Among horror aficionados, “An American Werewolf in London” is widely considered to be the best werewolf film ever made. No other werewolf film has managed to mix as much humor, horror, and originality into one package. Combined with arguably the best transformation sequence in werewolf movie history, the result is an explosively entertaining werewolf film that has yet to be topped (especially by the underperforming sequel).
The story begins with two students, David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne), on a backpacking trip across Europe. One night, while crossing a foggy moor, the two young men are attacked by a large beast. The creature is gunned down by the locals, but not before it kills Jack and severely injures David. While recovering in a local hospital, David has visions of his dead friend, who tells him the creature that attacked them was a werewolf, and David is cursed to become one as well. At first David thinks he is going crazy, but as his dreams of running naked through the woods naked become more prevalent, David becomes convinced that he will transform into a monster.
The continually rotting Jack appears to David throughout the film, urging him to kill himself to prevent further tragedy. In the “American Werewolf” mythos, all who are killed by the monster are fated to walk in limbo until the beast dies. As David’s body count increases, so do the number of specters who appear to talk him into suicide.
The idea of a werewolf haunted by his victims is one of the most original and funny elements of the film. The ghosts haunting David get most of the film’s truly funny moments; despite his grotesque appearance, Jack remains a loyal and witty friend throughout the film. However funny moments of the film may be, director John Landis wisely remembered that the star werewolf films is always the werewolf, and “American Werewolf’s” monster does not disappoint. Despite the fact that the film is now over twenty years old, the special effects have yet to be topped. The highlight of the film is David’s first transformation into a monster, which is clearly depicted in all its agonizing glory. Special effects genius Rick Baker’s clever makeup effects allow the viewer to see every phase of David’s transformation, never cheating the viewer of what they paid to see. The most amazing aspect of the remarkable transformation sequence is that it was all done with physical effects; no computer graphics were used. Indeed, the transformation scene in the CG-heavy “An American Werewolf in Paris” failed to deliver the same impact with its graphically-generated special effects.
Of course, as many recent Hollywood blockbusters have proven, the best special effects don’t make for a good movie without a good story and convincing actors. While “American Werewolf” may be a bit light in the plot department, the acting beyond reproach. As the title character, David Naughton conveys a mix of disbelief and fear hidden behind a sarcastic mask that is absolutely perfect for the character’s predicament. The supporting cast is not called on to convey the same depth, but each character is surprisingly nuanced. As the British nurse who falls in love with Davis while tending to him, Jenny Agutter makes the improbable romance both natural and convincing.
Although the film does so many things right, a few elements keep it from perfection in the eyes of many horror fans. The werewolf myth is severely altered from the traditional form; silver bullets never factor into the story. Some of these changes bother purists, as does the look of the beast, which is more bear-like than canine. The aspect that peeves most viewers is the incredibly abrupt ending. While many accept it as just one more instance of the film’s quirkiness, those seeking resolution will be left wanting. But despite any perceived shortcomings, “An American Werewolf in London” remains the gold standard for werewolf films. Although the werewolf genre is rarely done right, “An American Werewolf in London” proves that when done right, werewolf films can become classics.