Movie Matters – E06 – An American Werewolf in London (1981)

[00:00:00] JC: Welcome to Just Curious Media. This is Movie Matters and I’m Jason Connell. Today, I’m talking about An American Werewolf in London, the 1981 horror movie written & directed by John Landis. It’s 7.5 rating on IMDb and it’s 87% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film tells the story of two American students who are attacked by a werewolf while backpacking through England. Now Landis wrote the screenplay following something he had observed while working as a production assistant on the film Kelly’s Heroes. While driving in the countryside of Yugoslavia with a colleague, they came across a group of gypsies. What made it unique was that they were performing a ritual on a man being buried so that he would not “rise from the grave.” This gave Landis the idea for a film in which a man would confront the undead.

And that’s exactly what he achieved with An American Werewolf in London. The main character, David Kessler, played by David Naughton, survives the deadly werewolf attack in the beginning of the film which kills his friend, Jack Goodman, played by Griffin Dunne. Throughout the film, he’s revisited by Jack who continues to decompose as he’s trapped in an undead state. The scenes are both grotesque and humorous as Landis directed Dunne to play his role with a positive and upbeat demeanor which was quite unique for this type of movie at the time.

Landis even commented on how people always mistake the movie as a comedy “It’s not a comedy. People keep calling it a comedy, it’s very funny I hope, but it is a horror film. We meet these guys in a truckload of sheep. This is not subtle. I mean these boys are dead by the end of the movie. That’s not really a happy tale”. And Landis is absolutely correct, you’re captivated by this film but in no way, shape or form does it feel like a comedy. I also want to point out that audiences must have felt David & Jack were in grave danger upon entering the aptly named The Slaughtered Lamb pub, in the beginning of the film.

But what really helped this film become an instant classic was the ground-breaking make-up & creature design by seven-time Oscar-winner Rick Baker. Of course, he would achieve his first Academy Award for his work on this film as he & Landis were pushing their limits and bringing a new style of monster movie & special effects to cinema. And the most riveting & terrifying scene in the film, and coincidentally one of the best in cinematic history in terms of practical special effects, is when David turns into the werewolf for the first time.

Landis’s idea of the transformation was a visceral one, he wanted to portray the pain from such a significant mutation. “I always thought if your body is gonna go through such a huge change, it’s gonna hurt. I wanted it to be painful.” When it came to the audience, he wanted to evoke different emotions; the transformation had to be “horrifying, but also morbidly funny, funny peculiar and funny ha-ha; tragic, raw, terrible, tortuous, grotesque all of these things, yet fascinating rather than repulsive.”

Another demand from Landis regarding the transformation was that the scene had to be shot in bright light. This put an even brighter spotlight on Rick Baker’s brilliance as he couldn’t mask his effects with the shadows of a dimly lit set. The end result is an iconic two-minute sequence that will be admired for decades to come.

Another incredible & memorable scene was the ending sequence shot in London’s famous Piccadilly Circus. It was the first film allowed to shoot there in 15 years and only occurred because London’s Metropolitan Police Service was so impressed with Landis’s previous film, The Blues Brothers. Therefore the production was granted a limited filming permit in which traffic was stopped only three times for two-minute increments allowing them to film the countless vehicle stunts. Having learned that, it’s no surprise that Landis chose a breakneck pace to captivate & disorient the viewer with quick cuts of double-decker busses spinning out, cars crashing, and people getting run over as the werewolf terrorizes the city.

Beyond the wonderful performances by Naughton & Dunne, who both endured countless hours of time in the make-up chair, John Woodvine & Jenny Agutter were great and essential to the story as Dr. J.S. Hirsch & Nurse Alex Price.  Another key component in the film was it’s ironically upbeat soundtrack which consists of songs with the word “moon” in their titles. There were three different versions of Blue Moon, Van Morrison’s Moondance & Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising. Plus the original score was done by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein. The duration of which was only seven minutes, but it truly helped give the film a more dramatic feel.

Now a few fun facts:

Landis tried to use the Cat Stevens’ song Moonshadow, but Stevens objected to the themes and subject matter and did not want his song connected to the film. Landis thought this was hilarious, because, as he pointed out, Moonshadow is actually about killing and dismemberment.

In order to get the movie an R-rating, Landis had to tone down the sex scene and cut out a part where a piece of toast fell out of Jack’s undead throat. He also edited out a scene where the werewolf kills the three homeless men after preview audiences freaked out.

John Landis & Rick Baker had several disagreements over the design of the werewolf. Baker wanted it to be a two-legged werewolf while Landis wanted a “four-legged hound from hell”. Needless to say, Landis got his way and the rest is movie history.

So I highly recommend watching this movie for the first time or to revisit it. And please feel free to tell me what you think.  You can contact me directly through our Instagram, which is @Movie__Matters. So thank you so much for listening and I’d greatly appreciate it if you could subscribe, rate & review the show wherever you get your podcasts.  You can also stream every episode, as well as our other shows, from our website which is JustCuriousMedia.com.

So without further ado, please enjoy An American Werewolf in London.

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