In 1981, the year 'An American Werewolf in London' was released, the words "horror" and "comedy" were considered two incompatible cinematic beasts. Sure, one could always find some humor (of the blackest variety) in the classic Universal monster movies of yesteryear, or the delicious camp of Hammer Studios. But if you wanted to laugh as well as scream, it was strictly an old episode of "The Three Stooges" or vintage Abbott & Costello -- and those were straight spoofs. It wasn't until John Landis' 'American Werewolf' that a mainstream American picture would arguably succeed at equally balancing the yucks and the guts.
Though written by Landis in the late '60s, it wasn't until after the success of his mega-hits 'Animal House' and the 'Blues Brothers' that Universal greenlit the ambitious 'American Werewolf,' which many had said was an unfilmable, incongruent mishmash of no-holds-barred gruesome horror and ribald, juvenile comedy. But it's to the credit of Landis' oddball amalgam that, almost thirty years later, the film holds up as the rare hybrid whose laughs actually increase the tension rather than deflate it. What Landis does so smartly in 'American Werewolf' is recognize that we often resort to uncomfortable laughter in situations of terror. 'American Werewolf' remains so effective not just because it's funny, and scary -- both of which it is -- but because the combination of the two heightens the tension to an unnerving degree.
Landis' tale begins with two backpacking American college students, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne). Lost on the moors, they fall prey to a werewolf, with Jack killed and David left injured -- meaning that David will change come the next full moon. Waking up at a local British hospital, David is put under the care of Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) and a beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter), with whom he eventually begins a steamy affair. But despite increasingly bizarre dreams, random visits from the increasingly decaying Jack, and an eventual "mad dog" massacre that rips apart London, David is unable to do what he must -- end his life, or be doomed forever to haunt the countryside as a lycanthrope.
'American Werewolf in London' is a John Landis film through and through. Any fan familiar with 'Animal House' or 'Blues Brothers' will instantly recognize his cheerful brand of adolescent humor and wacky situations. From the stagey early scenes at the local Slaughtered Lamb pub (especially its troupe of Brit actors, who look and sound like they just stepped off the stage of a local London repertory company) to goofy comedic scenes of a fish-out-of-water David running naked in a London Zoo, Landis pushes the comedy in "horror comedy" to the limit. We even get a pretty raunchy climax involving a cheesy Piccadilly Circus porn theatre, a bouncing decapitated head, and the most arbitrary car-crash scene in movie history. Yet, 'American Werewolf' is surprisingly effective despite the incredulity of much of the plot, because it still manages to involve us in David's plight, while being pretty damn scary in the process.
I remember seeing 'American Werewolf' in the theater when I was ten years-old, and having to be ushered out to the lobby because I was so disturbed. Of course, today the film doesn't have that same impact -- it's a bit dated in spots, and the once ground-breaking special effects, while impressive, now seem somewhat quaint. But Landis certainly knows how to pack an unexpected wallop. The opening werewolf attack on the moors is a fine example of how to use humor to set-up a great scare (the first appearance of the wolf, as it pounces on Jack, remains a corker). Landis then continues to punctuate the atmosphere with still-shocking outbursts of savage violence, which even today push the boundaries of the R-rating. And then there's the garish Jack, played by Dunne with just the correct mixture of pathos, wry humor and anger. Landis ups the ante for David quite severely, so by film's end we are fully drawn into his futile plight.
Undoubtedly, 'American Werewolf' remains best remembered for its ground-breaking werewolf transformations. Effects pioneer Rick Baker won an Oscar for his efforts, and it's an honor richly deserved. Some may now laugh at the latex illusions and animatronics (made a bit more obvious by Landis' insistence on filming the effects in brightly lit interiors), but Baker's work remains trend-setting, and is a glorious example of ingenuity and resourcefulness. (They sure beat CGI in my book, too.) Kudos should go to Landis, though, for incorporating the effects sparingly throughout his film, as 'American Werewolf' is ultimately no mere smoke and mirrors show. The combination of likable characters, a good story, high production values and classic effects work makes it still one of the best werewolf movies ever made. Despite some clunky spots and a few dated elements here and there, 'An American Werewolf in London' still has the power to make you laugh as hard as you scream.
Universal has issued 'An American Werewolf in London' on Blu-ray for the first time, in a new 1080p/VC-1 (1.78:1) transfer. Despite a few rough patches here and there, it's the best I've ever seen the film look.
'American Werewolf' suffered for years from dark and grainy VHS and laserdisc transfers. Quite frankly, the film was so dank you could hardly see what was happening for much of the first act. Thankfully, this Blu-ray is much, much brighter and bolder. Though still quite grainy in select shots, there's at last real detail in the shadows. Fine textures are much more clearly visible, and the transfer has noticeable depth. Colors are nicely improved, even upon the previous DVD (which wasn't bad), especially reds and greens, which are quite vivid now. 'American Werewolf' remains a product of its time, however, so don't expect a level of sharpness equal to a new release. There are also a bit of print defects, though the amount of visible dirt and specks is minimal. The encoding is also solid, with only slight noise perceptible. Thankfully, the edge enhancement that plagued the previous DVD is absent. Overall, this Blu-ray is a very fine presentation of difficult source material.
A new English DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) has been produced for 'An American Werewolf in London.' The film has always possessed a rather effective mix for a 1981 horror picture, and it has been upgraded nicely here.
Surround deployment is impressive considering the film's age. The rears are active for the big scare moments, particularly the creepy wolf sound effects, and general atmosphere. Charles Bernstein's underrated score is also nicely balanced, which gives a decent heft to the soundfield. Dialogue is pretty crisp and intelligible, with only some of the hushed tones and British accents a bit muffled. Low bass isn't particularly impactful (the mix sounds a bit brittle, particularly high-end) but it's strong enough to give some kick to the wolf attack scenes. Again, considering the age of the material, I was happy with this mix.
Universal previously released a special edition DVD of 'An American Werewolf in London' back in 2001. It was OK, if not particularly special -- one got the feeling that the studio lumped in some standard bonus features, but didn't really go the extra mile to give fans the deluxe treatment expected. This first-ever Blu-ray (which arrives concurrent with a new, beefed-up DVD version) rights that wrong, at last giving us 'Werewolf' lovers the full-length, in-depth documentary we've been craving.
'An American Werewolf in London' is definitely a horror cult classic. Though a decent-sized hit upon first release, it has really gained its reputation over the years on video, and still holds up today as an effective mix of comedy and horror. This Blu-ray is the best version of the film yet, with fine video and audio, plenty of ported-over supplements, and a great newly-produced documentary. Even if you own past versions, I say this is worth another upgrade.