This article contains spoilers for a movie released in 1981.
There is a pub in Manhattan’s West Village that at first glance is just another one of the many dive bars NYU students frequent. But this one is particularly tailored for the film school set with its low lighting, its faux-fire, and, of course, a giant life-sized werewolf devouring a peasant girl in the back. Like its namesake from An American Werewolf in London, the Slaughtered Lamb is a pub touched by the occult and supernatural—it is also proof that over 35 years later horror fans can’t shake the Mark of Beast left by John Landis’ lycanthrope classic.
Welcomed by a rather mixed critical reception upon its release (Roger Ebert called it “weird” and “unfinished” while Janet Maslin asserted that it backfires because of Landis’ “callow’ tone), this cinematic hellhound has nonetheless stomped forward through the decades, remaining not only the pinnacle for the werewolf subgenre, but also a generational touchstone for the countless horror-comedies that followed.
It is easy to note that as one of the first movies that mixed laughs and screams as plentifully as Rick Baker’s gooey effects mingled with the mud behind Windsor Castle, An American Werewolf in London paved the way for a whole new style of thrills seen in the likes of Lost Boys, Fright Night, Scream, Shaun of the Dead, and Cabin in the Woods, among others. It also remains the most visceral experience in prosthetic horror to date, handily winning Rick Baker the first Oscar for makeup effects, as well as inspiring the Michael Jackson “Thriller” video (which Landis also directed).
But for all of its influential importance, American Werewolf is still feels both exceedingly modern a throwback, causing it to stand as a benchmark in a style that studios have desperately and consistently failed to emulate in our post-R-rating world. Universal Pictures recently failed to reboot its “Universal Monsters” label, this time as modern action movies with a shared universe. But An American Werewolf in London almost effortlessly showed how to marry the gothic with the modern over three decades ago, and it’s still the best horror reimagining ever made.
Remarkably, An American Werewolf in London has aged little over the years. It barely reflects the temperament of ‘80s horror or the contemporary comedies that Landis had helped to define with movies like Animal House (1978) and Blues Brothers (1980). Admittedly, his supernatural chiller had plenty of laughs that would never have occurred in the gothic genre just 10 years prior to Werewolf’s release, but less than the inclusion of self-aware snark, this is a shrewd choice to cosmetically update a classical approach for the late 20th century. Similarly, it also was made in a pre-digital world where young men never had heard the phrase “social media,” and London’s Piccadilly Circus was still decidedly as seedy as Times Square, letting the final experience exist on a plain where its own influences feel fresh, yet oddly timeless.
In essence, Landis found a way to successfully remake The Wolf Man 40 years after that World War II hit similarly took audiences by surprise. It’s also a neat trick that has eluded Universal ever since with two official Wolf Man reimaginings falling flat (2004’s Van Helsing and 2010’s The Wolfman), and another on its way by the end of this decade.
Much like the original 1941 movie, An American Werewolf in London remembers that most of these tales are heightened tragedies. And from the very beginning, the ’81 variation is intended as a heartbreaker. The first time audiences meet protagonists David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), they’re already lying in the back of a truck with a herd of sheep. Much like the Slaughtered Lamb sign they’re about to walk under, David and Jack are babes in the meat house, unaware that their destination is oblivion.
Also like Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot, David is a stranger in a strange land (now Northern England instead of Wales) who should not be walking off the road at night. His is the path of the doomed and damned, and the film never forgets that basic through-line, which is evident in so many gothic horrors, particularly of the classic Universal brand. There is no need for monster mashes, crossovers with Tom Cruise action scenes, or mysteries about your dad secretly being a werewolf; the heightened passion play of a dumb American never getting to see his family again is enough to power the melodrama that underscores the scares.
This clarity of vision stayed with American Werewolf since the movie had basically stayed with Landis for over a decade prior to shooting. In fact, his script, which was first written at the age of 19 in 1969, might also be the best screenplay ever penned by a teenager.
The way that Landis tells it in the documentary Beware the Moon, he first had the idea to write the screenplay long before meeting Harold Ramis. He was in fact on location as an assistant director for Kelly’s Heroes (1970), which was filming in part of the then-Yugoslavia (now Croatia).
“I witnessed this funeral, it was very strange,” Landis said. “We came to people standing around in the crossroads. It was gypsies, and they were burying this guy, feet first. He was wrapped in like a canvas cloth; they wrapped him in rosaries and garlic. It was all very exotic. And I was like, ‘What is going on?’” Apparently, the man being inhumed had committed an egregious crime, along the lines of rape or murder, and after his death, the decision was made to bury him at a crossroad… so his body wouldn’t get up again.
“The gypsies really did look like dress extras on the Universal backlot,” Landis recalled. “Dressed like Maria Ouspenskaya [from The Wolf Man]. This was 1969; we put a man on the moon in 1969, and these people are worried about a zombie! So, I was very taken by the idea. And I thought that’s a good idea for a movie. How would [my friend] and I react if he did claw his way to the surface and pull himself out of the grave like Peter Cushing? What do you do in that situation, because if you’re a rational, educated person, you know it’s bullshit. It doesn’t exist. So, how do you deal with something that doesn’t exist when it’s standing in front of you?”
The simplicity of this assessment is the strength of American Werewolf in London, because the picture is most decidedly an earnest depiction of the foreboding superstitions from a world gone by, but with the kind of self-assured skepticism of the Baby Boomer generation facing it down. Cinematic language had not quite become so intertextual that there was a need to be deconstructionist or “meta” about these intentions, albeit David and Jack repeatedly mention The Wolf Man.
Sure, these characters had a knowledge of the hokey stuff from the old Hollywood movies that their generation grew up watching on TV, but what they faced was no deconstruction of those tropes—it’s a defiant embrace of them. Hence when the supernatural folklore is unironically presented with complete conviction to two characters who wouldn’t have been out of place at the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, or as caddies for Chevy Chase and Ted Knight, it is both darkly humorous and shockingly grim. The laughing stops and the stomach-churning commences.
The tropes often associated with The Wolf Man are also given a careful and grisly update. In that earlier Universal horror, Lon Chaney’s Talbot had visions of wolves and the woman he loved, only to later see the pentagram (the Mark of the Beast) in spectrally manifest on her hand. However, American Werewolf leaves the Pentagram as a superstitious decoration for the locals at the Slaughtered Lamb. After David is bitten by Proctor’s furry boogeyman and (barely) lives to tell the tale, he is haunted by the kind of nightmares that might terrorize any Hebrew child or grandchild of the World War II generation.
David, like his writer and director, is Jewish, so at night he dreams not of wolves but of canine-esque Nazi Demons. In these hallucinations, they kill his parents and his young siblings, and even the nurse he is smitten with at the hospital, Alex (Jenny Agutter). When Curt Siodmak wrote The Wolf Man screenplay, he said he was inspired by his German neighbors who he saw overnight turn into monsters during the rise of the Nazis (Siodmak was also Jewish and was forced to flee to London and then Hollywood).
Those nightmares also prelude the return of Jack. David’s friend suffered a gruesome fate when they failed to heed the Slaughtered Lamb’s warning: beware the moon and stick to the road. As they wander off into the moors during an icy-cold rain, it begins with the laugh of “oops” as they realize there is only grass in every direction that the eye can see. But in the movie’s sudden turn from dry comedy to wet gore, they are stalked by a hideous sounding beast, whose howl was made from the recordings of baying wolves and screaming elephants played in reverse. Then come the teeth.
The sequence actually was shot in the wee small hours of the morning just outside of the Windsor Castle estate. With the damp air chilled enough that 35mm cameras could actually pick up the steam escaping exposed limbs following the massacre, actor Griffin Dunne had to scream for his life into the night air again and again.
“We were in the queen’s backyard, and I kept picturing the queen trying to get some sleep while hearing this kid just being savagely murdered take after take after take,” Dunne mused in Beware the Moon.
However, his death comes back to haunt the badly injured David as not a pentagram but an actual decaying ghost. While the werewolf transformation is what won makeup artist Rick Baker his Academy Award, his most terrifying creation was the sight of a freshly shredded cadaver making small talk for only David’s ears. It’s also a testament to the power of understated comedy with Jack rather calmly explaining to David that in order to free him and all others killed by a werewolf on this moor, David will have to commit suicide in London before he changes. But such weighty subject matters do not mean they can’t be pleasant, right?
Complaining about how bad limbo is with all the other werewolf victims, Jack whines in exasperation, “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely. Kill yourself, David.”
The contrast of Baker’s sickeningly realistic gore effects—apparently they made Dunne incredibly depressed as he began to see what he’ll look like when he dies and starts to decompose—with the dark, gallows humor counterweighs the horror of David’s visions, keeping the tone surprisingly lively and viewers off-balance. The film neither risks falling into the melodrama trap of going gothic with a straight face, nor does it lose the ability to be a genuine horror of the classic mold. This strange duality might have turned off critics who couldn’t decide if it was a comedy or a horror, but it all quite brilliantly conceals the fact that this is a straight-ahead tragedy with only one ending: the bitter death of college student David Kessler.
Of course, this is not before he does transform into a werewolf two times in the film, the first being the magnificent and still unparalleled makeup and prosthetic effects Baker used to map David’s transformation to Sam Cooke’s cover of “Blue Moon.” With no score to help Baker’s effects—and Elmer Bernstein did deliver an underrated slice of eeriness for the film—the makeup artist was forced to convince audiences a man was changing into a beast with bone-crushing realism.
Having had six months prior to shooting to develop the effects, Baker’s secrets are now well-known but evermore convincing. In the days before CGI, he used syringes pumping into small plungers within plastic pieces to cause David’s hands, feet, and face to elongate in separate shots; hair was filmed backwards as it was ripped out from underneath a fleshy-sheet, creating the image of hair growing up above the skin; and at a certain point, poor actor David Naughton was literally buried into the floor so that his four-legged “body” could be built around him before the face changed.
It still looks so flawless that Baker later expressed disappointment about how quickly some of the effects worked. While Naughton had to go through four or five hours of makeup during every day of this post-production shoot (it lasted 10 days), when it came time to simply build a prosthetic wolf head that grew outwards, the shooting took only a matter of minutes.
“That’s it?! We’ve been working on this for months!” Baker recollected. “And we shot it in a couple of minutes.”
But the work came to fruition, because not only is it still a breathtaking special effect; it is also in service to a movie that had a perfect focus on what it was… while keeping audiences in enough tonal whiplash to not see the obvious bitter pill hovering over them with no glass of water in sight. Supposedly, Landis briefly contemplated putting Dan Ayrkoyd and John Belushi in the lead roles of American Werewolf, but two unknown, fresh-faced young men was the right call for the picture’s verisimilitude.
There was still plenty of humor to be had with David waking up naked after his first transformation in the London Zoo (Naughton apparently really was forced to escape a cage with gray wolves sans any clothes), bumbling police detectives, and Jack spending his afterlife at a porno theater (again, it’s Piccadilly Circus in the 1980s).
Still, by focusing on David’s own misery, as well as a burgeoning romance with Alex, who’s presented as a competent and shrewd working girl, the film gives authenticity to its supernatural savagery. Alex thinks David is a troubled deer lost in the headlights of London traffic, as opposed to the wolf threatening them all. This all sets up a third act that begins with David trying to call his parents and siblings to be sweet with them for the first and last time in his life (he can only get in touch with his dismissive kid sister). And it ends with David, in complete bestial mode, almost ripping Alex apart when she tries to reason with him in a back alley.
After causing death and destruction throughout the Circus, the local police force traps the beast in a corner. And when Alex tries to reason with him, it lunges at her, only to be shot three times. Instantly, David has returned to the screen, now a fresher corpse than Jack, and Alex is left to cry over his remains. It is a brutal moment of pure despair and without a hint of cynical detachment. Landis forces audiences to wallow in the inevitable outcome that still somehow surprised, and leaves Jenny Agutter to sell the moment.
And that’s it. Also like The Wolf Man and a dozen other Universal horror movies, it ends there at the height of drama, which in this case is deep anguish. But whereas those older films would almost cut short, likely due to economic reasons, Landis seems unconcerned with giving the audience whiplash. In fact, it improves the film if he can turn the knife one last time and deliver a final sucker punch while we’re feeling low. Thus Alex’s wails are abruptly stopped as the film cuts to black and the Marcels’ upbeat doo-wop cover of “Blue Moon” begins, oblivious to the viewer’s vulnerability.
Some still find this choice to be a mean-spirited one by a filmmaker that kicks us while we’re down, but it sums up why the movie works so well. It allows tonal dissonance to play in its favor, and has no issue combining a gothic effect with a modern sensibility. It’s succinct, visceral, and unforgettable. That kind of fearlessness in building a story and completing it with little concern for sequels, world-building, or audience sensitivities is why the movie has such a vicious bite even today.