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AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine
Director:  John Landis
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  98 Minutes
Release Date:  September 18, 2001

“OH, GOD!!! OH, I’M BURNING UP!!!”

Film ***1/2

John Landis created the ultimate shape-shifter film with An American Werewolf in London.  Not only did it boast the most disturbing transformation sequence ever included in a wolf movie, but the most terrifying end result of a creature as well.  Throw in for good measure a suspenseful and dynamic sense of direction and a smart script that inspires almost as much laughter as fear, and you also have one of the 80’s quintessential horror pictures.

For American friends David Kessler (Naughton) and Jack Goodbar (Dunne), things start out looking pretty bleak.  Their idealized European vacation has been reduced to traveling as hitchhikers and riding in the back of a truck with sheep.  The weather is cold and unforgiving.  The famed Welsh moors stretch out for miles.  The locals at a pub are quite unwelcoming, except to offer strange warnings about staying on the road and bewaring the moon.

Landis, with a few broad strokes, sets his movie up beautifully.  For foreigners on foot at night, even a friendly country like England can be a bit unsettling and disorienting.  They end up off the road and lost, with some horrible sounding thing seemingly circling them.

The shadowy monster brutally kills Jack (stress brutally), and leaves David wounded before some unidentified people save him.  He wakes up in a hospital three weeks later, convinced he saw a werewolf.  Neither his physician Dr. Hirsch (Woodvine) nor his pretty nurse Alex (Agutter) can quite believe him.

David’s situation gets better and worse simultaneously.  For better, he recovers from his injuries and begins a relationship with Alex, who invites him to stay at her flat.  For worse, he’s tormented by nightmares that culminate in a visit from the horribly mangled corpse of Jack, who delivers awful news to his former traveling companion:  the werewolf has passed his bloodline on to David.  He will become a beastly killer on the next full moon.

Does he believe Jack really spoke to him?  Do we?  We’re pretty sure we know what’s coming, but first time viewers are in for a horrifying thrill ride.

Multiple Oscar winner Rick Baker did some of his most imaginative and convincing work for John Landis on this picture.  His creatures are terrifying, and his transformation effects and makeup will have your jaw in your lap.  American Werewolf created a whole new vocabulary for the wolf picture, and is a movie that has never been equaled before or since.

But Landis peppers his gruesomeness with some humor as well.  One scene, that takes place in a porn movie house, really has to be seen to be believed.  It’s a bit unsettling, yet unmistakably and absurdly funny. 

Most people know I’m a big horror fan. And An American Werewolf in London is one I never get tired of.  The sense of freshness it first brought to the genre twenty years ago feels just as new and exciting today.  Sure, I always remember the details, but this is one my brain will let go of just long enough to re-experience time and time again.  That’s a classic by any definition.

Video ***

This is the best home video presentation I’ve yet seen for this film, and Universal has done a commendable job with its anamorphic widescreen transfer.  There are many night scenes, and they generally come across well rendered, with no grain or enhancement effects to spoil the images.  Colors are generally well presented and contained, with perhaps just a click less brightness than normal owing to the age of the picture.  The print itself is also in fairly good shape…I think most fans will be happy with the effort here.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack remix is more than respectable.  Most of the film’s audio stays on the forward stage, but the rear channels kick in most nicely for effects such as wolf howls or one of the best sounding thunderstorms I can remember on DVD.  The .1 channel is inactive most of the way, until the city-in-chaos finale, but I found the normal channels manages to carry the bass well without it.  The music is a plus, with tongue-in-cheek song selections like “Bad Moon Rising” and both ballad and doo-wop versions of “Blue Moon”.  High marks.

Features ***1/2

I had hoped for a John Landis commentary, but the one featuring actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne is a good listen…both men have dry senses of humor, and the way they discuss the film is very much in the manner their characters banter in it.  Mr. Landis should be aware that he lost some of his dialogue credit in this commentary!

There is a very short original featurette that’s not very detailed…most details are skimmed over, including the big mega-stunt finish, where Landis says, “No movie is worth someone getting hurt.”  (Tell that to Vic Morrow, huh, John?)  Better is the modern interview with Landis, who recalls with zeal the making of and ideas that went into the film.  There is also a short interview with Rick Baker on his massive contributions to the movie.  There is a “casting of the hand” makeup sequence, some outtakes, storyboards, a photo montage, production notes, and some talent files…no trailer, though.

Summary:

An American Werewolf in London is the kind of wolf movie that only comes along once in a blue moon…so far, no other picture has reached the bar it raised.  This is a frightfully fun mix of suspense, gore, special effects and humor that horror fans have been eating up for two decades.  With this quality Collector’s Edition DVD from Universal, they can go back for seconds time and time again.