Horror. Worldview. Faith.

An American Werewolf in London – Review

An American Werewolf in London – Review

Jan 29, 2011

reviewed by Skot
directed by John Landis, 1981

I really want to love the werewolf horror movie sub-genre.  I love wolves.  I even investigated getting a wolf for a pet one time.  Shape-shifters, that is, human beings who can physically change into animals, are a part of folklore traditions the world over.  Hey, the notion of human beings who transform into animals is very cool.  And of all the animals, wolves are among the coolest.  Which animal would you like to become, a platypus?  The trouble is that while I like the idea of werewolf movies, I have not seen many that I truly like.  So often, either the effects are cheesy or the plot is weak.  There are certain werewolf films that horror movie fans tend to like which leave me unmoved.  There are great vampire flicks, great ghost story flicks, great zombie flicks, great slasher flicks, great monster flicks and great exorcism flicks.  But I am still waiting to find a really great werewolf picture.  An American Werewolf in London does not quite fit that bill, though I do like the movie quite a lot.  From what I’ve seen, it’s as good as they get.  It’s a fun ride, and yet falls short in an important way.

The werewolf myth is powerful.  What is the core of human nature?  What makes us civilized beings?  Are we really just animals at heart, underneath the clothes.  Some of the films that do try to take these philosophical questions seriously happen to be dull or overly predictable.  Others, such as American Werewolf in London, do not fail to entertain but cannot manage to scrape the narrative very far beneath the surface.

Two young American men, David and Jack, are backpacking through Europe, traipsing across the north of England before heading to Italy.  One of the best scenes is at the beginning when, on a damp cold night, the Americans stumble upon ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’ public house.  Clearly unwelcome, they are sent on their way with dire warnings such as, “Keep to the road,” “Stay off the moors,” and “Beware the moon.”  Paying no attention to the warnings, David and Jack soon find themselves lost under a full moon being terrorized by an unseen howling beast.  Jack is killed by the monster.  David is injured but is rescued and taken to a hospital in London.

As David recovers, he enters a romance with English nurse, Alex, played by Jenny Agutter.  At the same time, an investigation is started to find the truth about his friend’s death and other mysterious slayings.  David’s deceased friend, Jack, makes a couple of post-mortem appearances to him in order to warn him that he will transform into a werewolf at the next full moon and the only way to prevent himself from slaughtering many innocent people is to take his own life.  Apparently, part of the werewolf’s curse is that all whose lives he takes are doomed to wander the earth as the undead, lost souls, until the werewolf is killed.  Jack pleads with David to prevent further suffering and free those already affected by doing himself in.

David remains unconvinced, until it is too late.  Then to prevent himself from harming Alex, he unsuccessfully attempts to get himself arrested. The high point comes when he transforms and brings havoc upon the public in Piccadilly Circus in London.  His nurse/lover Alex goes to find him.  The police and medical establishment are after him.  Finally, David in wolf form, gets chased and trapped in an alley.


Some reviewers have expressed dissatisfaction with the abrupt ending.  It does conclude sort of unexpectedly.  David is killed; you see Alex weep for a few seconds, and then BOOM, it’s the credits.  Director John Landis chose to end the movie right at the moment of climax, without allowing time for the repercussions to unfold.  The more I think about it, the less the suddenness of the ending bothers me.  Jack has been trying for the bulk of the movie to convince David to end his own life.  David considered it a few times; tried to say goodbye to his family; even put a Swiss Army Knife to his wrist at one point.  When David is trapped in an alley and Alex appeals to him, there is a moment when the eyes of the werewolf may recognize her.  But then it lunges to attack and is pumped full of bullets by the police.  And BOOM, it’s over.  Maybe some viewers see this as nihilistic.  We’re often trained to think by the cinema that the love of a good woman can rehabilitate a wayward man.  But here the bestial nature seems to win out.  That’s not how I read the picture, however.  I do think wolf-man David has at least a spark of recognition when Alex says his name.  His lurch to attack her is not the triumph of animal ferocity.  It is David doing the most civilized thing he can.  He gives his life, suicide by cop, to save the life of the one he loves.  He cannot be changed or fixed or improved.  A werewolf cannot be domesticated.  He can only kill or be killed.  To protect Alex, to end the cycle of violence, and perhaps to liberate the lost souls he has imprisoned by earlier attacks, he forces the police to put him down.


The transformation effects were exceptionally good for their time and actually hold up rather well.  For my money, they still beat the CGI wizardry you get today.  It’s not scary, but it is disturbing.

Director John Landis understands that horror and comedy are not antithetical.  In fact, they often work well together.  It takes a clever storyteller to find the right balance between horror and humor.  Too much either direction can fail.  An American Werewolf in London is a premium example of horrible ideas presented with just enough tongue-in-cheek to keep the audience from tuning out, either by revulsion or boredom.  Hand-in-hand with the light touch is the movie’s soundtrack.  It features three versions of Blue Moon, Moon Dance by Van Morrison and Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival.

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