I was going to write this whole thing about how this movie is R, but it really isn't that bad. Then I did "An American Werewolf in London" image search on Google and then realized that this movie is super disturbing and maybe my litmus test for innocence is skewed beyond repair. Hard R.
DIRECTOR: John Landis
I think I'm far too sensitive for my own good. I had only seen this movie for the first time a few years ago. That said, I instantly threw it on my favorite movies list. It definitely hit the top horror films list and I felt safe to say unequivocally that I was cool in throwing this on the list. After all, it's pretty lauded in the film community without being sequelized to death. (It was tried once and failed horribly. I have yet to see that one and I really don't think it will hold a candle to London.) But I was afraid to come back to it. I loved it so much and had preached it so hard that I started to grow nervous about how much of an impact this movie could possibly have. I tend to do that. These movies get too dear to my heart and I want to cherish that moment of enjoying a perfect film. But I can't live my life like that. I don't want to live my life like that. So I got a copy of An American Werewolf in London for my birthday and, gosh darn it, I was going to watch it. And you know what?
I had nothing to worry about.
This movie is so good. It is one of those weird modern classics that film buffs have all known and seen and discussed, but I think the general population pretty much misses out on it. I have this theory that the modern classic is starting to disappear from society. There will be films that my generation considers sacred that the next generation will completely miss and I have a feeling that An American Werewolf in London will be one of those films. Heck, I know some of my peers have probably never heard of this movie. London is impressive on two fronts. It is an outstanding horror movie in its own right. I'll go into detail about that in a second. But it is such a great study into filmmaking and manipulating mood that I wish I could recommend it to everybody. (Again, I can't. This movie is disturbing as all get out.) But I think many of the best directors don't allow their genre to dictate the content that hits the screen. Many of the contemporary horror movies I can thing of use tropes and tricks to drive right at the emotion that the director is trying to evoke. I think The Ring might have been one of the moments in film history that defined the past few decades of horror movies, so I'll look there. Again, I loved The Ring and in isolation, it might be a beautiful movie. But every movie has copied that formula because the end result is "The scariest movie wins." The Ring uses a washed out color palate coupled with jump cuts and piercing foley to drive its audience into a panic. That panic is what both the studio and the director wants the audience to experience. That panic is viral and drives word of mouth. It fills theater seats and I can't blame them. People want to see the scariest movie ever. An American Werewolf in London doesn't really use tropes in the sense that The Ring does. There is blood and gore. There are even a few jump cuts that are fairly startling. But the movie goes against convention and that's what makes the movie fairly great. It is scary and it is effectively scary at that. But the movie goes to levels beyond what is considered traditional. Rather, the balance of humor without outright being a comedy makes the movie moments all that more effective. This is something that Tarantino and Rodriguez picked up on long ago. A good soundtrack coupled with great characterization make the emotion elicited all that more important. It turns cannon fodder into something personal. Jack as a corpse is more of a real character than dozens of protagonists in contemporary horror movies because he has depth. I care about Jack's life and afterlife because Jack is not simply there to push forward the plot. He is there to make me care about David's choices. There is a weird morality behind the horror movie. Horror movies, typically, are about the protagonist trying to wrestle control from an outside force with varying degrees of success. Rather, Landis ignores that convention and places the choices in David's hands early on. It turns the genre on its head and allows the movie to be both riveting and scary simultaneously.
But the movie is scary as well. I can't stress that enough. I have always thought that werewolves were dumb. They are on the low end of the totem poll (pun intended...kind of?) But Landis pays homage to the mythology of the past while completely introducing his own mythology and rules to the game. Like Joss Whedon did with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the new rules of werewolves are not introduced in a hamfisted way that wink to the audience. These are the ways of this world because other werewolf movies don't really exist. (I know that Whedon was somewhat self-aware about the rules about vampires, but he didn't beat them to death...pun intended kinda.) Werewolves were always on the boundary between full on supernatural creatures and an infection that didn't make a lick of sense. Landis places them well within the realm of the supernatural by having them affect their victims after death. These are the moments that are riveting. There's no sci-far jargon about how this is working; the victims simply exist and are suffering and it is up to David to take care of this. David's sacrifice is an outstanding one. He has this weird moral ground to take that would be difficult for anyone. David's flaws, similarly, add to the storyline. He isn't necessarily a real person because he is too handsome and smoldering to be a day to day human being. (I imagine that very few patients who have been mauled by wolves can seduce their attractive nurses into allowing them to stay at the nurses' flats.) But he does have a real world understanding of the world around him. His skepticism is feasible and that's what makes the movie very interesting. We have this dramatic irony that David clearly does not. We know that the world around him is real. The very understanding that we are watching a movie named An American Werewolf in London implies that the events around him are real. I would probably be making similar choices to David given the circumstances, even with the visit from Jack in mind. That makes Jack all the more terrifying to us than it is to David. It doesn't hurt that this was made during Rick Baker's golden age. Watching this movie felt like I was leafing through an amazing Fangoria collection because almost every shot is beautiful. Since I'm gushing pretty hard about this movie, I had better point out the effects that don't work. The wolf in full frame looks a little off and Jack's last form has something to be desired. But these complaints must be taken in stride. These concepts are hard to convey even in words, let alone having to make it visually cool. These moments aren't even that bad, but I could hear naysayers scream "Fake!" because the world is a terrible place.
Landis can't help but be a little funny, I feel. I looked through his IMDB credits and most of them have some obvious comedic element to them. I don't know why this works for him as a director. He's never making fun of the genre he's dealing with. He's more adding his personality to the sandbox he's playing in. As part of that, he never considers anything too sacred. His use of music is outstanding. Maybe it is a bit of a super lucky happenstance, but his use of songs with the word "moon" in them is tonally perfect. I would be the first to admit that I normally roll my eyes when it comes to "on the nose" music, but these songs work so darned well in this movie. If my kids weren't watching DuckTales right now, I'd be blasting "Bad Moon Rising" because it is the song of the film. Like I mentioned, Tarantino got something from Landis. The idea of the song being contrary to expectations in the film separates this movie from the rest of the pack. (Absolutely pun intended.) The comedy plays so well because the music establishes a tone. On top of that, the story is very small. It's a personal tale that comedy is allowed to breathe. I love that there is no big quest for the thing that is going to cure David. There is no token or MacGuffin that would free the beast. Heck, David is even given the answer on how to remove the curse, to a certain extent, and he never tries hunting down any previous versions of the wolf. The story is about a cocky American kid studying abroad facing his own mortality at the expense of others. There shouldn't be comedy brewing here, but it is there regardless.
Landis is wonderful director at the height of his prime here. He knows how to handle a camera and play with expectations. An American Werewolf in London might always be one of my favorite horror movies because it knows that it doesn't have to play by rules or raise the stakes for a scream. Landis likes that you scream, but he doesn't need you to scream.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.