An American Werewolf in London

Digitally remastered for a Halloween re-release (although it had its UK debut at FrightFest in August), An American Werewolf is not just a great horror movie, but a great movie period. And it's one that's best enjoyed on the big screen.

Two American students, David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne) are on a backpacking holiday through Europe. While walking through the damp, bleak and blisteringly cold English countryside, they pop into a village pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – to warm up and grab a bite to eat, but receive a frosty welcome. Taking their leave, they are advised to stick to the roads and keep off the moors. "Beware the moon," they're told. Of course, being brash Americans, they don't take any notice and soon find themselves wandering off the path ... where they are attacked by a werewolf. Jack is killed, but David is saved by the villagers (although badly injured) and awakens three weeks later in a London hospital, where he finds himself in the care of the beautiful nurse Alex (Agutter). Over the coming days, David finds himself suffering terrible nightmares, and being visited by the walking corpse of his friend. Jack warns him that he now carries the curse of the lycanthrope, and is doomed to become a werewolf at the full moon.

Those who've seen the film before know what comes next; for those who haven't – can I ask why? It came out in 1981, so it's not as if you haven't had the chance! American Werewolf is a true classic of the genre, being one of the few horror film that also succeeds in being terribly, terribly funny (although Landis keeps insisting it's an all-out horror film and not a comedy). It won an Academy Award for make-up supremo Rick Baker, who managed to pull off the now-legendary transformation scene (where David turns into the werewolf) using practical effects only – not a smidgeon of CGI to be seen anywhere, which wouldn't happen these days. There are lots of nice touches – the soundtrack consisting only of songs that all have the word "moon" in the title, Landis slipping in his trademark See You next Wednesday reference, and a climax involving a multiple-cars-and-buses crash that recalls his earlier hit, The Blues Brothers.

It's a modern take on the classic werewolf story, but what really appeals to me about An American Werewolf is the way it holds together so well as a film. The humour is timeless and very funny, while the horror is about as nasty and gruesome as films got back in the 1980s. It's nicely paced, with a great story and lovely dialogue. The performance are all first rate, particularly Dunne as the decaying Jack. But it's in the relationship between the lovers played by Naughton and Agutter that the film's heart really lies, which makes the finale so much more poignant – and tragic.

An American Werewolf in London at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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