What makes a film a classic? Sure, its got to have the perfect mix of script, casting, direction and a million other things, but I think often what it boils down to is the little things. We all know that John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London is indeed a classic, and it is packed with little details, making it endlessly watchable, endlessly entertaining.
Not that I’ve watched it for a number of years now. I first saw this seminal horror comedy when I was ten, around Lawrence Molloy’s house on pirate VHS. Obviously, being ten I was too young to see it in the cinema (being an X certificate, god I miss them. X sounds so much more dangerous than 18) with all its gore and nudity, and obviously, being ten I fucking loved it. And I still do.
While the story is simple, its utterly compelling, helped no end because our two hapless American victims are so damned likeable. Two tourists whose lives are ruined/finished when they are attacked by a werewolf. Actually, maybe Jack (Griffin Dunne), the first victim killed out on the bleak Yorkshire moors, does become an arsehole. He explains to his best friend David (David Naughton), soon to become a werewolf from the bite he got, about the laws and legends of lycanthropy as if he’s reading them from an instruction booklet. He’s not hugely interested in David’s welfare at all, he only wants the tedium of being undead to end, constantly complaining about how bored he is. He seems to want David to kill himself more for the company than to stop the curse.
Despite all the undead moaning (all the werewolf’s other victim’s show up to have a go at David, a couple of them still pissed from the night before), I’d forgotten how scary the horror side of the film actually is. The night time scene on the moors really is spooky, with the moonlight just lighting up David and Jack, as that single, lonely howl sends shivers down their spines. There’s no music, you don’t see any creature until the last moment, just two friends realising they are out of their depth and in real trouble with a simple “oh shit”. Its really creepy.
The London Underground scene, with that poor, bitter businessman desperately trying to escape the beast is also still great. The roaming steadicam work is exceptional and gives a great sense of an approaching doom. And then there is this shot:
with the barely visible wolf just stepping slowly into shot at the top of the screen.
Plus there’s all the frightful fun of the zombie Nazi monsters bursting into David’s family home in his dreams. Who doesn’t love this guy:
I mean, awful teeth but you’ve gotta dig his rusty helmet.
What maybe is most surprising is how well the make up fx stand up today. Not just stand up, are still amazing. The transformation scene is perfect, and you know what, even when making the film they knew it would stand the test of time. Mid transformation David is screaming, covered in hair and teeth, and he looks directly at the camera, almost as if to say “yep, that’s right. This is really happening” to the audience. And it really is. Its not just an incredible display of effects, it also is brilliantly shot, edited and, most of all, acted scene. Naughton gives it his all; his screams and suffering make the transformation look really painful.
This is a classic case of a fairly goofy story played very straight by the actors and selling the story because of this. Jenny Agutter, as David’s nurse and lover Alex, for most of the time doesn’t take him very seriously at all. She affectionately takes the piss out of him, making Alex feel real, but what she doesn’t do is take the piss out of the film, over acting like its below her. She keeps it light, but authentic. As she puts it, she’s “torn between feeling very sorry for you, and finding you terribly attractive”, as she laughs and jumps on top of him. When we get to final, quiet climax between her and David as the werewolf down the London alleyway we really believe in their budding, tragic romance.
All the acting across the board is brilliant, even in the smaller roles. There are so many funny characters, like Frank Oz as the American Consulate – on seeing David getting upset about his best friend being mauled to death, he just gets outraged – “This is no reason for hysterics”. And the always brilliant John Woodvine as the doctor and his ongoing hatred of Roger Matheson (whoever he is) – “If I can survive Rommel, I’m sure I can survive an evening with Roger Matheson!”, which in fact he can’t as he gets his secretary to tell Roger he’s dead rather than speak to him. Then there’s the Inspector Clouseau-style detective who walks into doors, drops things and generally is a damned fool even if he does think David’s wild tale might be true. And its his angry superior who doesn’t believe a word who ends up getting his head bitten off.
John Landis’s view of England in 1981 is both a wonderful glimpse of an England that has faded away, and a fantasy one based more on Carry On and Hammer films than it is a reflection of real life. There are unfriendly pub locals, snogging punks on the tube, stiff upper lip coppers and sleazy-but-cute porno cinemas. Most out door scenes seem to have at least one grand old dame dressed up like the queen walking around in the background looking snooty. And it has that classic American view where everything seems to be next door to each other. The doctor nips up to the Yorkshire moors in a morning and is back by the evening. This is made even more unrealistic as he’s driving an MG which probably couldn’t handle a journey like that in one day without dropping its engine out somewhere on the M1.
We are also at a time when the UK only had, fascinatingly for the Americans, only three television channels, here portrayed as the test card, a darts match and a lurid advert for the News of the World. Actually I think that’s pretty much all there was on back then.
Even during the crazy climax in Piccadilly Circus the film is rammed with English iconography – a double decker bus crushes a man under its wheels, another chap is thrown out of the window of a runaway Rolls Royce.
Yes, it is the little things that makes An American Werewolf in London work so well, whether its the weird schoolboy David steals the balloons from or Rik Mayall playing chess in the most unwelcoming pub outside of Streatham – The Slaughtered Lamb. Best of all is the sad, small scene when David tries to call up his parents to tell them he loves them before he kills himself (from a red telephone box of course), and all he gets is his brattish little sister who probably isn’t paying him any attention at all. Comedy, horror and pathos all wrapped up in one little moment, in amongst many, many great moments.