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AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON

       

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a horror-comedy with a huge fan base but I found it in 1981, and still find it, way too gory for me to get into. I sat through all the slasher films of the 1980s and ’90s to review them but when I quit the reviewing job I let them go. I haven’t seen the ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’ pictures or their ilk. Perhaps those who have would say ‘American Werewolf’ is tame by comparison. But for me it’s still too much. Not that I didn’t find things to recommend about the film; just to enough to tip the scales for me. But for fans, Arrow has released the film in a new Blu-ray edition with all the bells and whistles for which the label is famous. My review was published in the Deseret News on Aug. 21, 1981.

 

Subtlety is not John Landis’ strong suit.

 

The writer-director who has given us “Kentucky Fried Movie,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers” definitely believes in overkill, and “An American Werewolf in London” is no exception.

 

In some cases his flair for overstatement works but in others it’s enough to drive audiences away, and “Werewolf” is without question the most mixed of his mixed-bag movies so far.

 

In an update of the old Universal “Wolf Man” series, to which he occasionally has his characters refer, Landis’ script has two young American men (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) bumming through Northern England as they begin a penniless, jaunty European sojourn.

 

Lost and cold, they come across “The Slaughtered Lamb” pub, mingle with the extremely unfriendly regulars, and then head out again over the moors to find friendlier quarters for the night.

 

Then they are attacked by a beast and Dunne is killed. Naughton recovers in a London hospital under the extremely close care of nurse Jenny Agutter and doctor John Woodvine.

 

       

 

Griffin Dunne, left, David Naughton, 'An American Werewolf in London' (1981)

 

Haunted by nightmares, Naughton is then visited by his dead friend Dunne, who tells him he must kill himself because he is the last of a line of werewolves, and Dunne and other victims will have no peace until the line is severed.

 

Agutter convinces Naughton that it’s all in his mind and invites him to come live with her; an overzealous bedside manner, you might say.

 

As anyone who enters the theater will discover, it isn’t long before Naughton turns into a wolf and begins killing Londoners.

 

Now, believe it or not, “An American Werewolf in London” is a comedy. It’s also extremely gory. Where most suspense or fright pictures have a character or situation for comedic relief, Landis uses gore in his comedy for horrific relief.

 

The result is a jarring mix. When “Werewolf” is funny, it’s often hilarious, and when it’s frightening, it’s often extremely scary. But when it’s bloody, this is one of the goriest, most gruesome pictures in quite some time. That’s the product of Landis as director.

 

I thought “Wolfen” was bloody but compared to “American Werewolf” it was rather tame.

 

So, I left the theater with very mixed feelings. I enjoyed the humor (especially Dunne’s periodic visits to Naughton, with the former becoming more and more decayed each time). I marveled at the special effects (Naughton’s change into a wolf gives the superb effects of “The Howling” a run for their money). And all the actors are extremely appealing.

 

       

 

But the gore is so gory, and so much of it is so gratuitous (why in the climactic car smash-up are so many people brutally maimed by autos?), and Landis is so heavy on the sex (a hot scene between Naughton and Agutter, then a porno flick in a seedy movie house where Naughton meets with Dunne), that it just left a bad taste. Add to that a terrible, flat ending, and you have a negative vote from this critic.

 

It’s too bad, because “American Werewolf” has much to recommend. Naughton, whom you will recognize as the “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper” singer-dancer on the popular TV commercial, is very good; Agutter of “Amy” and “Logan’s Run,” is a low-key delight; and Dunne, in his first major role, is stupendously hilarious. (You’ll also easily spot Frank Oz in a bit part — he’s the one who talks like a Muppet!)

 

Some of Landis’ individual setups are also good, particularly the nightmare sequences, which at one point he begins firing at us so fast that we’re not sure whether Naughton is asleep or awake — and neither is Naughton.

 

If Landis learns to hold back on his tendency toward excess he’ll be a much better director. And when “An American Werewolf in London” finally comes to commercial television and all those excesses are cut, it will be a much better picture.