Great Moments in Cinema – An American Werewolf in London
Vampires and zombies may be all the rage these days, but for my money, it’s the werewolf that occupies the top spot in the monster pantheon (okay, maybe second place, right behind Godzilla…but that’s another editorial altogether). Unfortunately, the number of good werewolf movies can be counted on one hand, and even then you wouldn’t have to use all of your fingers. Also, I can tell you right up front that not a single one of those movies has the word “Twilight” in the title, so don’t even ask. Anyway, while Lon Chaney, Jr. kicked the subgenre off in style with The Wolfman (1941) and Joe Dante lovingly tweaked the legend with The Howling (1981), neither of them can hold a candle to the best werewolf movie ever made, John Landis’s funny and frightening masterpiece, An American Werewolf in London (1981). It’s a movie that perfectly balances humor and horror, but more than that, it contains one of the most iconic transformation sequences in movie history, made possible by Rick Baker’s incredible special effects wizardry.
As the film opens, we are introduced to David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), two American college students who are trekking across Europe, and have finally reached rainy and overcast Scotland via the back of a rickety old truck packed with sheep. Continuing their journey on foot, the duo pass through a small hamlet, and they decide to stop and warm their tired bones at a small pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. While there, Jack commits a bit of a faux pas by asking the locals why they have a pentagram painted on the wall. In response, the locals chase the boys out of the pub, but also urge them to stick to the road and stay the hell away from the moors. Furthermore, the feisty Scots send the Americans packing with a cryptic warning to “Beware the moon.” Of course, since no snaggletoothed sheepshaggers are gonna tell an American what he can or can’t do, by God, David and Jack promptly ignore the warning and march off onto the moors beneath the light of the full moon. In no time flat, they are set upon by a large, hairy beast that tears Jack to shreds, and then goes after David, who is saved in the nick of time by the locals, but not before he suffers a vicious bite wound. Just before he passes out, though, David looks over at the creature that attacked him, but instead of a wolf the size of a Volkswagen, all he sees is a naked man with bullet wounds in the exact spots where the creature was shot.
Sometime later, David wakes up in the hospital, being cared for by Alex, a super sexy nurse (played by the super sexy Jenny Agutter) who takes a liking to the young American and lets him recuperate back at her place. And by recuperate, I mean have sex with her in the shower. Anyway, David is visited by the decomposing spirit of his dead friend, Jack, who informs David that he was bitten by a werewolf, and now he is cursed to transform into a bloodthirsty beast during the next full moon. Jack goes on to say that the only way David can break the curse is if he kills himself, but David understandably doesn’t want to that. At first, David tries to ignore Jack’s dire warning, telling himself that he’s just suffering from hallucinations brought on by the stress of everything that’s happened to him during his time abroad. But then, during the full moon, David undergoes a painful and altogether horrific transformation, turning into a vicious beast that is driven by a ravenous hunger for human blood. Now, David must race against time to find a cure for his otherworldly condition, before he transforms and kills again. Unfortunately, it looks like Jack might be right, and David’s only way out is death.
While the entire film is pretty great from beginning to end, featuring a witty but frightening script, great performances, excellent music, and absolutely incredible special effects, An American Werewolf in London is mostly remembered for the stunning transformation sequence, and with good reason. It comes out of nowhere, completely blindsiding the viewer with a sequence that is wholly terrifying, but grounding it within a rather mundane setting. More than that, though, it is a testament to Rick Baker’s skills as a special effects artist, but is also a prime example of why practical effects will always trump CGI effects. Indeed, one simply has to compare the transformation sequence in this film to the limp and altogether weightless one from it the vastly inferior sequel to realize that there truly is no comparison.
The sequence in question begins innocently enough, with a montage of David trying to keep himself busy at Alex’s flat while she is at work, all set to the song “Blue Moon” performed by Sam Cooke. David finally settles down and starts to read, but the camera pans over to the window to reveal the full moon hanging low in the sky. Suddenly, David screams and begins to tear off his clothes, his body wracked with pain. He looks at his hand and stares at it in horror as it begins to elongate and stretch, his bones popping and squealing in the process. Coarse hairs sprout along his back, and David collapses to the ground in pain. His body continues to transform, with his waist slimming, his feet stretching, and is spine shifting to a new position. The whole time David screams and calls for help, and pleads for his friend Jack to come and save him from this new horror that has descended upon him. David’s throat alters to the point where he can no longer speak, only utter guttural snarls and terrifying howls, and his face turns into a snout and his teeth grow into sharp fangs. Finally, his eyelids spring open to reveal inhuman yellow eyes, informing the viewer that David’s transformation is complete, and that he has become more beast than man. His mind gone, David leaves the safety of Alex’s apartment, and embarks upon a horrific killing spree across London.
David’s transformation is one of the most famous sequences in film history, and is so well done that it garnered Rick Baker the first ever Oscar for special effects. More than that, though, it is one of the most enduring sequence ever put to film, holding the same power over viewers today as it did back when it was first released. The reason for this is because the effects are so, well…effective. When combined with Naughton’s exceptional performance, the transformation sequence becomes powerful and credible. We are made to believe that David is turning into a hound from hell because it is occurring practically, and the realistic effects give the whole sequence a sense of weight and authenticity that cannot be replicated by CGI, no matter how many pixels are dancing across the screen. The reality is furthered by the altogether unsettling sound effects, which leave the viewer feeling disturbed and on edge. All of these factors combine to create sequence that feels real despite the completely unreal nature of the whole situation, and thus it works a sort of magic on the viewer that simply cannot be matched by a cartoon created entirely on a computer.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that CGI is inherently bad, or that practical effects are automatically better than computer generated visual effects, because that is not the case. There are plenty of terrible practical effects, just like there are plenty of great CGI effects. It’s just that practical effects achieve a sense of reality that CGI has not been able to replicate, at least not yet. Furthermore, CGI is often overused by filmmakers, and often cheapens the overall reality of the film. Seriously, look at a lot of the CGI heavy films of the last 10 years, and I can pretty much guarantee you that they don’t hold up in the same way that a lot of older films with practical effects do. CGI is at its best when it is used to enhance practical effects, not replace them. Just look at a film like Jurassic Park for proof of that. It is just over 20 years old, but the effects still work, because the dinosaurs were created using a combination of CGI and Stan Winston’s phenomenal animatronics effects. It’s why An American Werewolf in London is revered over 30 years after its initial release, and why An American Werewolf in Paris is largely forgotten. We believe in the reality created by An American Werewolf in London. The same cannot be said for its mediocre follow-up.
Unfortunately, outside of director Neil Marshall’s fun genre-bending action horror flick Dog Soldiers, there hasn’t really been a great (or even a really good one, if we’re being completely honest) werewolf flick since Landis unleashed his magnum opus way back in 1981. Even worse, one of the most iconic monsters in horror has been overshadowed by completely neutered versions of vampires and other creatures that go bump in the night, all of which have become overexposed to one degree or another. Werewolves have remained on the sidelines for the better part of three decades, and when they do step into the spotlight, it’s usually in an embarrassing mess that is best left forgotten (see the aforementioned An American Werewolf in Paris for proof of that). Thankfully, even if there is never another good werewolf movie released from now until the end of time (which, given the genre’s track record is a distinct possibility), we will always have John Landis’s superb film to show audiences what can be achieved with the genre.