An American Werewolf in London starts out quite differently than other horror films that prefer a really slow build up, this one starts with a bang. Two college students, David (David Naughton) and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) back pack across Britain and stumble upon a country pub where they get warned by the locals to beware the coming full moon. They were also told to stay on the road after dark but, of course in true horror movie fashion, they don't. The two go for the dreaded "horror movie shortcut/detour" and this results in the two being attacked by an unusually large wolf.
Good Werewolf Origin
Jack survives the ordeal with a bite on his shoulder while the latter isn't so lucky. As David recuperates in a hospital, he keeps having nightmares about his friend, brutally killed in front of his eyes. In these visions, Jack warns him that he is turning into a werewolf and that the only way out is to commit suicide before the next full moon. David dismisses the visions as hallucinations but soon after, he begins to undergo telltale changes which point to the contrary.
Whereas Michael J. Fox deals with the acceptance of his peers in Teen Wolf, David goes through the transformation with a new girlfriend (Jenny Agutter) in his life. Once David has become fully transformed, Director John Landis grabs the chance to shoot a fantastic multi-car collision, Blues Brothers style. That being said, this isn't Landis' best work. While An American Werewolf in London has its fair share of gripping scenes and obviously a lot of money went into the sets and props, Landis didn't put as much effort towards, say, character development or story pacing. As a result, the movie has this unfinished feel to it, as if they plucked random things with potential and delivered the final product without that final polish. The film doesn't fully commit to the genre, as if Landis couldn't decide on a direction for the film. This makes it unintentionally humorous in some parts.
It Actually Looks Good
What saves the film somehow is the genius of Rick Baker and his special effects. Jack's mutilated face is both gruesome and fascinating at the same time. The bits of flesh-like material clings to his skin naturally while reminding both David and the viewers of his fate. David's makeup is equally realistic. Once he transforms into a werewolf, he is genuinely frightening, with feral eyes and long, yellowed fangs. Sure, the bear-like wolf can be replicated using CG in this day and age but taking the film's release date into account, the work in American Werewolf in London is nothing short of masterful.
For horror fans who have a low tolerance for gore (there are those types, right?), this film should be right up your alley. The amount is kept to a minimum, which is a refreshing change from the generic "buckets of blood" type of production. The hospital conversations between David and Jack are particularly good, especially with the latter still acting like his old, college student self and speaking in clever quips.
Still Needs Polish
We see An American Werewolf in London as a missed opportunity. It lacks the build-up and tension you would normally look for in a horror film. The effects are pretty good but the story is empty. Landis missed out on establishing the characters so the audience can sympathize with them. He concentrated on select scenes and left the rest to chance, with places feeling staged and the plot getting thin, fast. This is especially anticlimactic for those who have seen werewolf-themed horror flicks beforehand. We all know that David's claws are going to get longer and his fangs are going to come out, so why not put some thought into making the characters believable? We do applaud Baker and the rest of the special effects team for providing some smooth visuals for this one but without a solid backbone, the movie misses the mark.
Basically, An American Werewolf in London impresses little for the most part. It is worth a one-time watch simply for the detail put into its atmospheric appeal but if you find low tech creature features to be sated, then this film will do very little to change your mind.