Trivia In 1997, the movie was re-recorded as a Radio drama by Audio Movies Limited for BBC Radio 1 in England. It was broadcast during Halloween that year, in short snippets throughout the day. Brian Glover, John Woodvine and Jenny Agutter reprised their roles from the movie.
Studio executives hoped Landis would cast Dan Aykroyd in the role of David and John Belushi as Jack. Landis refused.
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An American Werewolf in London (1981)
4th Oct 04
Two American backpackers, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are savagely attacked by a mysterious beast while lost on the Yorkshire moors. Three weeks later David wakes up in a London hospital, badly scared and severely traumatised. When Jack returns from beyond the grave to warn his friend of his impending doom, David quite naturally believes he is losing his mind. However, as the full moon approaches the curse of the Werewolf begins to take shape, changing David’s life forever.
Delving deep into the dark and dusty recesses of my mind there are a number of defining childhood memories which, for whatever reason, stand out as, well, defining. My first day at school for example, or the first time I noticed the existence of girls as more than a mere passing annoyance. However, there is one reminiscence in particular which stands head and shoulders above all others, and that is the first time I was completely and utterly terrified. If my memory serves me correctly it was a dark winter's night and I, a mischievous seven year old at the time, was rooting through my fathers wardrobe in search of Christmas presents. What I found instead was a VHS copy of An American Werewolf in London, and with the rest of the family otherwise engaged, I slipped it into the video player and began to watch. Needless to say by the time David Naughton had completed his metamorphosis from man to beast, I was already half way down the stairs, wailing at the top of my lungs, every horrific detail indelibly etched into my subconscious. Over the years I’ve often flirted with idea of reliving the experience in an attempt to face down my demons, but up until now I’d always suppressed the urge. So after seventeen years, and a good few beers, would John Landis’s scare-fest be as good as I remember? Or could I finally lay the nightmares to rest, once and for all?
The story begins with our two protagonists hitching a ride across the Yorkshire moors, amidst a wagonload of sheep; the classic fifties tune Blue Moon playing in the background (subtle, hey?). As the farmer drops them close to the small, eerie hamlet of East Proctor he warns them to keep clear of the moors, then promptly disappears into the mist, leaving them all alone. Although set on the Yorkshire moors, the filming of this bleak rural landscape actually took place amongst the rugged, untamed hills of mid-Wales, cleverly accentuating the feelings of isolation and vulnerability, which surround the two young tourists lost in a foreign land. Cold and hungry, the pair seek refuge in The Slaughtered Lamb (see a pattern emerging here?), where they receive a hostile welcome from the local community. These strange, secretive souls (including a pre-pubescent Rik Mayall) are excellently drawn, if a little over-played in some instances, though this seems to add a darkly comic sub-tone to the film, serving to make the horror sequences all the more shocking and brutal when then they do creep up. One such instance is the attack on David and Jack, moments after they leave the pub. The tension which builds as the beast stalks the two boys across the murky hills, howling under the glare of the full moon, is deftly crafted edge-of-the-seat stuff, as is the horrific throat-tearing onslaught, which inevitably ensues.
By far the most terrifying moment of the film however, is the groundbreaking scene in which David Kessler transforms from naked man to hairy, bloodthirsty beast. Watching through my fingers as David’s body hideously contorts and convulses amid the crunches of breaking bone and rips of stretched flesh, I felt seven years old all over again. What makes this scene all the more spectacular is the fact that it was filmed some 23 years ago, using only make-up and hand-crafted models; a notion which would be inconceivable today. Resultantly, David Naughton was required to spend hour upon hour in compromising positions as Rick Baker and his young team set about making casts of virtually every part of his body. The scene took a week to film and the stunning results won Baker a much-deserved Academy award and the film a place in history.
Of course, with so much time and energy devoted to such as small – though intrinsic – part of the film, other areas are bound to suffer as a result. That’s not to say the rest of the film is poor by comparison, rather that it is a more accurate reflection of the period in which it was made. It is for this reason that the film hasn’t aged quite as gracefully as the likes of Halloween or Psycho, which had a far simpler premise, relying more heavily on the viewer to create their own nightmare from a rarely seen, yet often mooted evil.
The romantic storyline between David and his nurse, Alex (played by the delectable Jenny Agutter) provides a good balance to the film and a necessary diversion from the onslaught of gore (though I doubt the medical ethics council would agree). It gives the film a more human angle, a feature which makes the story all the more real and therefore terrifying. The hallucination scenes and the discussions David has with his dead pal Jack are hilarious, in a dark, twisted sort of a way (check out his first visit to the hospital and the small flappy piece of skin hanging from his gaping neck wound), and also help to explain some of the Werewolf mythology on which the film is based.
Although not as terrifying as I remember, this film is nonetheless a superb, genre defining werewolf flick. With its fine blend of dark humour and shock horror, you will barely be able to avert your gaze from the screen; from the opening sequence on the desolate moors, to the thrilling finale in Piccadilly Circus. Some of the acting may be slightly over the top and the visuals somewhat dated in the light of today’s CGI shenanigans, but make no mistake this film is a classic! In An American Werewolf in London, John Landis has created the yardstick against which all other Werewolf, nay, monster movies, should be judged.
Versions The DVD contains some snippets of unused werewolf footage that was cut from film, but generally the released version is the only one available.