Latin word for “wolf”. If enough care was taken to put something so insignificant but equally so satisfying into this, you can probably assume that there’s something good about the film in general. Or maybe I’m being soft on it.

You could accuse the narrative of being a bit hammy, I suppose. Maybe the more cynical viewer might even reduce it to a glorified B-movie. Given that it’s essentially The Wicker Man meets Wolfman by way of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I would suggest that those criticisms are actually badges of honour that the film should wear with pride. We meet our heroes off the beaten path, hitching the ride on the back of a sheep farmer’s open-back truck. They’re dropped off and warned to stay on the roads and off the moors, and there are no prizes for guessing what they end up doing. Before they end up off the roads and on the moors, though, there’s a really nice scene in a pub named The Slaughtered Lamb. It’s a scene that anyone from a big city who’s ever visited the countryside can relate to – the moment where everyone in a pub stops talking and takes a startled look towards the door because a stranger just walked in. Considering this was written and directed by an American, I thought the tone and execution of this was just perfect. After this it flies into the absurd, but not unknowingly. There are a lot of really funny moments that could’ve been straight out of a National Lampoon’s European Vacation movie, but when they’re relieving the horror of a guy whose body is betraying him in multiple ways – he’s having to experience excruciating physical changes while also going through what is essentially PTSD – the humour is very welcome. There are some things that are treated in a way that’s perhaps not of the time we’re living in now, namely suicidal thoughts, but nothing unforgivable.

The acting is where the feeling of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off really hit me. It’s that same style of self-aware, not exactly over the top but not entirely going for a realistic portrayal kind of deal. But I think that works. This was essentially a modern (at the time) take on a bunch of folktales and classic horror movies from the 30s, and naturally, that means it deals with a lot of ideas that might be deemed a bit silly. If the acting was on a level of an Anthony Hopkins or a Daniel Day-Lewis, I think there would’ve been a risk that it may not have come across that the film was totally aware of that. There was apparently some pressure from the studio for John Landis to reunite with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi for the two main roles in this, and honestly, the only objection to that in my mind would’ve been their ages. It just works as a teen backpacking story, I believe, rather than a middle-aged one, but in terms of the tone this is pitched at it would’ve worked brilliantly. That’s not to take away from David Kessler and Griffin Dunne, they’re exactly what they need to be.

Something that doesn’t get spoken about much, which is a shame, is that this was the first film to win the Oscar for Best Make-Up. Some of it does verge into the absurd, but as I’ve mentioned already, that isn’t anything that the film ever deliberately strays too far from. A testament to how well done it is, actually, is from Griffin Dunne’s own mother. She was apparently ill when the film came out, and he was worried about taking her to see it for fear that she wouldn’t react well to seeing her baby boy as a reanimated corpse. As sure as he wasn’t taking geographical advice from locals in the film, he went against his better judgment in real life too, and showed her it anyway. She was said to be deeply disturbed by it. An extra special mention really needs to go to David’s transition scenes, however. Rick Baker spent months and months working on the mechanism by which David’s face stretches and contorts into that of a wolf, a scene that still really creeps me out, and was then disappointed when John Landis only needed seven seconds of footage of it. I have to admit, one thing I wish was stronger in this is how some of the effects are shot, but that’s secondary to the effects themselves. Anyway, feeling as though he’d wasted his time, he later attended a screening where the seven-second scene got a spontaneous round of applause. Absolutely well deserved.

I genuinely believe that this is one of the greatest horror films ever made on an experiential level. It takes itself seriously where it has to, and not so seriously when it doesn’t. There are scenes that are hard not to feel some discomfort towards, and there are others that are impossible not to laugh at. Especially if you happen to be a Londoner yourself. The setting is beautiful, and fun is poked at both London and the English countryside in such an authentic way that it comes across as quite respectful at the same time. The style of it won’t be for everyone, but for fans of the more comedic films that John Landis has done, I don’t see how this can offer much more.

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