For me, the top werewolf movie of all time is An American Werewolf in London directed and written by the great John Landis. Released in 1981, it was by far the most terrifying and realistic werewolf transformation ever produced on film. Rick Baker, who was responsible for leading the transformation effects in the famous scene, was hailed as a great talent – winning an Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. He joined the ranks of Christopher Tucker (The Elephant Man – 1980) and Dick Smith (The Exorcist – 1973). This was all done without the aid of computer graphics as you see in films today.
I was just a kid when I watched the film in the theater. I couldn’t look at the screen during the main character’s transformation scene. It was a metamorphosis too ghastly to watch. The main character David Kessler, played by David Naughton, endured great physical pain as he transformed into the vicious Lycan. It was too much for me as he cried in agony. I thought it would never end. When he was finally done, the werewolf looked amazing and horrifying. It was perfect. It certainly left me in shambles for the next month. I hardly slept.
One of the most recognizable effects in the movie, was the werewolf’s howl. It was different from all other werewolf movies up until that time. Even now in 2016, it is still unique. The only other place I heard it was in an old arcade game called Altered Beast by Sega Entertainment. When the warrior transforms into a wolf, the same howl from the movie was heard.
The film begins in the English countryside where two American students are backpacking across the York Moors. David Kessler and his best friend Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), arrive in a small village where they step into the pub for a drink. When they notice a pentagram (a five pointed upside down star, usually associated with the occult) on the wall, they make the mistake of asking about it. This is the catalyst that sends the young students back into the moors by the uncompassionate locals. Their only warning, not to stray from the road. Ultimately they encounter the werewolf. It’s a graphic scene. Jack is killed and David is fatally wounded. He wakes in a hospital in London and eventually ends up staying with Alex, the nurse who cared for him. This leads to a romantic sub plot that becomes important at the end of the film.
What I find interesting about the story is that we’re dealing with a curse. It’s not an infection as today’s film market tends to lean toward in regards to causality. It brings more than just the obvious werewolf metamorphosis. He’s plagued by visits of his dead victims. They torment him and suggest ways to end his unfortunate circumfstance. They serve as his conscious and moral compass. He is also afflicted with nightmares of disfigured and monstrous Nazi soldiers. In the nightmare scene, they invade his family home killing everyone in it and end up burning his house down. The scene seems strange and random. But it worked for the movie. It added to David’s spiral into madness as the curse consumes him. Landis’ writing is superb in this film. He’s a veteran screenwriter and director, best known for his comedy cult classic, Animal House. He brings comedic elements into the film without losing the horror aspect of the story. It made me feel that David was still fully human. He’s a poor young man in a foreign country. His family is on the other side of the world and he’s dealing with the most unfortunate of events. Talk about being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
An American Werewolf in London is truly a cult classic. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing a great film.