More noise than signal

An American Werewolf in London

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Two young American lads, David and Jack, David Naughton and Griffin Dunne respectively, find themselves, against all logic and reason, hitchhiking across the Yorkshire Moors, opting to park up for the night in a small village. Royston Vasey, I think it was called. Anyway, they find that the local pub is for local people, and they want no trouble here. In particular, the sort of trouble that comes with questioning their pentagram based decor system. Brian Glover off the Tetley ads tell them to sling their hook, with a warning to stay on the roads.

Because a film needs to occur, they ignore this, and wander off into the wilds, only to find the wilds staring back at them. Jack is savaged by, spoiler warning, a werewolf, but before David can be entirely eviscerated, the guilt-ridden, gun-toting locals show up to euthanise the lupine aggressor.

Waking up mostly healed a few weeks later in a London hospital, David is shocked to find Jack is dead, and soon after even more shocked to find Jack stills wanders the earth as a decaying ghost, which seems to be a zombie gimmick infringement, unable to rest until the werewolf bloodline is ended. That blood now running right through David’s veins. He pleads with David to take his own life, before he flips out and eats a busload of schoolkids or something.

Half convinced he’s going insane, David confides this to nurse Alex Price, Jenny Agutter, who mollifies him and starts a slightly awkward relationship, but one doomed to be rather short term as, well, David flips out and turns into a werewolf, doing a spot of the old ultra violence throughout ol’ London Town. A London that has a young(ish) Allan Ford, Snatch‘s Brick Top, as a cabbie, oddly enough.

So apparently this is termed a cult classic these days, which is a pretty loose application of the term given that this was a successful film at the time, certainly much more successful commercially than director John Landis’ film the year earlier, the vastly superior Blues Brothers. But, well, that’s not to say that An American Werewolf in London is bad, and it’s an easy and enjoyable watch. But not one I think I’ll ever have any urge to return to after this first (as far as I can remember) viewing.

It’s billed as a comedy horror, but it’s certainly leaning much more heavily on the comedy part. Except, where, abruptly, it is not, and there’s a few moments of real tonal whiplash here. Not just in the conflict between horror and comedy either, witness the end where (and well, spoiler warning, I suppose, for this film that’s about as old as I am) Jenny Augutter is and the end of the film doing a pretty good job of looking devastated after SC019 coppers have gunned Davewolf down, only for a slam cut into the credits and the insufficiently baleful “Bad Moon Rising”.

A lot of the film feels as though it’s a bit of a Hammer Horror parody, the Americans being glib to the point of being almost fourth wall breaking, while the cadre of English actors take it all rather more seriously. Until, at least, the final act, where the special effects team takes over and starts slopping the claret around, and David’s victims show up to offer suggestions on how he should kill himself.

As for the horror elements, well, this is not a scary film by any stretch of the imagination, and even the decapitations are rather more for comedy value than shock value. It does, however, bust out an especially effective transformation special effect. How special. I’m kind of wondering if the film was made largely to allow the transformation effect to be shown, certainly more so than any narrative imperative.

Which, I suppose, broadly fits with the John Landis brand – some great, hugely enjoyable films in his catalogue, but even the outing heavier on the story are still just a framework to hang gags from. Nothing wrong with that, and An American Werewolf in London deserves its place as an enduringly enjoyable watch, if not a film that’s going to shake your worldview.