“An American Werewolf in London” is almost the perfect horror comedy and romance that never quite relies on either genre to move its story and deliver its horror. That’s pretty shocking considering John Landis was often a director known for comedies. Occasionally dark and almost always adult, Landis was once a man known for rich and iconic comedy films. “Animal House” and “The Kentucky Fried Movie.” Need I say more? With “An American Werewolf in London,” the stark comedy can often incite laughter, but it’s so dark it almost feels like awkward laughter most of the time. It’s just uncomfortable laughter because when there’s a laugh to be had, it’s at the expense of someone or something gruesome. When something is horrific it has a true sense of humanity behind it and there isn’t a cheap play for gross out sequences.
When character David mauls someone he’s inevitably forced to endure what he’s done through horrific visions of his gradually rotting victims who haunt him and signal his eventual transformation in to a merciless beast. It’s funny, but it’s also filled with thick dread that David simply can not fight this force given to him after an attack while traveling. When David is nearly mauled to death in the opening it’s dripping horror because character David and his friend Jack are being stalked by a very ferocious (and strategically off-screen) werewolf in the countryside who is so fast they can’t even outrun or outwit it. It’s possibly the most horrifying moment in the film that serves as a harrowing pre-cursor to David’s eventual rampage as the monster. Because as David and Jack try to run away to escape its clutches, the werewolf is so speedy it’s circling the duo faster than they realize. Most of all, when we view David’s transformation in to the werewolf it’s terrifying, grotesque, awe inducing, and absolutely heartbreaking.
For the most part director John Landis skirts the exploits of David Kessler’s transformation in to a werewolf with a bit of a comedic twist, occasionally opting for tension. When the werewolf is not stalking the tubes of London, David eventually wakes up naked in a zoo or some other locale and it’s played for laughs. But Director Landis eventually completely turns the dark and sardonic comedy on its head providing us with a wake up call that what David is going through is in fact horrifying. Not only is David afflicted with a gruesome and utterly homicidal curse, but when he completely morphs in to the monstrous beast before our very eyes, it’s so painful that we can no longer find humor in what’s occurring. Not only does the werewolf find humans to feast on and tear to shreds, but the mean who forms in to the beast every time there’s a full moon is suffering and there isn’t a thing we can do about it.
When David Kessler transforms in to the werewolf before our eyes it’s mesmerizing, horrifying, and just demented. And we’re not laughing anymore. Because he’s an actual human being who is crying and begging for help underneath his contorting human body. Bones snap, spinal cords twist, intestines shift, and we can do nothing but watch his suffering from afar and hope that no one pays for his vicious tirade of tooth and nail in the streets of London. Heaven help anyone who falls under the beast’s rage. Star Naughton’s amazing performance paired with Rick Baker’s incredibly incomparable special effects provides one of the most compelling and heartbreaking sequences in horror movie history. It’s a moment captured in horror cinema that tells us more about the character and story in ten minutes than most horror movies can in ninety minutes. Thus, when we see the visions of his victims, we know that human beings have suffered and they’re making David suffer for them.
“An American Werewolf in London” is one of the few horror films that explore the psychological effects of lycanthropy alongside the physical and the fallout. David’s vivid dreams subsequent the attack are still startling and intense, and they’re very bad omens that he will more than likely submit to the beast and lose his essence as a man. “An American Werewolf in London” has every chance to be cheap and exploitative and prefers instead to create a very heartfelt and terrifying vision of a man becoming a werewolf, and to this day there’s yet to be a horror film that touches on the curse with superior aptitude. Director John Landis seems like such an odd choice for a horror film and yet delivers one of the most complex and horrifying werewolf films ever made while Rick Baker’s special effects have gone unparalleled. And sweet Christ on a cracker, if someone tells you to stay on the road, and keep clear of the moors. Just do it.