Retro Review: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London was one of my favorites as a kid. A lot of movies from this time period have not aged well so I went back into this film with a bit of skepticism. I remembered the special effects as being pretty amazing, but then again, I’d thought the special effects in Total Recall looked great too (and they don’t….oh man, they don’t…still love it though!). Let’s see how time has treated this werewolf classic.

Before I get too far, I want to bring up the fact that I had NO idea that John Landis directed this film. As I mentioned, it had been since I was a kid since I’d seen it, and my childhood self was not as obsessive about useless movie facts and tidbits. As the opening credits showed his name I thought to myself, “What? It can’t be the same John Landis.” So I checked IMDB and discovered, yes, this horror movie classic was written and directed by the man behind Animal House, Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, Coming to America, and Beverly Hills Cop III. It explains why the movie is genuinely funny at times, where most horror films struggle to maintain the tension and get true laughs in. It blew my mind!

The movie follows two friends who are backpacking across England. They get caught out late on a very cold and rainy night and seek refuge at small countryside pub. The locals bristled at their presence and when the duo ask about a pentangle star on the wall they’re told to leave. Suspicious conversation follows, all alluding to possible werewolf activity and staying off the moors. The men leave and of course end up off course and on the moors under a full moon. Then it happens….one of the most terrifying howls in movie history cuts through the night. In the ensuing werewolf attack one man is killed while the other is merely wounded. The locals kill the werewolf and make it appear to be the work of a madman to keep attention off of their town secrets. It works. While recovering in London the injured man starts exhibiting strange signs that he too will become a werewolf soon.

The special effects in the film are still quite impressive. The transition from man to werewolf is one of those great horror movie moments and my jaded movie watching self sat in wonder of the practical effects that were used. It was the first horror film to win an Oscar for make-up and it deserved it. Something else that is super cool that I didn’t notice as a kid was the music. It always seemed strangely upbeat and somewhat out of place. Well, it was intentional. Landis had songs inserted that all had something to do with the moon, which is actually pretty clever.

All in all, An American Werewolf in London stands up to modern viewing pretty much across the board. It’s well made, funny at times, and gruesomely gory. The scenes on the moors and London stalking sections are the stuff of horror legend and this is a movie well worth the time of a revisit.

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