Reviews In The Machine : An American Werewolf In London (1981) by Roger Keen
An American Werewolf in London
Watching An American Werewolf in London now, one of the first things that strikes you is how long ago 1981 was, and how much the world – specifically England – has changed since then. This is partly due to the observational eye of American director John Landis, achieving a detached touristy perspective on the closed community of East Proctor in rural Yorkshire, with its shifty paranoid locals who talk in broad accents and fear strangers; and also taking in the sights and sounds of swinging London – Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and not forgetting the seedy crepuscular interior of a Soho porn cinema. Notable too is the appearance of Jenny Agutter as love interest Nurse Alex Price, then still at the height of her nubility and fantasy material for legions of young men after a string of scantily clad roles in movies such as Walkabout, Equus and Logan’s Run. Seeing Ms Agutter in contemporary roles is another indicator of that gulf of time that has elapsed since the early 1980s.
An American Werewolf in London is notable for pioneering the blending of comedy and grisly horror, which was thought unworkable before, and for Rick Baker’s then state-of-the-art makeup and prosthetic effects, rendering the transmogrification of man into werewolf in a stunningly plausible visceral fashion that sparks real nostalgia in today’s world of homogenous CGI, where such things are done by rote. Another thing that elevates the film above the standard man-gets-bitten-and-turns-into-werewolf fare is the genuine sense of existential dread as backpacker David (David Noughton) realises by degrees what has befallen him and that he cannot escape his fate. This is communicated by his undead friend Jack (Griffin Dunne), in a deadpan delivery (excuse the pun!) as his appearance deteriorates in a lurid fashion that perfectly balances laughs and chills. Undead Jack has already lost everything, so he has no urge to sugar-coat the situation on account of his friend’s feelings. The scenes between David and Jack are among the best parts – especially the one in the porn cinema where David’s freshly undead kills join the party.
Also excellent are the bravura nightmare sequences where David’s troubled subconscious sends him messages in the form of nude jogging and hunting scenarios in the woods and ghoul-faced stormtroopers gunning down his family. This latter dream sequence also contains a superbly jolting false awakening moment that has been copied again and again – such as in the current ITV crime thriller Strangers. There are weaknesses that stand out more with passing time, such as the stereotypical nature of the East Proctor yokels, though Brian Glover gives an endearing performance as their leader. And the fact that David is transported from Yorkshire to a London hospital after being attacked, with no reason presented other than he needs to be there for the movie to work . Moreover, when David as a werewolf makes his first series of night-time attacks, accounts of those attacks appear in morning papers that would already have been going through the printing presses as he was sinking in his teeth. But these are minor gripes.
Overall An American Werewolf in London was a landmark success, and through Michael Jackson’s approval it led to Landis and Baker creating the even more iconic 1983 Thriller music video, where the undead look became de rigueur. It’s influence can be seen in tongue-in-cheek horror films from Beetlejuice through to Shaun of the Dead and Barbossa’s crew in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. That combination of authentic horror iconography and subtle, nudge-wink humour makes the movie still eminently entertaining, and the dated elements only add to that. The laugh-out-loud moments still work wonderfully – such as the porn movie with its absurd dialogue going on in the background, even as the undead discuss methods of suicide and later the cops discover the carnage. And the climactic multiple-vehicle pile-up in Piccadilly Circus – which involved much choreography and the stopping of traffic – also still makes for a bravura action piece; and the poignant ending, leading to the ‘Blue Moon’ theme, still produces a lump in the throat.
A 35th anniversary Blu-ray restored edition was released in 2016, including a host of extras, such as interviews with John Landis and Rick Baker:
Roger Keen was born in London and attended art colleges in Plymouth and Bournemouth before pursuing a career in television. He began publishing fiction and non-fiction in the 1990s, specializing in noir short stories and articles and reviews concerning genre film and literature. He has a particular interest in the Surrealists, the Beat writers, 1960s psychedelia, cyberpunk and weird cinema.
Roger’s short stories have appeared in magazines such as Psychotrope, Threads, Sierra Heaven and Flickers ’n’ Frames; and his non-fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Out of the Shadows, the PsypressUK Journal, Critical Wave, Writer’s Monthly and The Third Alternative. He also contributes to websites such as Reality Sandwich, The Digital Fix, The Oak Tree Review, Infinity Plus and The Zone.
Roger’s counterculture memoir The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s was published in 2010. It is both an odyssey of druggy excess, in the tradition of Fear and loathing in Las Vegas, and a piece of experimental ‘reality fiction’, exploring the interface between autobiography, fiction and metafiction. The recently published Literary Stalker takes these elements further within the framework of a psychological horror/crime novel. Roger is currently doing research for a book on weird cinema, and when not writing he makes short films and likes mountain walking and skiing.