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An American Werewolf in London Print E-mail
Tuesday, 18 September 2001

An American Werewolf In London

Universal Studios Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine
release year: 1981
film rating: Five Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

With hindsight, it’s extremely easy to determine whether a film has historical significance – if nothing quite like it has been seen before and tons of projects (other movies, TV series, books and plays) come along afterwards, it’s had an impact. Such a film is director/writer John Landis’ "An American Werewolf in London." Made in 1981, "Werewolf" pretty much pioneered the genre of self-aware horror. It is hilariously funny because the characters can relate their predicaments to what they’ve seen in movies. They say what we think, which produces a rare level of empathy – which in turn makes the story’s dark events not merely horrific but tragic. Because we can identify with the characters’ reactions, we can readily imagine these things happening to our friends, to ourselves. While it remains true that most comedies shy away from true horror and most horror films get deadly serious and stay that way, "Werewolf" made it possible for the mixture to co-exist. If you have fun watching "Scream," are crazy about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or even tune in every week to "Farscape," you can thank Landis and "Werewolf" for paving the way. Then again, "Werewolf" is something to be thankful for in its own right.

For those just joining us, "An American Werewolf in London" introduces us to two personable young Americans, best friends David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), backpacking in the north of England. Straying from the road, they are attacked by a horrible, mysterious beast. Jack is killed. David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital, where nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) befriends him. In addition to being grief-stricken by Jack’s death, David has some very bad dreams. And then Jack comes to visit – with news even worse than his freshly-killed appearance.

By now, even those who haven’t yet seen "Werewolf" know about the man-to-monster transformation that won makeup effects creator Rick Baker his first Oscar, so it’s not giving too much away to say that David becomes a werewolf. For those who like metaphors with their horror, "American Werewolf" can be seen as a movie about coping with dreadful terminal illness. For those who just want major jolts delivered at regular intervals, "Werewolf" qualifies on that score as well.

As for the makeup effects, while the end-result wolf is a little stiff, the transformation (Chapter 12, helpfully labeled "Metamorphosis" on the sleeve insert) is still as agonizing and amazing as ever, and even 20 years later, it’s hard to imagine how the first-stage death makeup on Jack could be improved upon.

The DTS track on the new "Werewolf" DVD represents one of the relatively rare instances in which a soundtrack originally mixed years before the advent of 5.1 has not only survived but flourished in the 5.1 remix. Landis himself was involved in the remix (see interview in this issue), along with a team headed by Gerry Humphreys, with excellent results. The dialogue in the center channel holds up firmly and clearly regardless of what comes up around it, which is saying a great deal in a film like "Werewolf."

Chapter 4 moves the (as yet unseen) werewolf through the mains for the most part but it stalks distinctively through the left rear at one point. When David and Jack split up during the werewolf attack, the volume of the creature’s growls changes promptly and appropriately, depending on how near or far the camera’s p.o.v. is from the marauding beast. Two shotgun blasts have realistic heft and depth. Chapter 6 has plenty of volume and dimension on rattling machine-gun fire and the devouring crackle of real fire, although it also contains the DVD’s only notable sonic flaws – there are slight level drops on a few speeches by John Woodvine’s Dr. Hirsch (one or two of his lines in later chapters also seem a bit dampened).

Chapter 8 has a splendid, encompassing section on a subway, where we’re surrounded by the shuffling of passengers and the rattle of the train. Later in the same chapter, we’re treated to a warm, enveloping rendition of Van Morrison’s "Moondance" over a very sexy sequence, in which the song’s vocals and instrumentation co-exist smoothly with soft but (ahem) important breathing sounds on the ambient track.

Chapter 11 treats us to some delicate, directional church bell chimes, subtle but present, then again demonstrates the soundtrack’s skill at balancing full-blown music selections with necessary dialogue and ambience. A CD-quality rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Bad Moon Rising" has all of that song’s full-throttle, foot-stomping vigor while still permitting us to easily hear what David is saying. Chapter 12 expands on this dynamic further, with Sam Cooke’s velvety cover of "Blue Moon" floating out of all the speakers as the transformation’s sounds of stretching bones and agonized screams are vivid and clear in the center and mains.

Chapter 14 puts across werewolf howls with clarity and has a wonderful, well-defined punch as an animal roar becomes the roar of the London subway (which also provides realistic brake sounds in the rears). Chapter 15 has some delightful surround effects of zoo sounds – bird calls in one speaker, monkey chatter in another – along with the DVD’s only noticeable video glitch (the frame freezes briefly as David, back to his human self, clears the top of a wolf enclosure). Chapter 18 has some of the most intense, specific and sustained vehicular crash effects (visually as well as aurally) to be found in any film – the audio track deposits us in the middle of slamming metal on all sides.

The print is pristine and faithful to the theatrical release (darkened sequences on the DVD are likewise dark in the original). The DVD is loaded with supplements – there’s an enjoyable 18-minute recent interview with Landis, a 10-minute interview with Baker that includes footage of how the fully transformed wolf was made to move, a storyboard-to-film comparison of the sequence in which the werewolf terrorizes Piccadilly Circus and generously illustrated production notes. There’s also a photo montage, edited to appropriate selections from Elmer Bernstein’s score, a short making-of featurette from the time of the film’s original release and a gratifyingly detailed sequence on Baker and Co. making a mold of Naughton’s arm.
However, perhaps the most entertaining extra on the "Werewolf" DVD is the audio commentary by actors Naughton and Dunne. "Werewolf" has one of the most effortless-looking and oddly affecting depictions of male friendship ever, in any genre; it gives the film an emotional spine that reasserts itself at the most unlikely moments. Much of this is in the writing, but it’s in the performances as well. Naughton and Dunne had never met one another before the start of pre-production on "Werewolf" – one can only congratulate Landis for casting that resulted in such lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry between his male leads, and applaud the two actors for playing it so well. Although the actors are speaking as themselves on the commentary track – and hadn’t seen each other in years before their reunion in the recording booth – they sound so much like their characters in overall attitude and in the way they play off one another that the effect is a little bit like the in-character commentary on the most recent release of "This Is Spinal Tap."

One of the more intriguing, singular aspects of "Werewolf" is that it’s structured less like a comedy or a horror film than a character study. The reason we may not notice this is that character studies – before, during and after "Werewolf" – have seldom been this mercurial in mood, from realistically goofy to heartbreaking to all-out chaotic, without ever becoming pompous. Landis, however, is a lot less concerned with getting from plot point A to B – the full moon is going to rise, no matter what anybody does – than creating delirious yet completely natural riffs on having an absolutely human reaction to something awful beyond comprehension. He’s created a context not only for groundbreaking special effects and effects makeup, but also for a whole outlook that hadn’t really been captured on film (or much of anywhere else) before.

While "An American Werewolf in London" has inspired countless other works, it has never been effectively imitated. It remains unique and ever-watchable – and it’s now available on a DVD that does it justice.

more details
sound format:
English DTS 5.1 Surround; English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Interview with Writer/Director John Landis; Interview with Makeup Effects Creator Rick Baker; Audio Commentary with Actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne; Making-Of Featurette; Featurette on Making Cast of Naughton’s Hand; Outtakes; Storyboards; Photo Montage; Production Notes; Cast and Filmmakers Biographies; English Closed-Captioning; Spanish Subtitles; French Subtitles; DVD-ROM Script-to-Screen Feature
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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