A trendsetter in terms of special makeup effects, John Landis's film is an entertaining but uneven mix of horror and humor.
While hiking though the English moors, American college student David Kessler (David Naughton) and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) happen across an isolated pub. The inhabitants' eccentric behavior unnerves them, and they depart into the night. Soon, they are attacked by a wolflike beast that
kills Jack and wounds David before being killed by the pub's patrons. Recovering in a London hospital, David is befriended by an attractive nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter)--and visited by the undead Jack. He tells David that, having been bitten by a werewolf, he is fated to become one himself at
the next full moon. David ignores the warning, and when he leaves the hospital, he begins an affair with Alex. The night of the full moon arrives, and David becomes a monstrous wolf that savages several Londoners. He wakes up naked in a zoo with no memory of what happened, but undead Jack appears
to him, along with the specters of his recent victims, to impel him to kill himself and end the curse.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON was a longtime pet project of Landis's; he was finally able to realize it following the box-office success of NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980). The writer-director goes for broke with both the horror and comedy content, and
combines them best in the first 20 minutes, making viewers shiver and giggle with anticipation before shocking them out of their seats with the first werewolf attack. As the film goes on, though, Landis's hand becomes unsteady. Unlike THE HOWLING, 1981's earlier werewolf film, LONDON doesn't blend
the chills and laughs so much as vacillate between them, so that the jokiness of the comic scenes comes to undercut the gruesome horror sequences and vice versa. And nowhere does the direction seem more uncertain than in the famed transformation scene. While Rick Baker's special effects work is
remarkable (and won the first competitive Oscar for makeup), Landis seems content to simply showcase it, shooting it in close-ups and bright lighting without any attempt to build any emotion into the sequence.
Nevertheless, AMERICAN WEREWOLF undeniably delivers a good share of scares and dark laughs. And for all its lack of discipline, it's a model of directorial clarity when compared with Landis's subsequent work, which inexorably descended into indulgence and foolishness. A box-office
success in 1981, the film built an enduring popularity that led to a sequel, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, 16 years later.
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