1001 Films: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dune) are travelling in Britain when they come upon a small town late one night. The townspeople aren’t that welcoming and they find themselves back on the road in the weather very soon. That very night Jack and David are attacked by a monster in the night. Jack is killed, but David survives and he is now infected with the curse of the werewolf and will transform whenever there’s a full moon out.

How do you judge movies like this? If this were to be released shot for shot today it would be lauded as a great comedy poking fun at the effects of years gone by. But as a film that was released three decades ago this was the greatest thing you could ever see in a cinema. Do I have to chalk it up to a generational thing? I don’t think so (especially after my lauding of the work in the film that was released a year after this one, The Thing).

The effects just didn’t do it for me this time. While I can see the amazing detailed work that Jim Henson and everyone in the costuming department did in this movie, I just was never engaged by it. I felt that Landis spent too much time focusing in on the transformation and not enough on the physicality of the creature. There were just too many cut aways to show each piece of the puzzle that was David transforming into the monster, when we eventually got there, for me to buy it. However, at the same time I understand why Landis did it this way due to the limitations of the technology at the time. In order to make the transformation in anyway believable he had to show it in bits and pieces that he could control in such a way that it didn’t look silly.

What I did enjoy about the movie was its brand of comedy. While it was directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers and Spies Like Us) he definitely wanted this to be as frightening as possible. However, at the same time he gave us two main characters who had a sense of humour among themselves. Like most horror/comedy films where the movie starts and stops being scary intermittently for a joke to be said with drum roll and snare to indicate that it’s time to laugh all the jokes came from these characters reacting to their surroundings and what’s actually going on rather than being ironic for the sake of a cheap laugh.

What I did love about the movie was the psychological transformation that David went through. After the attack he’s left in shock, but not confused at all. Closer to the first time he’s about to transform he’s visited by his dead friend, Jack, where Jack explains everything that David suspects is true. This starts an internal conflict with David. He starts to question if this is really happening or if he’s just going insane and that is what kept me going. I especially loved the make-up work on the undead version of Jack, especially as the movie went on seeing how more and more his form began to decompose for us. It’s a perfect way to create not only doubt in our mind, before the actual transformation occurs, but also the protagonists’.

IMDB says 7.5/10
Rotten Tomatoes says 88%
I say 6.0/10


  • Anonymous

    How funny.

    I hadnt thought about this film for ages and along comes 2 posts in a week!

    As I mentioned in my “How to make Custard Part one” post here – http://www.frontroomcinema.com/custard-part-1-childhood/

    An American werewolf was pretty instrumental in brewing my fear of all horror films. My Pa made me at a very young age watch it “man up” he told me, but i was just so scared!! Too much gore fo a wee boy to handle. I didnt sleep for weeks.

    Maybe I should watch it again now that I am an old git and it may cure my fears.

    Great post thanks for sharing!


  • http://www.gmanreviews.com Andrew Robinson

    I would definitely recommend revisiting it. However I fear that nostalgia will tilt your views. Anyways, it’s nice to hear from someone who saw it when they were young and how it affected them. I feel horror is always best to target to children, because they scare easy.