An American Werewolf in London is a super title; it suggests an arch, off-the-wall approach to a certain film genre, but also manages to affectionately evoke older, much-beloved horror movies, like Werewolf of London. It also provides enough information for an audience to be fairly sure of what they’ll see (Although writer-director John Landis has reported this his favorite interview question he’s been getting asked is, “An American Werewolf in London…now, what’s that about?”).
Funny thing is, once our American friend (head Pepper David Naughton) gets out on the streets of London (the lucky dog is accompanied by Jenny Agutter), the inventiveness and spirit that Landis has displayed in the first part of the movie starts dribbling away. Almost as though the title, finally, was enough; as though inspiration has been exhausted by the mere act of luring an audience into a theater (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, and Escape from New York are a couple of examples of this kind of thing: a wonderful premise for a movie—and audiences did come—gives way to the film itself turning out to be a lackluster disappointment).
Still, before Landis gets his werewolf to London, there is a good deal of fun to be had: two vacationing American boys disengage themselves from the back of a truck carrying sheep (“We’re gonna miss you guys”) and set off across the lonely moors of Northern England, with their backpacks and brightly colored down parkas distinguishing them as aliens in this world (a very striking, right touch). They don’t exactly seem like innocents abroad, however; in fact, they’re both likably wiseass. This is clearly a modern monster movie, not attempting to recapture the feel of old Universal horror films; still, Landis wants it to be scary as well as hip, and manages that up through Naughton’s stay in a London hospital (I won’t say what happened out there on the moors) where he has a really terrifying nightmare. In fact, this sequence—Naughton dreams his family is attacked by creatures from –well, from his own imagination—hints at ambitions in the film that are never quite confronted head on; could be Landis doesn’t want to risk bumming out his mostly teen audience, or maybe he’s just not ready to confront such issues within himself.
At any rate, most of the stuff that follows is pretty tame, and the finale is particularly disappointing. The ending is vaguely reminiscent of Altered States; though at that ending, Ken Russell had the delirious courage to back up Chayefsky’s contention that Love is the civilizing and conquering factor over darkness. Landis doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with a similar situation, and the movie just sort of stops. Or should we take this ending—the werewolf cannot answer a woman’s cry of love—as an autobiographical confession on Landis’s part? The filmmaker as werewolf, compulsively howling and shocking, needing to grab our attention but unable to articulate his feelings? Okay, I’ll let it go, even though the werewolf in Werewolf literally does rampage and suck the blood from a Piccadilly movie audience. John Landis has provided some very enjoyable times in the last few years (Animal House and The Blues Brothers) and one hopes that he might reconcile his cleverness with the expression of that hint of ambition; although his next project, Dick Tracy, would not seem to encourage that prospect. Landis has shown enough so that we might expect more than just genre-tweaking revelations such as the fact that a silver bullet is actually not necessary to kill a werewolf.
First published in The Informer, September 1981
Head Pepper? David Naughton was indeed the star of a series of all-singing, all-dancing commercials for Dr. Pepper. It seemed sort of logical that he would get the lead off a movie after that, even if bigger stardom never happened. There’s a lot to be said for the film’s remarkable effects and that opening sequence with the guys in their down parkas, even if the mixed review seems sound. I always enjoy the armchair psychologizing of these reviews written by a 23-year-old – but hey, maybe Landis wasn’t ready to confront such issues within himself. He didn’t make Dick Tracy, at least.