Universal // 1981 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // September 18th, 2009
"I'm sorry I called you a meat loaf, Jack."
In 1969, John Landis was a production assistant on the Clint Eastwood film, Kelly's Heroes. On location in Yugoslavia, he came upon a group of gypsies performing rituals over a dead body, rituals to prevent the dead man from rising from the grave. The encounter stuck in Landis' head, and he started thinking what might happen if someone his own age were forced to confront the undead. He wrote the first draft in 1969, but it wasn't until after the successes of Animal House and The Blues Brothers that he was able to secure the $10 million budget. Released in 1981, the film initially confused the critics with its then-unheard of combination of horror and humor, but audiences warmed up to the combo, as well as the special makeup effects that earned Rick Baker the first Academy Award for Makeup -- the first of six Oscars he has won.
Universal's 2001 DVD release of the film suffered from a soft and grainy transfer; that master was improved somewhat for the 2006 HD DVD (RIP) release. Now, in large part to drum up interest in the new remake of The Wolfman, Universal brings us An American Werewolf In London: Full Moon Edition. Let the full moon rise, and we shall see if the disc makes us howl with joy...or bloodlust.
Friends David Kessler (David Naughton, My Sister Sam) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne, The Great Buck Howard) are backpacking across the English moors when they are attacked by a wolf-like creature. Jack is killed, but David survives when villagers shoot and kill the animal. Recovering at a London hospital, Jack is tormented by nightmares, which grow increasingly violent. His recuperation is enhanced by his growing attraction to his nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter, Logan's Run).
Then David has a surprise visitor -- Jack, still quite dead, but with dire news: the pair was attacked by a werewolf, and the curse has been passed to David. Unless David kills himself, he will transform into a ravenous, murderous beast. David is growing worried for his sanity, but he is eventually released, and Alex takes him home to her flat. However, the full moon isn't far off, and Jack shows up again to warn David again...
You see these screen shots? Holy crap, this film looks amazing! Universal has demonstrated time and time again that they don't screw around with remastering, and they've come through again. Sharp, crisp images and rich, warm colors. The film still shows that it was shot on a small budget, with some grain here and there, but it's hard to imagine this thing looking any better. The 5.1 surround mix is crisp and clear, and the various sound effects are unnerving, but the rear channels never quite get into the action. For instance, in the opening attack, the sounds of the wolf as it stalks David and Jack move from left to right and back, but without the rear channels, you don't quite get the sense that the beast is circling its hapless victims.
So much has been written about Rick Baker's work that there's nothing new to say. The leads, though, are a different story. David Naughton was then in a series of Dr. Pepper ads that had him dancing and singing "Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too?" The ads worked because Naughton comes across as a genuinely nice, likeable guy, and that's what led Landis to cast him. The story is basically a tragedy, and if you've got a likeable lead, you're halfway home. Naughton's acting isn't always up to the challenge, but his personality is. (In The Wolf Man, Lon Cheney Jr. is perhaps the weakest performer in the cast.) Naughton also has good chemistry with Griffin Dunne as Jack; their bickering as they hike towards their fate evidences a deep, abiding friendship. More importantly, that friendship remains when Jack returns to haunt David -- he isn't suddenly all foreboding, intoning dire portents of doom like the second coming of Marley's Ghost. He's still Jack; he just happens to be dead.
The thespian heavy lifting is ably handled by Jenny Agutter and John Woodvine (Vanity Fair), who plays the physician who starts to suspect that David's fears may be real. Agutter totally sells her love, her concern, her fear, her grief; she even manages to sell the final sequence, professing her love to the transformed David. Woodvine's Dr. Hirsch provides a certain amount of gravitas, the rational mind coming to accept the supernatural.
Much of the movie's success depends on the pacing of the 98-minute runtime. The attack on David and Jack occurs around the 15-minute mark; the next 45 minutes slowly build tension leading to David's first transformation. From that point on, it's a mad dash to the finish, commencing with David's mad dash from the London Zoo, which offers some comic relief after the harrowing first night of transformation, letting the audience catch their breath.
A couple of quick comments about the music. Much is made of the use of songs with "moon" in the title -- the sequence in which Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" plays while David nervously paces Alex's flat as he awaits the full moon is particularly nice. Elmer Bernstein provides some wonderful original music as well; be sure to listen for it.
The set retains the extras from the earlier edition, which are OK. The commentary track with Naughton and Dunne has its moments, but there are extended stretches where they don't say anything. The shorts are interesting, particularly the feature on Rick Baker's makeup effects. This Full Moon Edition brings us two new extras: "I Walked with a Werewolf" is basically some excerpts from the earlier Rick Baker piece, with some information on the Wolfman remake. But the star of the extras is "Beware the Moon," a full-length retrospective making-of feature made by Paul Davis. Everybody is in on this -- cast, crew, even a host of minor players. There are some great behind-the-scenes stories, and everyone has a great affection for the movie.
Trivia: 1981 saw the premiere of three different werewolf films: An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen, and The Howling. There's a nice behind-the-scenes story there, but Baker and Landis tell it much better than I could.
When people praise the film, they rarely single out the script as well, and with good reason. It's a patchwork thing, and here are a couple of major plot holes, not the least of which is why the hospital would release someone who, from all appearances, is suffering from PTSD, and, perhaps more importantly, why would a trained nurse take such a man into her home? That's an issue that can be easily overlooked, though, due to the chemistry between Naughton and Agutter. More problematic is the extended sequence of Dr. Hirsch running down David's story.
The sequences in the village are a bit overwrought, and the two scenes together just don't quite make sense. A little less vague, ominous stonewalling and just a tad more actual backstory could have tied the sequences together a bit more.
The ending is a mixed bag. The extended crash sequence in Piccadilly Circus distracts from the unfolding tragedy, making the ending even more abrupt. A slightly more extended payoff, perhaps with the traditional reverse transformation? Or perhaps Jack appearing to David as he dies, assuring him that all is well now.
Though far from a perfect film, An American Werewolf in London works because it takes the simple tragedy of the werewolf story -- a likeable guy with a wolf-monkey on his back -- and infuses it with just enough modern trappings to make it fresh.
If you've got the earlier release, chuck it out the window and upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Image Gallery
* Wikipedia: American Werewolf in London