Rixflix A to Z: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director/Writer: John Landis // Universal; 1:38; Color
Crew Notables: Elmer Bernstein (score), Robert Paynter (cinematography), Rick Baker (AAW - special makeup effects), Doug Beswick (makeup)
Cast Notables: David Naughton (David Kessler), Griffin Dunne (Jack Goodman), Jenny Agutter (Alex Price), John Woodvine (Dr. Hirsch), Lila Kaye (barmaid), Brian Glover (chess player), David Schofield (dart player), Rik Mayall (2nd chess player), Franz Oz (Mr. Collins), Paul Kember (Sgt. McManus), Don McKillop (Insp. Villiers), Joe Belcher (truck driver), John Landis (cameo - man smashed through window) Cinema 4 Rating: 8

There is a moment during the fairly engaging commentary on this DVD where stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne stop their back-and-forth wiseacre routine long enough to pause when the first scene with the female lead of American Werewolf comes onto screen. A nurse opens the curtains before the window to a hospital room, and Naughton bleats out wistfully, "Ah... Jenny..."

I know what he means. Being a teenager when this film was released in 1981 meant that I had seen Logan's Run several times by that point, and there was a many a lad of my acquaintance who was most enthralled with Ms. Agutter, myself included. I also knew her well from a couple of episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man, and just before Werewolf came out, I saw Walkabout and Equus on cable, in both of which Ms. Agutter appeared in her nubile altogetherness. That she does so again in this film was merely a delicious coincidence, but speaking for all young men of my age at that point in time, I must issue a profound "Thank you, Ms. Agutter. Thank you for the charitable work that you did for teenage boys in the 70s and 80s."

I did not know she was in Werewolf when it first came out; it was only when I saw her name flash in the credits that I realized what might be in store. What I didn't know, though, was everything else that John Landis had lying in wait for his audience. Here's the truth: I had not seen Animal House yet, so the only film of his I had seen was The Blues Brothers. He had only recently become a "name" to me, and I really expected this film to be a comedy when I went and saw it with my friends. Another truth: I was only just then become accustomed to going to the movies. I mean, going to a theatre to see a movie. I grew up where there were no theatres, and to see a film on a screen we had to drive to Anchorage, a very rare event indeed. When I was fifteen, we moved into the big city, but still lived far enough away from the theatres for it to be a special occasion, though certainly more frequent than it once had been. It was only when I fell in with the Bohemians, that special gang of pals of mine, that I regularly went to the flickers. And 1981 was just about the time when I fell into deep reverie with going to the movies.

So, there I was at American Werewolf, and I am caught offguard by the light and realistic banter between the two good buddies. Yes, we see the portents of doom all about: in the town, on the inn, in the inn, on the wall of the inn, and from the mouths of the grim inhabitants of the inn. Once they are out of the inn, the banter starts up again -- and then Landis hits you (and his characters) hard. The gore flies, death takes a couple of victims, and the audience sat shocked in their seats. Even though the justly famous Oscar-winning werewolf transformation doesn't take place until exactly an hour into its running length, Landis keeps the audience's attention with a host of surprises, and manages to combine laughs and frights like no director ever had before (and really, since... even himself).

Watching it once more the other day, I was struck by how my reaction to each and every scene is still pretty much the same, as if Landis had programmed my mind and body at that moment in time in '81 for the rest of my life. Even though I knew what was coming, the shocking sequences still make you jump, or at the least, make you uneasy. Some films you grow out of, and some films you grow into, but rare is the film that keeps you locked into its mood consistently for a quarter-century.

And just like Naughton and Dunne on the commentary (which I watched later), when I spied Ms. Agutter sway onto the screen yet again for the umpteenth time over 25 years, my reaction was still exactly the same: "Ah, Jenny..."

1982 Academy Awards - 1 Win (Best Makeup)


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