An American Werewolf in London: A Look Back at Werewolf Films

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AAWIL 1Frequent reader and fan of AnythingHorror.com, Brandon Engel, felt it was time to look back on the classic film, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Being a huge fan of that film myself, who was I to refuse. Enjoy!!

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How fitting that there’s a full moon out tonight!

It’s been 32nd years since the U.S. release of AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, the seminal horror-comedy film from writer/director John Landis. The film is warmly remembered by filmmakers and critics alike for its witty script, and for the Academy Award-winning special effects makeup by Rick Baker. Who will ever forget this scene:

The werewolf trope is effective for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s a highly effective way of imposing a sort of Jekyll and Hyde-esque dual personage onto a character — and the more docile and good natured the person is when they are not a wolf, the more compelling the action is when the sinister persona takes over — which is part of why the transformation scene itself can be critical.

You may recall some of the early werewolf films, such as THE WOLF MAN (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., wherein a man befalls a strange curse after being attacked by a wolf in the forest. The film is notable for Bela Lugosi’s brief role as mystic gypsy, and for establishing many of the conventions of the sub-genre (the condition spreads like a virus; the werewolf is vulnerable to silver, etc.). However, the film didn’t exploit the full visual potential of the transformation sequence; shots of the actor without makeup are crossfaded into shots of the character in makeup.

AAWIL 2It stands to reason that the Eighties would be the time when the focus of these films shifted (in some cases, almost exclusively) to the complexity of the transformation scene itself. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON obviously stands as a stellar example of this, but so does Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING (1981). The latter film tells the story of a female television news anchor Karen (Dee Wallace) who is being routinely harassed by Eddie (Robert Picardo), a wanted serial murderer. Karen helps the police to track down (and ultimately kill) Eddie. She is left so psychologically tormented by the ordeal that her therapist sends her and her husband away to “The Colony” — a treatment center on a remote island.  She soon notices the other guests behaving strangely…and that’s all I’m at liberty to say, lest I spoil any surprises. But it’s there that she learns that Eddie  has returned to life — as a werewolf — and is pursuing her once again!

The story in THE HOWLING is novel, and the transformation scene is terrific! Here, we’re not really dealing with much of a dual personality: it’s less Jekyll and Hyde, and more of a case of Hyde … a really menacing Hyde. Rather than imposing an alternate personality onto the character, werewolf lore is used in this film to heighten the frightening characteristics of the film’s primary antagonist.

Although it is not a werewolf film in the strictest sense, Philippe Mora’s THE BEAST WITHIN (1982), which is about the blood-thirsty offspring of a woman who is sexually assaulted by a cicada monster in the deep south, employs many of the same plot devices as the werewolf films: the dual personality, the character’s reversion to a more animalistic state, and, of course…one of the single greatest Eighties transformation sequences, hands down!

But what we’ve seen within contemporary werewolf lore, starting with Mike Nichols’ WOLF (1994), is that the gruesome awesomeness of the transformation has been largely de-emphasized, with greater and greater emphasis placed instead on character development, and placing characters in more emotionally complex relationships. In the Mike Nichols film, Jack Nicholson’s character learns that the behavioral tendencies of the werewolf, and the wolf’s moral conduct, has everything to do with the moral and ethical constitution of the person who becomes affected by the curse — in other words, the film suggests that werewolves aren’t inherently immoral, and that the person who becomes cursed doesn’t automatically forfeit moral agency.

AAWIL 4We see these issues of conflicting loyalties and moral ambiguity echoed everywhere from GINGER SNAPS (2000) to the dreaded TWILIGHT film and book series. And while it’s perhaps laudable that so much attention is now paid to the emotional complexity of becoming a werewolf…do we have to take all the fun out of it? Where are the ultra-gruesome, ultra-detailed transformation scenes today? Do all werewolves have to get caught up in boring love triangles?

In honor of the anniversary of one of my all-time favorite werewolf films, I urge contemporary filmmakers to give it a second look, and ask: “Can’t we restore in current films some of what made films like this so wonderful in the first place?”

Please? If not for your own sake, do it for the next generation of horror nerds, who are largely deprived of the things that made being a kid in the Eighties so very cool. Please. I’m begging you. Think of the children.

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About the Blogger: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger with directstartv.com who is partial to vintage horror films and silent comedies. His all-time favorite directors are Alfred Hitchcock, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Harold Lloyd, Stanley Kubrick, and Roger Corman.

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5 Responses to “An American Werewolf in London: A Look Back at Werewolf Films”
  1. Xenolicker says:

    I have good memories of this movie, haven’t seen it in decades. Wasn’t this also early CGI? Wonder how it will hold up now? Did you just give a summary of a lot of stories of a lot of werewolf movies except the story of … An American Werewolf In London!?

  2. American Werewolf in London!! Along with the spectacular practical effects the movie was hilarious. Failing to kill himself with his own pocket knife, meeting up with his dead friend at a porn theater and the very abrupt ending made me laugh. The nurse professed his love to him, and for a second you thought that his human side was overcoming his curse, but nope – lunges forward and gets gunned down. Tragic, but made me laugh for some reason.

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  • Some of my favorite horror movies:
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978)

  • Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn (1987)

  • Martyrs (2008)

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