Very few movies ever attain the sort of legendary status that John Landis’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON has gained over the years. Critics and fans alike put the film on a pedestal unlike any other. Since the film was released two decade ago, it has often been called the greatest werewolf movie ever made. Just as legendary as the film itself (and perhaps even more) is the transformation sequence in the movie, featuring the groundbreaking effects (which still have yet to be topped to this day) of Rick Baker. Overshadowed by all this acclaim, however, is a fact so simple that many people sometimes forget it: AMERICAN WEREWOLF is just an all-around fun movie.
Director John Landis interestingly made a name for himself not in horror films, but in comedy. His early career is marked by movies like ANIMAL HOUSE and THE BLUES BROTHERS, yet in AMERICAN WEREWOLF he demonstrates great skill at crafting solid scares just as well as he can orchestrate laughs. He also puts his comedic touch to work in the film, tempering the scares with a lot of dark and delicious humor. His largest contribution, though, is the ability to keep the audience in suspense for a long time without losing their interest. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is for the most part the story of a guy in a hospital bed for its first hour before things really get going, but the viewer never finds the film boring or uninspired. In fact, Landis paces the film so well that once its minutes are over, one wishes the film would go on longer.
It’s a difficult task to mesh humor and horror, but both of those elements blend nicely in AMERICAN WEREWOLF. When you’re not laughing at the great dialogue or hilarious situational comedy, you’re jolted out of your seat at one of the numerous scares throughout the movie. Also remarkable is the way the film was shot, maximizing all of the potential to be had both by the beautiful English country scenes and those taking place in the heart of busy and bustling London. All of the visual imagery is backed by a great score and some wicked sound effects, which further add to the scares, enhancing both the sense of impending danger as the full moon draws closer and emphasizing the beastly nature of the werewolf itself.
And speaking of the werewolf, this would not be a proper review of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON without mentioning the spectacular effects of Rick Baker. Baker’s work in the film is truly some of the most amazing effects ever put on film in the history of the motion picture. While it may be open to argument that AMERICAN WEREWOLF is the best werewolf movie ever made, there is no doubt whatsoever that the transformation scene Baker put together is the best of its kind. Never before and never after has the depiction of a human being turning into an animal seemed so real, so painful, so tangible. It stands today as a credit to the true power of prosthetic and make-up effects, and serves as a reminder to all who see it now of what great things were accomplished with effects before the days of CGI.
If there is a downfall to the film (and mind you that’s a very large ‘if’), it would probably be in the balance of goofiness versus serious horror in the film. There are times where the story could have gone either way, and many opportunities to make a scary film even scarier, but Landis opts for some lighthearted laughs instead. There’s nothing with that, especially considering it is done so well, but it does make one wonder what the film would have been like without as many puns.
An amazing blend of humor and horror, John Landis’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON is one of the best times a person can have watching a horror movie. Gorgeous visuals, a great score, and some of the most incredible special effects ever made all come together in a perfect mix of laughter and fear. Horror movies don’t get much better than this.