“The undead surround me. Have you ever talked to a corpse? It's boring! I'm lonely! Kill yourself, David, before you kill others.” - Jack
I remember it as if it was yesterday – 1981, basically as far as I was concerned, horror-wise, the Year of the Werewolf. I hadn’t seen many werewolf films to that point, Wolfman (1940) Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and Legend of the Werewolf (1975) which, curiously I haven’t seen since its cinema release – but here, in the same year, came two of the greatest werewolf movies in the genre.
True, I saw The Howling first – and that became the high watermark with Rob Bottin’s amazing special transformation effects, but about a month later, the local fleapit showed An American Werewolf in London with Rick Baker’s outstanding effects. (What I learned later was that Bottin had worked with Baker on American Werewolf and had gone on to work on Howling, which was released a few weeks earlier.) When I saw them, I thought each of them was just the best werewolf movie I had ever seen. Even now, 38 years later, I haven’t fully made up my mind which is actually the best. I guess the only answer is – whichever one I’m watching at the time.
The film opens with a glorious vista of the murky, drizzly Yorkshire moors – except it isn’t really. That, right there is Snowdonia in North Wales, about a thirty-five-minute drive from where I’m sitting and typing this right now. Actually, back in ’81, I felt I was living in a mecca of Hollywood blockbuster film making. Excalibur and Dragonslayer both did some location filming in the area at around the same time. (Where did everybody go? Why does nobody film here now?)
Hiking across the moors are two young Americans, Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) and David Kessler (David Naughton) on a backpacking holiday. Coming across a small village, even the name of the pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, doesn’t put them off. Neither do the standoffish locals, who include Rik Mayall before his breakthrough into greater fame and dependable character actor and ex-wrestler Bryan Glover. Not even the pentagram on the wall gives them a clue they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. The locals get a colder and even less welcoming when they’re asked about the pentagram so the boys leave.
This is another cool thing that this movie has in common with the Howling, in both films, the characters are aware of what they’re dealing with, having watch Universal Pictures’ The Wolfman – and that’s, in both cases is the basis of their entire knowledge. Naturally, they wander off the path they’ve been warned to stick to and it being the night of the full moon, there’s a werewolf lurking nearby, ready to pounce. And indeed, pounce it does – savagely and conclusively. Before being shot by the locals who seem to have had a change of heart. Looking to his side, David sees Jack in a very bad way to say the least – and the body of a man.
Not that we actually see the werewolf – it’s a pretty dark scene, but David wakes up in a London hospital, and is told Jack died and he’s very lucky as the locals shot the madman who attacked them, but David contends it was an animal. (Another great cameo here by master Muppeteer Frank Oz, who unfortunately sounds unmistakably like a cross between Fozzie Bear and Yoda in real life.)
David begins having some strange dreams, one where he’s running naked through a forest, and attacks a deer, eating its raw meat – and another where his family are attacked by mutants and wolfmen wearing Nazi uniforms. Now that IS disturbing because it’s a dream within a dream.
Worse, as if the poor guy needs things to get worse, he has visions of Jack’s wisecracking, rotting corpse visiting him, dropping the bombshell he was attacked by a werewolf and now, when the full moon rises, he’ll become a wolf – unless he kills himself by then.
But, to be fair – it’s not all bad. Discharged from hospital, David is offered accommodation by an accommodating nurse played by Jenny Agutter. (Ah, God bless the National Health Service and their aftercare.)
David’s bliss is short lived, as Jack’s warnings prove to be correct and well founded. Left alone in the flat and unaware it’s the full moon, David undergoes a startling and excruciating change that looks
and sounds agonising as we hear bones pop and skin stretch. (This was the forerunner of Michael Jackson’s change in the Thriller video, also created by Rick Baker and directed by John Landis)
London has a new problem. The scene with the guy encountering the werewolf on the Underground still has me wary of travelling by tube after dark when I’m in that area. And I literally ALWAYS think about this film when I’m on the Underground. Not The Creep, not Midnight Train Massacre. Not even junkies and muggers. This film. (Thank you, John Landis for making me traumatised on public transport).
After a night of terror and slaughter, David realises that Jack was right – he’s the one survivor of the wolf’s bloodline and it has to end and the moon is about to rise again.
A strong cast, cutting edge special effects which still stand up to scrutiny via high definition Blu-ray, plus unforgettable use of various versions of the Blue moon song make this movie a timeless classic. Maybe it IS better than The Howling.
What’d you think?
Copyright © 2010 - 2019 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.