John Landis’s horror-comedy, An American Werewolf in London, follows the tale of two backpackers, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Duance) as they travel through England and are subsequently attacked by a werewolf. The rest of the film that follows tracks the characters and their respective responses to the attack. Though comedic, Landis’s story works better is more often scary and tragic.
A lot of the humor works because it feels so “normal” and nonchalant in the absurd circumstances. Characters reveal serious information in very calm ways, which makes them feel like jokes, but the juxtaposition with the seriousness of the situation creates an unsettling feeling in the scenes that only underpins the horror. The sound choice in the movie also helped amplify this feeling and disjuncture. A lot of the songs were werewolf related and up-beat and positive in contrast to the macabre scenes proceeding the same. Often times I’d be laughing, but then feel dread upon thinking of the actual implication of what’s being said.
Furthermore, the special effects in the movie are phenomenal. Rick Baker’s make up work and practical design work makes the werewolf transformation in this movie the scariest and most spectacular I’ve seen- and the movie has now been out for close to 4 decades. It was refreshing to see real makeup instead of an overabundance of CGI.
The atmosphere of the movie, especially in the third act, feels out of step because the comedic and terrifying elements are hard to balance out. It works for the most part, but some of the more serious aspects of the movie felt less so because of the inconsistent tonal transition. This in turn made the end of the movie feel more abrupt to me, but the more I think about it, the more it makes the ending feel somber.
TLDR: An American Werewolf in London is funny and tragic. For the most part, the comedic bits serve to highlight and drive home the absurdity and make the tragic nature of the situation more amenable. It comes off unevenly at some points, but the film remains enjoyable and gripping till the end.
Final Rating: 8.7/10. If you enjoy irony, comedic juxtaposition, or enjoy great visual effects design I’d check this flick out. It was surprisingly to the point and emotionally resonant.
Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!