Thursday, November 28, 2019

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis
Notable Cast: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine, Brian Glover

Writing about An American Werewolf in London is a daunting task. There are a slew of other writers and film critics who have analyzed the film from beginning to end for its cultural relevance, the strength of execution, and its ability to weave genres and, truthfully, most of them are smarter than I am. Nonetheless, I was tasked with the insurmountable task of reviewing the new Arrow Video Blu Ray release of the film and, thus, it’s time to wear my shoes and hike this mountain. To say that An American Werewolf in London is an American cinematic classic is a bit of an understatement. It’s a film that has lasted the test of time with its strange and off-kilter blend of horror and humor, but it might be most remembered for how it helped to modernize the werewolf genre along with the other big werewolf film in 1981 – The Howling.

For those of you that haven’t seen it, An American Werewolf in London is considered in such high regard for a reason. Director John Landis was mostly known for his comedies that came previously, Animal House and The Blues Brothers - both also regarded as classics in their own right, and his combination of that comedic touch with a love for folklore and horror makes for an irresistible combination. He plays a game of hot potato with the humor and horror of the film, taking two na├»ve Americans – lead by a rather incredible performance from David Naughton and embedding them into a world that they never quite fit into. Their understanding of werewolf lore is heavily referential to the original Wolf Man film and after their first encounter with a werewolf leaves one dead and the other in the hospital as the film brings the werewolf struggle starkly into the early 80s.

The one-two punch of comedy and horror is done in such an effective manner that each one only helps to uplift the other. Whether it’s full horror sequences like the first time our hero stalks the streets of London as a werewolf, full comedic sequences like the one right after that where he wakes up naked in a zoo, or the combination of the two – all of his ridiculous dream sequences including one with werewolf nazis, the impact is there. Landis and company take their time setting up the plot, characters, and key sequences, but it’s the volleyball game of tonality that repeatedly sets up and delivers strike after strike. It all culminates in one of the greatest third acts of genre film history (all film history) and ends on one of the greatest cut to credit moments. An American Werewolf in London is an exercise in strong set-ups to earned payoffs. 

 It would be a failure to not at least briefly mention that, despite all of the pitch-perfect tonal tug of war that An American Werewolf in London masters, it’s a film that is mostly known to feature one of the greatest werewolf transformations ever set to film. While occasionally a new, crisp 4K restoration of a film might provide too much visual detail that betrays effects, this is not the case with this film. The painful and horrifying transformation sequence remains as impressive as it did the first time you see it. Between the fantastic effects of the legendary Rick Baker and a jaw clenching performance from Naughton, the sequence remains one for the books and holds up to this day. All of the effects hold up too (as do the werewolf attack sequences which Landis handles with the utmost precision,) but this one scene is worth seeing in the new restoration – if you needed some icing on the cake of a great film.

To match the status of the film, this latest release from Arrow Video spares no expense in packing an insane number of special features on the disc. Multiple feature-length documentaries (including one about the legacy of Universal’s Wolf Man which comes highly recommended,) interviews, and enough behind the scenes material to keep even the most die-hard fans engrossed. As mentioned, the new 4K restoration is aces – making my memories of seeing the film repeated on VHS feel like a dirty secret. The list of features are included below, but some of my favorites include the new insightful commentary from Paul Davis, the aforementioned Mark of the Beast documentary, and anything behind the scenes with Rick Baker. Watching him work is magic.

Although I would guess that most of the readers at Blood Brothers have already seen, if not worship, An American Werewolf in London, I hope this review serves as a reminder to not take the effort and execution of this film for granted. It’s a truly inspired and punchy piece of cinema. Also, if you have the funds this coming holiday season, do not hesitate to pick up the latest Arrow Video Blu Ray release. The amount of new material along with the gathering of archival paraphernalia is easily worth the cost – not to mention that the new artwork is glorious in itself. You might want to beware the moon and stick to the roads, but don’t miss out on this release.

  • New 2018 4K restoration from the original camera negative supervised by John Landis
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original uncompressed 1.0 mono and optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • New audio commentary by Beware the Moon filmmaker Paul Davis
  • Audio commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne
  • Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, newly produced, feature-length documentary by filmmaker Daniel Griffith, featuring interviews with John Landis, David Naughton, Joe Dante and more
  • An American Filmmaker in London, a newly filmed interview with John Landis in which he reflects on British cinema and his his time working in Britain
  • I Think He's a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret, new video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976) about how Landis’ film explores Jewish identity
  • The Werewolf’s Call, Corin Hardy, director of The Nun, chats with writer Simon Ward about their formative experiences with Landis’ film.
  • Wares of the Wolf, new featurette in which SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store look at some of the original costumes and special effects artefacts from the film
  • Beware the Moon, Paul Davis’ acclaimed, feature-length exploration of Landis’ film which boasts extensive cast and crew interviews
  • Making An American Werewolf in London, a short archival featurette on the film’s production
  • An Interview with John Landis, a lengthy archival interview with the director about the film
  • Makeup Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London, the legendary make-up artist discusses his work on the film
  • I Walked with a Werewolf, an archival interview with the make-up artist about Universal horror and its legacy of Wolfman films
  • Casting of the Hand, archival footage from Rick Baker's workshop as they cast David Naughton's hand
  • Outtakes
  • Original trailers, teasers and radio spots
  • Extensive image gallery featuring over 200 stills, posters and other ephemera
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original poster art and artwork by Graham Humphreys

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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