Pros:Spot-on comedy, effective horror, amazing special effects.
Cons:A comedy-laced film about a werewolf might not be everyone's thing.
The Bottom Line: Horror and comedy have rarely been blended better.
“Don’t go around tonight, well it’s bound to take your life. There’s a bad moon on the rise.”
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In 1981, two films were released that caught a strong following, and to this day are regarded as horror classics. Early in the year, Joe Dante’s “The Howling” offered a more comedic take on the werewolf myth. This was vastly different from previous incarnations of cinematic lycanthropy, but later that year, another comedic werewolf film joined “The Howling” in the horror pantheon.
David and Jack are two American college students on a three month backpacking trip through Europe. Their decision to begin their trip in the rural part of England does not pay off, as they leave a tavern that offered something less than a warm welcome only to be attacked by a large fanged entity within the moors. David wakes up at a hospital in London to find that Jack was killed and he himself has been badly injured. Over time, he begins pursuing a romance with the young nurse who is attending to him.
Things seem to be improving for David, all things considered, when a mangled but laid-back incarnation of Jack visits him from beyond the grave. After a casual greeting, Jack informs him that their attacker, a werewolf, bit him. This means David will become a wolf himself whenever there is a full moon. As one might imagine, chaos ensues.
Unlike “The Howling“, which tells a more-or less straight-forward horror tale and has the comedic overtones hovering over the proceedings, “An American Werewolf in London” starts things off on a comedic note, then shifts to its more horror-oriented elements, alternating between the two early on, and slowly intertwining them as the story progresses. Because the two are largely independent, we can laugh at humorous scenes, but others can produce such effective tension. The humor is hilarious, and the horror is top-notch.
The tone of the film is amplified by a broad variety of music. All songs fittingly have the word “moon” in the title. As you may have guessed from the above quote, my personal favorite is “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
An often overlooked strength of the film is the chemistry between David and his English girlfriend Alex. While peripheral to the main story, this adds a pleasant element to a tale that, while funny, has a building sense of dread.
No review of “AWIL” would be complete without mentioning the make-up effects of Rick Baker. The deteriorating state of Jack as the film progresses is thoroughly gruesome, but in the context used is also hilarious. While used judiciously, the gore effects generally are quite impressive.
The real hilight of the effects is the transformation scene, though. One moment David is reading in his girlfriend’s living room after a day spent pacing around her flat, the next he’s mutating into a canine beast driven by pure instinct and an insatiable hunger, and we’re riveted by every frame of his metamorphosis.
A lesser director than John Landis would likely have put all the focus on the make-up, but fortunately Landis was on hand to ensure that the focus was on creating a genuinely tense atmosphere. The lion’s share (or would that be wolf’s share?) of the horror takes place off camera or in extreme darkness, so when Baker’s exquisite effects are finally displayed, they are that much more effective. This, combined with outstanding performances by David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, and a particularly funny turn from Jon Woodvine, and you get a horror classic of the first order.
Should this one be missed? As the young boy Benjamin would say, “NO!”
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