If I had to pick a favourite film of all time, I’d eventually settle on An American Werewolf in London. I love that movie so very much. It’s that rare thing, a horror comedy where there’s a perfect balance between horror and comedy – the scares are scary and the jokes are funny, but they don’t cancel one another out. Over 30 years on and the effects still pretty much hold up, and the ‘moon’ songs on the soundtrack stay just the right side of knowing winks. It’s utterly English without straying into the worst excesses of Richard Curtis-ism. Every character is memorable and feels completely real. The dialogue is endlessly quotable and perfectly functional at the same time - it either furthers the plot or further defines character.
Now, many of the same things can be said about Shaun of the Dead, which I feel was greatly influenced by this film, but An American Werewolf in London wins on three counts:
- It came first.
- Brian Glover.
- Naked Jenny Agutter.
- Brian Glover.
- Naked Jenny Agutter.
If I wrote a script even approaching this kind of quality, I would probably stop right there and then.
I’d do a podcast fan commentary, but I’m a boring old fart and a technophobe, I hate the sound of my own voice, and I prefer the control the written word provides. So I’m going to do a written commentary instead. Either read it along with the DVD or imagine the film as you read. I’m just going to ramble on, mainly just pointing out things I like.
We open on Bobby Vinton’s version of Blue Moon, Welsh hills (Wales playing the part of Yorkshire for some reason) and some fairly bland credits – they look like TV show credits. It’s a very safe opening. The title is a mixture of “An American in Paris” and “Werewolf of London”.
Our leads arrive in the back of a farm lorry – the future wolf arriving amid some sheep, wonderful foreshadowing. I first saw this film some time in 1990, when it was shown as part of the Moviedrome series on BBC2. I’ve not been able to find the airdates so I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but I’m 38 today. (I came to horror late – there’s a part of me that’s still playing catch-up as other fandoms have taken precedence over the years.)
I love the interplay between the boys – you know they’re old friends even before they mention how long they’ve known Debbie Klein, just from the way they talk to one another.
The arrival at The Slaughtered Lamb is the perfect “stranger walks into the bar” scene given an English twist. Everything about this scene is brilliant - the amazing Brian Glover telling his (kinda racist) joke, a pre-Young Ones Rik Mayall, Lila Kaye’s cautiously welcoming barmaid, and David Schofield putting more menace into the line “You made me miss” than would seem possible.
It took me multiple viewings to realise that they’re not just in the pub to drink - they're all huddled together in the one place for security while the local werewolf roams the moors. How do they handle him when he turns back to human form? Do they trust him, does he go about his daily business – or is he locked away for the rest of the month, only allowed out on transformation night when everyone else seeks refuge in the pub?
Is the rising (crane?) shot that goes behind the statue referenced in the opening titles of The League of Gentlemen?
Jack’s death is so brutal, and despite the increasing menace of the lead-in, still seems to come almost from nowhere. I’d love to know the story of the Wolfman of East Proctor – I get the feeling that Brian Glover and David Schofield’s characters would have been major figures. Who was this balding, middle-aged man? What did he mean to them?
And then there’s Jenny Agutter. Take that in for a moment. John Woodvine and Frank Oz are also great, but Jenny Agutter...
Why is David in a hospital in London anyway? He was attacked a couple of hundred miles away, and even with injuries like his they could easily have taken him to a hospital in York, Manchester, Leicester, Birmingham... His wounds were dressed before he arrived in London, so why not take him to somewhere closer? Unless he needed some kind of specialist care that was only available at that hospital.
“Nurse Price will see to all your needs” – tee hee hee.
The dream sequences fulfil a dual function – they key us in to David’s state of mind, and give us some moments of horror before the big wolf-out.
Benjamin (the little boy who says NO all the time) is brilliant.
And then there’s the Nazi wolfman demon things shooting up David’s family. Which is kinda terrifying and awesome at the same time. The shooting of the menorah is a very powerful image.
I love Dead Jack so much – he may be my favourite character in the movie. If nothing else, his delivery of “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”would push him up the list. The flappy skin around his wounds makes me think of kebabs.
I’m told, by those with greater knowledge than me, that David’s behaviour is pretty consistent with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.
And then there’s the scene where Moondance plays.
Bathroom mirror reveals of scary faces are such a cliché now, but this one does it so very well.
It happens very quickly and conveniently, but I believe in David and Alex’s relationship here. They feel real to me in a way some romcom couples never manage.
On the other hand I don’t buy Dr Hirsch’s trip to East Proctor, but it takes us back to the Slaughtered Lamb so I’ll forgive it. Why does the darts player want to check on the dogs – and why does Brian Glover’s character want to stop him? I don’t think he was leaving just so he could talk to Dr Hirsch when he left either – he really did seem to want to leave.
We have far more channels now, but the standard of British daytime telly hasn’t improved much in the ensuing years. I don’t know if that was a real advert for the News of the World, but I certainly remember their ads from the time being like that.
And then there’s Blue Moon. Sure, there are parts of this scene you could pick holes in if you felt so inclined, but the fact that you get the whole thing in such a brightly lit room and reasonably close-up goes a long way to explaining Rick Baker’s Oscar. I’d like to know how the wolf gets out of the flat without causing any damage – maybe whoever brought David him down from East Proctor let him out. I love how late in the film this scene comes. We’re almost an hour in, about 2/3 of the way through the film.
I really like Harry and Judith. They’re just so lovely. Even their idea of a prank – going round the back door of their friend’s house – is so sweet.
Mixing the roar in with the tube noise is a simple but effective trick, leading us into probably my favourite death in the whole movie. “I can assure you that this is not in the least bit amusing” is such an English response. I’m so glad my first viewing of this (and Death Line) came years after I started using the tube, otherwise it would have been a Psycho/shower situation. Note that this scene is all about the chase – the only blood you see is from the man’s nose. And just as we started with a loud noise from another source, we open the next scene in exactly the same way.
“A naked American man stole my balloons” is one of the all-time great lines.
I love that David’s primal, animalistic behaviour with Alex – the unbridled lust – isn’t spelled out as being due to the wolf, though it’s pretty obvious. There may also be a sense of release, of mental weightlessness from having let the caged wolf within take over after having it caged up for so long. The impending second night of wolf-out raises a question of the full moon, but we’ll pretend not to have noticed that. That’s Alan Ford as the cabbie, by the way – you may have seen him in The Long Good Friday, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Cockneys versus Zombies...
A policeman with a beard – is that even allowed nowadays?
Dead Jack! Dead Jack luring David in to a porno cinema. The return of all the great victims – Gerald from the tube is especially good, but Harry and Judith’s chirpiness despite their situation is wonderful, especially when contrasted against the others.
Oh, that’s a pitch perfect recreation of a British soft-core porno of the era, by the way – possibly better than quite a lot of them.
And then there’s chaos, and everything happens at once – and yet you believe it all, from the moment the wolf bursts out onto the street right up to the police running past a crying Alex and the shot of David’s naked body. It could probably have been played out a bit slower, a bit more decompressed, but this adds a sense of urgency, of panic that you wouldn’t get with a more measured pace. How rushed is it? From the wolf breaking out through the shutters to the start of the credits is just on four minutes.
So, our hero is dead, shot by police marksmen in front of the woman he loves. It’s a bleak, tragic moment – time for some doo-wap! It’s an audio custard pie in the face, a final moment of black humour from John Landis.”What would be the least appropriate music to cut to after that scene? OK, let’s do it!”
So, that’s An American Werewolf in London, and a lot of the things I love about it.
I’ve never seen the “sequel”, though I’d love to read the script Landis wrote for his sequel starring the oft-mentioned at the start Debbie Klein. Maybe a prequel, following The Wolfman of East Proctor? TV script editor Andrew Ellard (@Ellardent) said this on Twitter -
Started pondering an American Werewolf prequel: a Northern man driven insane by visions of the dead, a town threatened yet protecting him.
I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see that. Granted, you’d run the risk of damaging the legacy of the film with a bad prequel that tells you too much – but that story is just so enticing to me, I just want to see it. It would be a small film, or possibly a TV miniseries, and you’d need to somehow find workable replacements for all the original cast. But the TV success of Hannibal and (to a lesser extent) Bates Motel show that something like this could work without destroying the mystery of the original. We know that these people have lived with a secret, we know they know more than they imply or than we can infer from their actions, we know the nature of the secret – we just don’t know exactly what that secret is. Who was he? How did he get bitten? When was he bitten? How long was he a wolf for?
The best part of recasting everyone is that you could keep the wolf a secret until a little way in – reveal the wolf to your cast and your audience at the same time, for maximum shock. Finally, the mystery of the three missing people and the mutilated sheep is revealed.
Trouble is, prequels are so tediously inevitable. ("We end on two cheery American hikers getting a lift with a sheep farmer….")
My response to this (apart from exploding with the desire to buy a ticket) was “But they don't have to be. End it with him escaping to the moors and you're golden.”
He responded: That escape's a bit flat, though, unless it comes with deadly portent - the victims we know he'll reach next...
Thinking about it now, the best way to end a prequel would be those opening title shots of the “moors”, with Bad Moon Rising playing over the top. Those shots would work just as well for an ending as a beginning, and Bad Moon Rising is filled with portents and warnings of impending doom.
Or you could just get One Direction to cover Blue Moon...