While backpacking across Europe two Americans, David and Jack, are viciously attacked by a werewolf. David awakens in a London hospital to discover that his friend is dead, well sort of. Jack’s ghost continues to talk with him as he warns the impending doom that lies ahead. As the days progress, David’s so-called luck from the attack begins to look much darker; especially with the full moon inching closer by the day.
“American Werewolf in London” is regarded as one of the greatest werewolf films for multiple reasons. The violence and horror is balanced with some lighter elements such as a love story and humor, but the core story never drifts too far from what it is. David Naughton portrays David as an American that is oblivious to his surroundings at the beginning of the film who slowly begins to accept the predicament he is in. The performance fits the early 80’s feel in a way that isn’t too serious or cheesy- that fine line of excellence for the genre.
Most scares occur during nightmare sequences; some which are so random, but in regards to dreams feel normal. They don’t feel too over manufactured and fit the overall feel of the film. Today’s standards would overlay these jump scares with overbearing sounds and CGI heavy effects.
Aside from the compelling story, setting and scares there’s really one specific reason why “American Werewolf in London” is regarded as the pinnacle of werewolf films; the special effects. Rick Baker’s makeup leads the film with groundbreaking work that comes into play upon each visit by Jack. As the film progresses, so does the deterioration of Jack. It’s both grotesque and beautiful. Little details like the jiggling of mangled flesh as Jack speaks. Despite Jack’s horrific appearance and distressing guidance, he is balanced with humor that borders the horror comedy spectrum. Baker’s work on the film earned him his first Oscar at the Academy Awards, and rightfully so.
The film has the greatest werewolf transformation scene in cinema hands down. You really begin to feel the pain that David goes through during the transformation, and not just through his screams. The elongation of hands and snout are all performed by practical effects. You hear pops and deep tones come from within the body, acting as a storytelling element that we cannot see underneath the skin.Rather than the bipedal creature, which we are used to in cinema, we get a more dog from hell looking being. Once transformed the werewolf is masked by quick edits and POV shots. Leaving the carnage to go to the imagination.
“American Werewolf in London” is one of my favorites when it comes to a creature feature, even though the werewolf isn’t on screen majority of the time. The fact that they carry the film’s absence of the creature through repetitive warning of doom makes the movie feel all the more original. Even at nearly 40 years later, the film is still just as beautiful as the day it was released through the expertise of Rick Baker’s special effects work. If you haven’t seen this film it is a must watch for the cultural impact on the genre as it has inspired many individuals within the industry to create similar work.