An American Werewolf in London was recently released on 4K from Arrow Video. We finally get down to answer is it a horror movie or a comedy?
Every genre has a defining movie or the movie that brought the genre back from the dead. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its special effects defined science fiction for years. Hollywood producers spent years looking for the next 2001. We can make the argument that if there was no 2001 there would be no Star Wars. More recently, 2015’s The Witch ushered in a new fandom for folk horror which hadn’t really been seen since the late 60s and 70s. Ari Aster followed suit with his second feature film the folk horror movie Midsommar. Needless to say there wouldn’t be a slasher horror genre without John Carpenter’s Halloween.
An American Werewolf in London is one of those movies. Released in 1981, the movie was a commercial and somewhat critical success. For years, the werewolf genre hadn’t really been taken seriously by the general population at large. For a moment it made liking a werewolf movie okay. Although no real onslaught of werewolf movies followed, unlike the wave of vampire movies of the 90s and 2000s, An American Werewolf in London has become an iconic horror movie regardless of the sub-genre.
Not everyone was a fan of An American Werewolf in London. Roger Ebert gave it two stars. Ebert said, “Landis never seems very sure whether he’s making a comedy or a horror film, so he winds up with genuinely funny moments acting as counterpoint to the gruesome undead.” While Janet Maslin offered backhanded compliments of the movie in her New York Times review she also thought that “too much grisly footage has been used too lightly” and the movie had a “comic detachment.” Neither of these critics are alone in their opinions. Griffin Dunne has said that he thought the combination of the comedy and horror confused the audience.
“Those sheep shit on my pack.”
There’s no arguing that there are comedy elements in An American Werewolf. However, these comedic elements are always tinged with the violence that precedes and proceeds them. When we first meet David and Jack (David Naughton, Griffin Dunne), two Americans on a three month adventure in Europe, they’re debating the merits of Debbie Klein. Though the attitude and opinions the two have of the girl may not square with modern 21st Century opinions it has the effect of putting the viewer in a comfortable position. We begin to feel like we not only know these two people, but in a way we can relate to them.
This comfortable feeling is shattered when the two hikers are kicked out of The Slaughtered Lamb only to be attacked by a werewolf a couple of scenes later. The duo are stalked and lead by an off screen presence that eventually attacks the two hikers. Jack’s mauled body is shown in all of its gory glory. It’s only one of many brutal scenes in the movie.
The comedy isn’t a salve to heal us from the horror. If anything, it’s there to make the horror elements more horrific. A very dead Jack visits David while he’s recuperating in the hospital. Jack, fresh from the grave, tells him about his funeral. He tells David his parents attended the funeral as well as the aforementioned Debbie Klein, who was so distraught she slept with a fellow classmate.
In the same scene, Jack breaks from the comedy to implore David to kill himself. This isn’t gallows humor, this is a friend telling another friend to commit suicide for the greater good of humanity. It doesn’t get any more unfunny than suicide.
“I will not be threatened by a walking meatloaf.”
Of course, David ignores Jack, who he’s still not convinced is real. Most of David’s werewolf kills happen in the second act of the movie one after another. The question has to be asked “How does a werewolf get around London without being seen?” The answer of course is “It takes the subway.” In one of the movie’s iconic scenes a man steps out of a subway car and onto the station’s platform. The scary vibes kick in the moment we realize he’s the only one at the station and the moment he hears something off screen. We know it’s werewolf David, but Gerald Bringsly only knows to run.
What makes the scene intense and scary is that we never see the wolf. The camera has become the wolf, the wolf has become the camera. It runs after Gerald down corridors, over turn stalls, and up a flight of stairs where he finally meets his end. When we are allowed to see the werewolf it’s in a mirror suspended from the ceiling. Even then it’s not the complete werewolf and it’s only for a brief moment.
David later meets Gerald and the other victims of his late night rampage in a porn theater. It’s another one of those funny but not funny scenes that confused Roger Ebert. Jack, now no more than a skeleton held together by tendons and bits of skin, introduces David to his victims. None of them are pleased to me him. One after another they offer ways to how David can end his life. Hanging is dismissed out of hand, because someone could find him before the dead was finished. Self-inflicted gunshot to the head or in the mouth, poison, and jumping in front a car are offered as alternatives. In the end, it didn’t really matter about the choice of suicide method because outside forces would take care of the pesky werewolf problem.
“It’s my sanity I am beginning to question.”
When the movie isn’t trying to be funny it’s down right bleak. David is in the hospital for three weeks after his attack. During this time he has recurring nightmares of running through a forest. Each nightmare becomes a little worse than the nightmare before. In the first nightmare David, or more precisely the camera, is running through a forest. This is followed by David killing and eating a deer which is then followed by David laying in a hospital bed in the middle of the same forest. When Nurse Alex checks in on him the camera does a full close up of David now appearing as a demon with huge fangs. It’s the back of his mind trying to tell him about things to come.
In the culmination of these nightmares, David sees his entire family machined gunned down by a gang of Nazi demons. The nightmare isn’t over until he sees Alex being stabbed multiple times by one of the Nazi demons. Some lighter comedic elements were almost required after these harrowing scenes to bring the audience’s anxiety levels down. Again, these comedic elements only serve to set the audience up for the next horrific scene.
“A naked American stole my balloons.”
In his original review Roger Ebert thought An American Werewolf in London felt “unfinished” and that the ending was “sudden, arbitrary, and anticlimactic.” The ending of the movie doesn’t get any more finished than its protagonist being killed in the final scene of the movie. Ebert, whether he knew it or not at the time, was on to something that would not be realized until years later. Every genre movie today is “unfinished” because almost every genre movie is set up, in some cases the setup is strenuous as best, for sequels to follow. An American Werewolf in London, however, was not set up for a squeal (Unfortunately, one did follow sixteen years later).
The ending was anything but “sudden, arbitrary, and anticlimactic.” Everything in the movie builds towards an unhappy ending. Jack’s warnings that David is going to kill, David questioning his sanity, his realization that he had killed and would kill again, and even his halfhearted attempt to cut his wrists with a pocket knife all point to an ending that David doesn’t live to see. It’s in the movie if Ebert only chose to see it.
Ebert’s final clue should have been the chaos of the final scene. David’s transformation into the wolf causes a panic throughout the crowds walking through Piccadilly Square. The result is a Blues Brother level car crash, pile up scene. The scene itself is neither funny nor scary but it is gory. A police man’s head is ripped off and thrown across the street. Cars flip and land on people. A bus crushes pedestrians as it crashes into other vehicles. Whereas the cars crashing in The Blues Brothers’ mall scene was funny, the scene in Piccadilly Square is complete chaos.
Earlier in the movie David dismisses a thought he had that a werewolf could only be killed by someone he loves. This notion is proven incorrect in the final scene of the movie, the “sudden” ending Ebert refers to in his review. A SWAT like team of English police officers corner the wolf in an alley where they shoot the beast, David, dead. Ebert never expands on what he meant by anticlimactic. If he wanted an ending where the beast fights back or love conquers the day he was clearly watching a different movie than the rest of the audience.
In an attempt to save David, Alex, the love interest in the movie, runs down the alley. We don’t see the police officers behind her but we hear the shots from their guns. What we see is Alex crying because she not only saw the wolf get shot she sees the wolf change back to David. The camera stays on David’s body long enough for the audience to register that they are seeing his naked and dead body before snapping to the end credits and The Marcels’ “Blue Moon.”
Ironically enough, forty years after Ebert’s negative review, the website that still bears his name heaped praises on the movie. The two reviews, separated by years, illustrate how a movie given distance and the audience can grow into something more than it was originally conceived to be. Maybe the Roger Eberts of the world are not the audience for a movie like An American Werewolf in London.
“Life mocks me even in death.”
Arrow Video’s 4K release is basically a reissue of its limited edition Blu-ray released in 2019. The exact same bonus features are included. The amazing poster by Graham Humphreys, and reproduction lobby cards are still included. The same booklet included with the Blu-ray release is also included. It bears repeating that the articles by Craig Ian Mann and Simon Ward are some really well written pieces on the movie.The booklet contains one new addition. The last page, “About the Restoration,” gives the briefest of details how Arrow Video restored the movie to 4K.
Obviously the big sell with the release is the 4K restoration of the movie. 4K itself is a rather interesting format. It seems physical media collectors are always being told physical media is dying and every year sales are lower than the year before. Yet, it seems more and more new movies are coming out on the UHD, 4K format and older movies are being transferred and restored to 4K at a quick pace.
Like any movie being restored the end result is dependent on the quality of the print being used. Arrow Video says it restored the movie from the original 35mm camera negative. No explanation is given how the original negative was stored. If the transfer is dependent on the quality of the print, the quality of the print is dependent on how it was stored. A lot of older movies, especially movies from the early years of Hollywood, were stored in a manner that would make even the hardest cinephile cringe. We can assume the print was kept in good condition because the results are more positive than negative.
There are some scenes in American Werewolf of London that do not meet the expectations of the 4K hype. The opening scene of the truck bringing David and Jack to their untimely doom still suffers from being grainy and blurry. This is not the result of lighting or any other camera work done in the original production. The scene of David meeting his victims in the porn theater is still rather dark. The only details that can be clearly made out is the blood on the victims. It would have been nice to see how gory Gerald, the subway victim, was that Jack wanted to save him for last because he was a “fresh kill.”
The day scenes and other well lighted scenes benefit the greatest from the 4K treatment. The final scene of David the werewolf literally tearing through Piccadilly Square pops off the screen. Audiences can now see a lot more carnage in a lot more detail. Possibly the best scene is the famous transformation scene. We can now really see the finer details of the transformation. The face being pushed out is a definite highlight, but the 4K enthusiast should really pay attention to the hair growing out of David. To be fair, all the makeup effects are great.
The effects were so ground breaking at the time the Academy of Arts and Sciences were forced to create the Best Makeup category for the 1982 ceremony. Of course, none other than horror master Vincent Price was a presenter for the award that Rick Baker won. Though the transformation is amazing it’s David Naughton that ultimately sells it to the audience.
Overall, Arrow Video’ 4K release of An American Werewolf in London is the best you’ve ever seen the movie in any format. If you don’t own the movie now is the time to get yourself a copy. You won’t regret it for a blood dripping moment.