Friday, December 11, 2015

Classic Movie Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Directed by: John Landis.
Written by: John Landis.
Starring: David Naughton (David Kessler), Jenny Agutter (Nurse Alex Price), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), John Woodvine (Dr. J. S. Hirsch), Frank Oz (Mr. Collins / Miss Piggy), Don McKillop (Inspector Villiers), Paul Kember (Sergeant McManus), Colin Fernandes (Benjamin).

There is a very simple problem with werewolf movies – they are all basically the same. An innocent man (and it’s almost always a man) is attacked by a werewolf early in the film, but somehow survives the horrific attack, and everything seems to be fine. And then, on the next full moon, he discovers that he has changed – he’s become a werewolf, and cannot control his thirst for murder and mayhem. He then spends the rest of the movie trying to control that, trying to cure himself, until he finally realizes he cannot – and either kills himself or is killed. End of story. No one has ever really figured out anything different to do with this very basic story (okay, Ginger Snaps did, but that’s basically it), all they really do is add their own flavor to it. John Landis’ 1981 film, An American Werewolf in London, is often at the top (or near it) of any list of the greatest werewolf movies of all time. And yes, it basically tells the same story as they rest. There are a few twists along the way- but mainly they just add flavor, and don’t really change the film that much. But the formula, in this case, still mainly works.

The film stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as David and Jack, two American tourists backpacking around Northern England, even though Jack would rather be in Rome (good call Jack). They are hitchhiking, and get let off pretty much in the middle of nowhere. They come across a small pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – and go in to warm up, maybe get something to eat or drink. The locals don’t seem overly happy to see them – and soon the pair is on their way again, with some ominous sounding words still ringing in their ears. They head out into the fog covered moors – where they are, of course, attacked by a wolf. Jack is killed, by David is just mauled. He wakes up in a London hospital three weeks later. He quickly falls for a posh nurse (Jenny Agutter), while he tries to figure out what happened to him – as does his doctor (John Woodvine), who heads back up North to try and figure it out – as all he was told was that an escaped mental patient attacked them, and that doesn’t make sense. Meanwhile, the full moon is coming – oh, and David still sees Jack everywhere – who gives him warnings, and progressively decomposes with each passing appearance.

The film’s most famous sequence has justly become iconic. The first time David turns into a werewolf, director John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker, and the visual effects department, does a terrific job of turning him into a werewolf, one step at a time. This type of things could be done easily today with CGI – but for those of us who love practical effects, this is a landmark, and one of the best scenes of its kind in film history. Baker’s makeup work also has to be commended on Griffin Dunne’s Jack – who like I said earlier, is a little more decomposed each time we see him, but still allows Dunne’s comedic performance to shine through in each scene. Dunne is far and away the best performance in the movie – although that’s not saying much. Naughton, as the lead, is a little bit bland, and although Agutter does what she can with the role, it’s another of those “supportive female” roles that are a dime a dozen.

The film takes its time getting everything setup. Naughton doesn’t turn into werewolf for more than an hour into a 97 minute film – with only the brief attack sequence at the beginning being the only action until then. The opening and closing are certainly the best parts of the movie – the visit to the pub is creepy, the foggy moors creepier in act one, and the violence in the third act works quite well. Landis doesn’t have much to do in between however, and the film sags in the middle section of the film, concentrating on Naughton’s recovery, his relationship with Agutter, and the doctor’s investigation – none of which is all that interesting.

I don’t really see An American Werewolf in London as a great movie. It does what it does quite well – but it’s the same damn werewolf movie as every other werewolf movie –with only Dunne’s decomposing sidekick and terrific makeup work – to make it different. It’s a must for werewolf fans, of course, and it’s an entertaining little movie. But it never quite reaches the next level for me. It’s never that scary, never gets under your skin. It’s fun – but not much else.

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