The year was 1971. On the set of low-budget exploitationer Schlock, the film’s young director John Landis was being made up as the ape-like Banana Killer, the film’s titular missing link. The make-up artist making a monkey of Landis was Rick Baker. While he was applying the latex, the twenty-something filmmakers regularly discussed a werewolf project Landis had written. In particular they tried to figure out how they could achieve the Holy Grail of werewolf movies. How to realistically turn a man into a beast on screen. It took 10 years to figure that out.
It was actually two years before that Landis wrote the first draft of his brilliant tale of terror and titters. The then young director was inspired by a gypsy burial ritual he witnessed when he was working as a runner on Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia. While waiting for technology to catch-up with his lycanthropic script, Landis went on to helm The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1979) to huge box-office success but his horror comedy remained a hard sell. The script only received two reactions; this is too scary to be funny, or this is too funny to be scary. It wouldn’t be until 1981, Hollywood’s Year of the Werewolf, that Landis’s biting horror comedy would be released.
Cast with unknowns, David Naughton (big in the States as the guy in the Dr. Pepper ads) and Griffin Dunne (who went on to star in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Madonna’s Who’s That Girl); took the leads as American hitchhikers David Kessler and Jack Goodman. Lost in the Yorkshire Moors, they stumble across The Slaughtered Lamb pub, a drinking hole that boasts The Young Ones’ Rick Mayall amongst its regulars. After an uneasy visit, they leave and the incredibly likeable pair are attacked by a wolf-like creature. Jack is slaughtered and David left bloodied but alive. He awakens in a London hospital under the lustful gaze of Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) and hospital visits from Jack’s walking wise-cracking corpse who announces that he is in limbo until the bloodline of the werewolf that killed them is ended. And the buck stops with David.
Baker’s make-up for the freshly butchered Jack is gruesome delight. Blood glistens, his face a mess of slashed claw marks. Ripped skin flaps in the gaping wound on his neck as he nonchalantly chomps on David’s breakfast. Unsurprisingly Griffin Dunne found the experience overwhelming as he looked in the mirror to see himself rotting, bloody and dead! His performance under the latex is pure brilliance and the script, as Jack explains to David his hairy predicament, and his living hell in the afterlife, is a highlight in a film full of them. “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”
It’s Baker’s work on David’s transformation into the titular werewolf, however, that blew audience’s collective minds. Going against werewolf movie conventions Landis shot his transformation in harsh unforgiving light, much to Baker’s chagrin. No witness is screaming. David is a solitary figure, terrified, alone and in excruciating pain as he transforms. Baker’s exhilarating FX were so ground… and bone breaking, that they invented a new Oscar for Best Make-up, presented to a beaming Baker by Vincent Price and Planet of the Apes star Kim Hunter. The transformation took six days to complete. Naughton spent 10 hours a day in the make-up chair while Baker and his team applied the make-up, five hours on set and then three hours to remove the make-up. The results, in these CGI dominated times, are still astounding as limbs elongate, skin stretches, hair grows and David’s body agonisingly twists and contorts itself into a wolf while Sam Cook croons “Blue Moon” in the background.
The soundtrack is a foot-tapping upbeat delight totally at odds with the oft-terrifying imagery on display. Every song featured on the soundtrack playfully refers to the moon. The film opens with Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon”, Van Morrisson’s “Moondance” plays as David has a shower with Nurse Alex, Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Bad Moon Rising” is played as David paces around the apartment and The Marcels' doo-wop version of “Blue Moon”, the aforementioned version of which is played during the transformation, over the end credits.
Landis has a ball taking pot shots at the British way of life. British pubs, travelling on the tube, corner shops and the terrible state of UK TV in the ‘80s all have fun poked at them. David and Jack’s final meeting place is the seedy Eros Cinema, just off Piccadilly Circus. Anyone who has followed Landis’s career will know about See You Next Wednesday, the fictional film that features in some way in all of his films. In American Werewolf we glimpse the film’s poster when the werewolf kills Gerald Bringsley (Michael Carter) in the London Underground and we actually see some of the movie in the Eros while David has his last meeting with Jack’s rotting corpse and the freshly bloodied victims of his first night of carnivorous lunar activity. The film itself is a delightfully clichéd affair full of British twerps, naked flesh and British porn starlet Linzi Drew (who also went “mainstream” in Ken Russell’s Lair Of The White Worm and Salome’s Last Dance).
The finale, after a fully transformed David, in a final werewolf design based on Baker’s German shepherd dog Bosko, has burst out of the cinema, decapitating a police inspector on the way, and caused traffic chaos in Piccadilly Circus. The final shot, however, is a bleak kick in the guts. Despite a post coital chat where David and Alex talk about Universal Pictures 1941 The Wolf Man and the fact that the werewolf can only be killed by someone they love; Landis ends his tragic love story quickly and brutally with faceless army gunfire. Agutter’s nurse barely has time to cry over David’s now human corpse before The Marcels start doo-wopping. In a film that has already seen Landis playfully subvert the horror genre at his whim, he gleefully snatches away our emotional pay-off by going straight to credits. A brave move when he has spent the previous 97 minutes carefully developing relationships we genuinely care about. When was the last horror film you saw that did that?
Watch 'An American Werewolf in London' now at SBS On Demand:
Follow the author here: @davembrown