Sunday 17 September 2017

1,001 Films: "An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

Three-and-a-half decades on from its first release, John Landis's An American Werewolf in London remains good for both a giggle and a scream. Two backpacking buddies are roaming the Yorkshire moors when they're set about by a lycanthrope: one (Griffin Dunne) is savaged and killed, while the other (David Naughton), rescued by locals after being bitten on the cheek, is flown to London for treatment. While in hospital, he's plagued by violent dreams and understandably stunned when his chum, face ripped to shreds, reappears at his bedside, warning of worse things to come, but not before asking "Can I have a piece of your toast?" 

The best - and most touching - joke in the whole movie is that these friends resume their conversations where they left off, but it's typical of a film where affection trumps cynicism every time. Although clearly spawned by a fondness for American (more specifically, Universal) horror - there's an early reference to The Wolf Man - the film is finally a broadminded American's love letter to the British landscape, weather, odd hospitality (witness The Slaughtered Lamb, home to Brian Glover, David Bradley and a young Rik Mayall), habits (hence multiple tea jokes), television and women: they don't come much more English than Jenny Agutter in nurses' whites, even if Landis shows his hand by having her fall instantly for his hero's transatlantic charms. 

It is, ultimately, as British as any film of this period: the Trafalgar Square sequence alone offers Alan Ford as a cab driver and Chief Superintendent Brownlow from The Bill in an early role as a humble constable, plus one of the most mysterious pieces of background graffiti ever filmed (seen on the wall of the phone box Naughton uses to call home) in "GARFATH DOES PARTIES" - what the hell did that ever mean? All the same, you can tell it was directed by an American from the way this werewolf doesn't seem to give two figs about class - his victims include a haut-bourgeois couple, three tramps and a banker - and from the way Landis succeeds in converting Piccadilly Circus into the venue for a demolition derby.

It holds up because Landis gets the simple stuff right: he makes the horror resonant and startling - credit make-up whizz Rick Baker for a hairy transformation that remains striking even in these days of CGI modifications and 200 cuts per minute - while the comedy, such as Naughton waking up in the nud, or the dubbed-English porn, remains genuinely funny. Spin-offs include a run of far limper VHS rentals (Vamp, The Monster Squad, Teen Wolf), a tardy sequel that had Julie Delpy to recommend it and not much else, and a renewal of interest in a Warren Zevon recording from 1978 - but, despite the prominence afforded to "Bad Moon Rising" on the soundtrack, no Creedence Clearwater Revival revival.  

An American Werewolf in London is available on DVD through Universal Pictures.


  1. Hello, fellow blogger, hope this finds you well. I believe I have partially solved the mystery of "Garfath Does Parties." At the very least, I have joined the elite league of people whose blog appears when others Google "Garfath Does Parties." Cheers.

    1. Thank you for the legwork and the intel! That clears up another of the world's mysteries - only another 64 million or so to go now...