An American Werewolf in London is not only the most compulsively watchable movie in writer/director John Landis’ portfolio; it is also one of the all-time great horror movies, a pitch-perfect mix of belly laughs and genuine scares fifteen years before Scream. Landis’ stroke of genius was to make his lycanthropic protagonist David Kessler (David Naughton) a Nice Jewish Boy as well as a witty college student. Like Landis, David has seen all the old werewolf movies on late-night TV and can’t quite take his situation seriously. But American Werewolf is far from a self-referential spoof. It acknowledges the unreality of its premise, but then treats it with all the realism that Rick Baker’s transformation effects (which won an Oscar) can provide.
David and his buddy Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) amble across the dingy green English countryside, laughing ruefully about old girlfriends, as if they were strolling down a New York sidewalk. Like many Americans abroad, they seem to have a bubble of self-protective Americanness around them — their surroundings don’t touch them except as something to snark about later. They happen across a pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, peopled by the standard array of hostile country Brits. The boys receive vague warnings they don’t take seriously. But they take it seriously enough once they’re lost in the night fog as hungry growls circle around them.
Jack is killed and David is badly scratched, waking up in a London hospital and attended by a no-nonsense doctor (John Woodvine) and a friendly nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter). For a long while, American Werewolf coasts on the warm rapport between David and Alex as they take their patient-nurse relationship to the next level. Landis, with considerable help from Naughton, fleshes David out as an amiable, level-headed guy — the audience’s surrogate — who finds himself in the middle of a baffling supernatural conundrum. First come the dreams, sensationally effective, especially the one wherein Nazi monsters invade David’s home. Then come the animalistic urges — David gets hungrier and hornier. Then come the visits from the spectral Jack, in various stages of decomposition yet never losing his collegiate sarcasm (“Have you ever tried talking to a corpse? It’s boring“). Then, finally, alone in Alex’s flat during a full moon, David undergoes the change and takes to the shadows of London.
For all its flashes of goofiness, American Werewolf never loses sight of its chief goal as a horror movie. A sequence in which the werewolf stalks a businessman through an empty subway station (the victim retains a hilariously English properness: “I shall notify the police“) is almost cruelly effective, getting its suspense not from shrieking soundtrack music but from the man’s terrified gasping and the click-clack of his shoes in mad, fruitless retreat. Landis has been ranked among the “masters of horror” for scenes like that (it sure isn’t because of Innocent Blood).
Eventually, Landis explicitly marries the goofy and the gory in a surreal scene in which David sits in a porno theater and has to face the mutilated ghosts of the people he killed. They all (including Jack) say the same thing: David must kill himself to end the curse. It’s something that’s occurred to him, too. Right before that, he calls home, wanting to say goodbye to his parents, and ends up talking to his younger sister. Here, Landis goes beyond comedy and horror. We never lose our affection and sympathy for David even though his rampages as a werewolf are horrifying. We want him to be cured. But we know he won’t be.
If you know where to look, American Werewolf is full of little in-jokes, like the prerequisite Landis See You Next Wednesday reference, and the appearance of Frank Oz in dual roles as an impatient bureaucrat and as Miss Piggy. The jokes aren’t pushed too hard and don’t call attention to themselves. American Werewolf is exceptionally light of spirit — it reaches towards life (think of that phone call) even in the midst of death. Landis wrote the first draft at age 19, and had years to fine-tune it while keeping the essence of what drew him to the material — the contrast between modern sensibilities and ancient superstitions. As it turns out, old-school wins.
American Werewolf gets in and out in 97 minutes, finding time for digressions that bring us closer to the characters (David riding the bus and making bizarre faces at the mohawked passengers) but covering the gamut of emotion. It’s a full package. If Landis is acclaimed as a master of horror on the basis of one film, this one film is more than enough to qualify him for the pantheon. It’s an achievement I’ve always wished he could repeat, but maybe this kind of lightning only strikes once.