Dusted off, digitally remastered and available on Blu-ray for the first time (although this new version had its first UK outing at FrightFest in August, with Mr Landis himself sitting in the audience), An American Werewolf is not just a great horror movie, but a great movie period. And this lovely new version is really about as good as it gets.
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.
EXTRAS ***** The best special feature – and the one that's absolutely worth buying this Blu-ray edition for – is the fantastic feature-length documentary Beware the Moon, by London filmmaker Paul Davis. Beware the Moon debuted at the London FrightFest in 2009, and I was lucky enough to catch it on the big screen. You you won't find a better, more passionate homage to a horror film anywhere. Also on this disc is the featurette I Walked with a Werewolf, which looks at how Rick Baker designed his Oscar-winning special make-up effects; Making An American Werewolf in London: An Original Featurette, which is a short (just five minutes) promotional piece for the film made at the time of its release; interviews with Landis and Baker; outtakes, storyboards, and montages; Casting of the Hand featurette, which is archive footage from Baker's workshop as they cast David Naughton's hand in 1980; and to top it all off, an audio commentary from stars Naughton and Dunne.