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Feature


Two American college students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), start a trip to Europe with a backpacking trek across the Yorkshire moors. After stopping in a rather unwelcoming pub they’re warned of a monster on the moors, and told to ‘Beware the moon, and stick to the road’. Confused by the darkness, and spooked by strange noises, David and Jack find themselves hunted by a large animal. The monster attacks and Jack is mauled to death, while David is bitten, but survives. In the hospital David is haunted by violent nightmares, and is eventually visited by the decimated corpse of his dead friend who warns him that if he doesn’t kill himself before the next full moon he will transform into a bloodthirsty werewolf.

An American Werewolf in London
We lost some good horror fans during the Howling/ American Werewolf in London wars of 1981, it was almost as devastating as the Jason/Michael Myers/Freddy Kruger massacre. I came into the battle too late to count, but was still torn nearly in twine between my loyalties to both films. Eventually I settled on John Landis’ lycanthropic activities, despite more affection for the rest of director Joe Dante’s filmography. Dante’s film features the better and more subversive script, the better cast, and the cooler werewolf design, but The Howling lacks American Werewolf’s purely visceral nature, and Rick Baker’s superior special effects. Rob Bottin’s bladder based transformations were pretty cool at the time, but look a bit silly to modern eyes, whereas Baker’s effects are more concrete, and continually physically believable. Bottin just has to take solace in being the guy that conceived the effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Poor guy.

At the time of An American Werewolf in London’s release audiences and critics were confused by the film’s mix of comedy and horror. This was partially due to perceptions based on John Landis’ previous films, which were over-the-top comedies. Still, the reaction seems downright anachronistic in the days of passé Scream sequels, and Brit-horror hybrids like Shaun of the Dead, but the mainstream wasn’t always so genre-mixed. Comedy and horror have been good bed fellows since the dawn of time, but historically one is usually the clear front runner per story. The old Abbot and Costello meet Blank horror films always leaned far towards straight humour, whereas Roger Corman and Hammer Horror productions often spoke with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, but embraced the straight horror over the underlying comedy. The ‘80s changed the horror landscape with splatstick classics like Evil Dead 2 and The Re-Animator, but even these films often skewed more towards funny than scary. For what it’s worth American Werewolf is possibly subjectively the closest to a 50/50 horror/comedy hybrid in history, save maybe ironically funny EC Comic inspired movies like Tales From The Crypt[i] and [i]Creepshow.

An American Werewolf in London
The funny thing is that even though I fancy myself some kind of jaded, tough guy horror fanatic who finds the film very amusing, American Werewolf still scares the hell out of me. It was one of my first experiences with modern horror, and one of the reasons I’ve stuck with the genre for decades now. The first act is dripping in genuine dread. The moors are both endlessly black and eerily claustrophobic, and the pub scene effectively evokes the most xenophobic real-life experiences. The act then crescendos with a visceral exploitation of mankind’s fear of being eaten. The following acts start with a series of nightmare induced jump scares, and move onto a wonderfully suspenseful tube station foot chase. Between it all is the famous transformation scene, which still stands up graphically, but more importantly it’s genuinely disturbing because of the pain Naughton’s performance, and the use of a mournful pop song to play against the visceral response.

The force of nature terror found in the film’s scarier scenes is so impressive it’s almost hard to believe John Landis had anything to do with the film. Besides The Blues Brothers (which was made directly before American Werewolf) I can’t think of a single film this technically impressive in his entire catalogue. This, coupled with the general underratedness of Innocent Blood, and the pretty goodness of his first Masters of Horror entry, Deer Woman, leads me to think, neigh demand that Landis returns to budget horror ASAP. The script plays to Landis’ greatest strengths as a writer, and is easily the best thing he’s ever written. It’s teeming with memorable dialogue, loveable characters, and it moves like a freight train. It’s not that the plot is marked as unimportant, but the simplicity of the thrust simply pours into the intrinsic nature of the whole thing. These characters are clearly doomed from the outset, and the speed of pace, abrupt finale and lack of coda all feed this sense of tragic destiny. Even the middle act dream sequences serve an important place in the super efficient structure.

An American Werewolf in London

Video


This high definition upgrade is a bit of a mixed bag. People that missed the previous DVD versions are likely to consider the transfer more miss than hit thanks to the really heavy grain, but a direct comparison reveals a definite upgrade. The details are somewhat lost in the heavy grain, but are clearer than the DVD version, especially the really dark scenes, which were a bit hard to discern. Fans will definitely notice the increase in the brightly lit transformation scene, and shockingly enough the make-up still stands up. The blacks are also clearly deeper than the pseudo-grays that accompanied previous versions. Colours are also punchier and brighter, and despite the grain clear of inconsistent compression noise. There hasn’t been any additional cleaning done between the special edition DVD and this Blu-ray, as the same artefacts are still speckled throughout the print, including somewhat distracting tracking ghosts. Concerning the grain, it seems to be a necessary evil, one that has been a part of the film since the beginning. I don’t know enough about cameras and film to say why American Werewolf is so bloody grainy, but it appears to have very little to do with lighting or colouring in this case. At the very least the grain is consistent, and I’m sure plenty of viewers will appreciate the texture it offers.

An American Werewolf in London

Audio


There are few things in this world as satisfying as hearing that first werewolf howl coming from the rear left channel. The whole of the first attack scene on the moors is a fantastic feat of re-engineering a stereo mix into a full 5.1 mix. The wolf tracks perfectly around the leads, and then attacks them full force, blaring from the centre channel. This DTS-HD track doesn’t feature anything new in terms of the stereo and surround effects, but they sound even better when presented lossless. The majority of the film fits into one of three audio categories—the aforementioned hyper-realistic werewolf attacks, centred and quiet chatting scenes, and the music heavy scenes. The basic talking scenes are largely quiet besides the chatty actors. The sound effects in these scenes are a little flat, but the vocal performances are natural and warm (not to mention centred). The musical moments fall into two categories themselves—brief transitional scenes scored by composer’s composer Elmer Bernstein, and moon themed pop music. In both cases the music is usually the central element by a pretty wide measure, especially the boredom montage, which uses Credence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’. The music isn’t remixed for the rear channels besides echo effects, but sounds positively perfect throughout the front three channels, and really pumps the LFE when needed.

An American Werewolf in London

Extras


There was a time when Universal led the pack with their made-for-DVD (sometimes Laserdisc) retrospective documentaries ( The Thing: Terror Takes Shape, The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, and The Making of Scarface, for example). It took Warner Bros, Disney, Paramount and Fox several years to get on the old bandwagon. Beware the Moon (97:30, SD) is a welcome return to this tradition. It’s not that all the anecdotes and tales from production haven’t been told before, even on past DVD release extras, but here the stories are unabridged, and there are plenty as yet untold stories mixed into the bunch. Footage from the film, other pertinent films, and footage featuring narrator/director Paul Davis visiting various locations, is cut amongst the behind the scenes footage and cast and crew interviews. Subject matter includes the decade-plus long effort to get the film made, the somewhat gutsy casting, location filming, sound effects, creature make-up, the mechanics of the big change scene, the score and pop music, shooting ‘See You Next Wednesday’ (the fake porno), filming the final action scene, MPAA censorship issues (where’s that footage?), and reception. Like those other great Universal documentaries Beware the Moon mostly follows the film’s narrative concerning the order of subject matter.

An American Werewolf in London
This ‘Full Moon’ edition release also features the special edition release’s commentary track, which features actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. There’s an awful lot of blank space on the track, but neither participant wastes time narrating the on-screen action either. Dunne being a filmmaker himself is slightly better prepared for the exercise, but Naughton has some good scene specific stuff to offer concerning the heavy make-up scenes. There’s a lot of repetition between this and the documentary, but actually seeing the film brings out a bit more in the actors, like the zoo scene, which was filmed using the real wolf cage at the real London zoo. I suggest skipping to the next scene any time things get too quiet, as the chapter stops are mostly positioned in spots the track’s participants actually feel like talking about.

‘I Walked with a Werewolf’ (07:30, HD) is another all new entry in the extras. This briefer featurette focuses on the career of make-up artist Rick Baker, with a slant towards American Werewolf and Baker’s work on the upcoming Wolfman remake. Unfortunately there’s a lot of overlap with Beware the Moon (not to mention the other Rick Baker based featurette on the disc), and recent reports have claimed that the majority of Baker’s work on The Wolfman has been replaced with CG, so this isn’t the most valuable addition to the disc. It’s followed by the left over extras from Universal’s Collector’s Edition DVD release. These extras, which include the original release EPK (05:20, SD), an interview with Landis (18:30, SD), another interview with Baker (11:20, SD), footage of Baker casting Naughton’s arm (11:00, SD), outtakes (03:00, SD), storyboards, and a photo montage, are welcome additions for the sake of completion, but don’t offer anything not already covered during Beware the Moon.

An American Werewolf in London

Overall


The transfer is very grainy (beware the grain), but An American Werewolf in London still comes highly recommended overall. The film itself continues to age gracefully and is easily revisited on minimally annual occasions. The video quality is an upgrade despite the continued issues with grain, and the DTS-HD audio is about as flawless as can be expected. Those without Blu-ray capabilities might still want to double dip the DVD version just for the fantastic new retrospective documentary Beware the Moon, which will likely stand as the final word on the subject for a while.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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