31 Greatest 1980s Horror Films: Page 7 of 9
3. An American Werewolf In London (1981)
"On the moors, we were attacked by a lycanthrope, a werewolf. I was murdered, an unnatural death, and now I walk the earth in limbo until the werewolf's curse is lifted. The wolf's bloodline must be severed; the last remaining werewolf must be destroyed. It's you, David."
Known primarily as an accomplished director of comedy, John Landis challenged himself by taking on much darker subject matter with An American Werewolf In London. Although injected with the same type of humor characteristic of earlier hits The Kentucky Friend Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House and The Blues Brothers, this is one movie whose bark equally matches its bite.
Landis was inspired to concoct his own unique take on the werewolf tale after a trip through Yugoslavia brought him upon a gypsy funeral. The ceremony included the burial of a body lowered feet-first into abysmal pit, wrapped in garlic cloves to keep the corpse from returning to life. The creepy encounter influenced Landis to put pen to paper, penning the story of two adventuresome American fellows, David Kessler and Jack Goodman (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne in a doomed bromance), who experience a horrific attack at the paws of a werewolf while backpacking through the European countryside. Jack is murdered by the beast but David escapes thanks to a handful of townspeople who blow the monster away in a hail of gunfire. David barely survives, having been bitten and shredded up by the wolf, and soon he discovers that the horrors that lie ahead will result in a fate worse than death.
Davey Boy awakens in a hospital, being tended to by British nurse Alex Price (the gorgeous Jenny Agutter). A budding relationship is temporarily put on hold when David starts to endure horrific nightmares, most notably a particularly unsettling one involving a clan of demon-faced Nazi soldiers massacring him and his family back home in the States. The dreams are compounded with visits from his deceased pal Jack, appearing at David's bedside, his flesh tattered and torn from his previous earthly injuries. Jack warns that the werewolf's curse has been passed onto David and that when the next full moon rises, his benevolent friend will transform into a bloodthirsty animal just like the one that attacked them in the meadows. David disregards his confrontation with Jack, assuming that these visions are just a by-product of trauma induced by the furry assault. It soon becomes apparent, though, that David is indeed undergoing changes of the lycan variety.
Two key factors attribute to An American Werewolf In London's popularity among horror fans. The first is the perfect casting of David Naughton as the sympathetic hero and Griffin Dunne as his undead sidekick. PolyGram Pictures, the studio behind the film's $10 million budget, insisted that John Landis hire dependable go-to actors Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to play David and Jack, but Landis renounced their suggestion. By recruiting mostly unknown actors (Naughton securing the lead after catching Landis's attention in a Dr. Pepper commercial), the movie stays grounded and thus more engaging than the typical scary flick. Dunne shines as well, having been instructed by his director to keep his character's attitude upbeat even as he decays more and more with each appearance throughout the picture. The banter between David and Jack is so genuine that one would swear that Naughton and Dunne had been real-life friends for years before filming even began.
The second glaring factor of the success behind An American Werewolf In London, and absolutely the one that is most commonly celebrated, is the unbeatable special effects work by Rick Baker. Nearly backing out to apply his skills to another werewolf movie released in 1981, The Howling, Baker was convinced by Landis to join his crew at the last minute. The drama didn't stop there as Baker and Landis argued extensively over the wolf's design, Baker persisting that the creature should walk on its hind legs while Landis preferred a "four-legged hound from Hell" look. In the end, they went with Landis's vision, leading to a landmark in the world of horror cinema -- the iconic scene of David's transformation into the titular monster caused the Academy Awards to create a new accolade specifically to acknowledge outstanding special effects with Baker becoming the first to ever take home an Oscar for Outstanding Achievement In Make-Up.
What a shock audiences must have underwent while viewing what they thought would be another laugh-a-minute riotfest "From the Director Of Animal House." Even though moviegoers reportedly sprinted out of theaters due to the film's scenes of grisly violence (which surprised even Landis while restoring the footage for its DVD release in the mid-2000s), they got their money's worth. The movie pulled in $30.5 million, tripling its budget, making it a box-office success as well as a critical one. An American Werewolf In London holds a special place in my heart. It's hilarious, bloody and touching in some scenes. The ending is unforgettable as well, a downer while simultaneously uplifting. In my opinion, no werewolf movie ever made comes anywhere close to its illustriousness.