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The devilish joy of 'An American Werewolf in London' at 40

'An American Werewolf in London' - John Landis

On the misty moors of Yorkshire, two naive American travellers find themselves victim to an ancient evil, a muscly, hairy beast that only comes out on the dusk of the full moon. It’s the promising basis for John Landis’ iconic American Werewolf in London, bringing the sensation of a classic Hollywood thriller to the humble fields of the English countryside and the unwitting streets of the capital. 

Demonstrating the stark contrast between American and British sensibilities, despite their close cultural ties, at its roots, An American Werewolf in London could be seen as an illustration of the invading American commercialisation. Still, really, on its surface, it’s simply a compelling horror-comedy. One of the first films of the sub-genre to properly utilise horror and comedy elements, John Landis’ 1981 classic would inspire multiple genre films throughout modern cinema. 

Starring David Naughton and Griffin Dunne as the two weary American travellers, David and Jack, the latter soon meets his demise as prey to the mythical beast that lurks on the moors. Barely saved by the onlookers of the mysterious pub named ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’, David awakes in a hospital in London some three weeks later and begins to experience horrifying visions of his late friend, Jack. Warning him that he will soon turn into a werewolf, David seeks answers for his condition whilst navigating his inevitable transformation. 

A frenetic journey through the realms of psychedelic horror, Landis crafts a highly enjoyable spectacle, highlighted by some lusciously delightful scenes of pulpy violence; it smacks of cult genius from the start. Such is typified by the infamously gory ‘Mutant Nazi Massacre’ where Landis double-bluffs his audience with a nightmarish fever dream punctuated by extreme gore and terror, only for David to wake up and the dream to play out once more in ‘reality’. “Holy shit!” David finally exclaims, jolting up from his slumber, the nightmare finally over. 

Hybrids of comedy and horror are scattered throughout the film and are masterfully balanced, making the film’s iconic transformation scene all the more disturbing, as David’s personality and livelihood is something we have come to respect and wish to protect. Conducted by special effects mastermind Rick Baker, the scene is nothing short of movie magic, as well as a horrifically visceral moment of painful transformation spiked by some ingenious sound design. Whilst David’s bones crunch, click and jolt into new positions, the soft ballad of Sam Cooke’s ‘Blue Moon’ elegantly plays in the background, a sinister, satirical soundtrack to David’s dark demise.

Revered by filmmakers across the globe, Landis’ masterful experimentation of horror and comedy would considerably impact the 21st-century films of modern terror aficionado Edgar Wright, with the director noting An American Werewolf in London has “influenced a lot of my work”. Speaking to The Guardian in 2010, the director stated, “I love how it manages to do several things: it’s laugh-out-loud funny; it’s genuinely very scary, but it’s got a lot of heart as well. You really care about the people in it. It’s a horror and a comedy. I think that with it John Landis made one of the first pop culture-savvy films”. 

A cocktail of pulpy violence and satirical humour, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London icon of 1980s filmmaking remains a classic of the horror genre thanks to its timeless special effects and dedication to little else but gorgeous, devilish terror.