“An American Werewolf in London,” written and directed by John Landis

I just finished re-watching this movie from 1981, and I was frankly surprised by how well it’s held up. I was also glad to see, once again, the original version, and not the “sanitized for my protection” censored version that always pops up on TV this time of year.

The story is about two American college students on a backpacking tour of Europe, starting in England. Friends David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne) decide to stop in a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, hoping for some hot food and friendly company on a dark and stormy night. They get neither, or course, and when they foolishly inquire about that strange pentagram carved in the wall, you can feel the temperature in the room drop about sixty degrees. Feeling unwanted, the boys head back out into the night, with only the ominous advice to “Watch out for the moon” and “Stay on the road” to send them on their way.

They wander off the road, as irresponsible American backpackers are wont to do, and get lost.  Then they get attacked by the monster on the moors – a werewolf. Jack Goodman is killed, but David Kessler escapes death when some of the men from the pub show up and shoot the werewolf. Kessler wakes up in a London hospital three weeks later, disoriented and telling a crazy tale about being attacked, not by “a lunatic” as the official police report says, but by a giant dog, or wolf. Oh, and he also starts getting visits from his old, dead friend, Jack.

Jack’s visits were some of my favorite parts of this movie. Even though he is a steadily deteriorating corpse, he always manages to say something funny.

The special effects in this movie — specifically the werewolf transformation scene, and Jack’s gradual slide into decay – won Academy Awards, and rightly so. Rick Baker’s work was awesome.

Special effect aside, however, my absolute favorite part of this movie was the soundtrack. Consisting of a bunch of rock and roll classics, all referring to the moon – Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” – these tunes were a genius addition to the film. Where oh where, you ask, was Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”? Nobody knows.

A couple of things about this movie that bugged me was the astonishingly naïve Nurse Price (played by Jenny Agutter) who, like an idiot, falls for her crazy patient and then brings him home once he’s out of the hospital.  Sigh. I expect that kind of reckless abandon from a doctor, but a nurse?

Speaking of doctors, I really, really, really disliked Kessler’s doctor, Dr. Hirsh, who was so patronizingly dismissive of the nurses at first. But then, for some reason, he decides to investigate Kessler’s story – even going to the trouble of visiting The Slaughtered Lamb on his day off – and suddenly, he’s a character I grow to like. He even treats Nurse Price like an equal (or at least a fellow human being) by the end.

One of the best throwaway bits in this movie involved that strange porno movie playing in the theater near the end where Kessler meets up with Jack again, and Jack has brought along some of Kessler’s werewolf victims from the previous night. The porno movie seems to be nothing but a bunch of sex and nudity interspersed with wrong number phone calls, and mistaken identity encounters. Hilarious.

This film was famous for being both funny and horrifying, and while it definitely was both of those things, it also felt a little abbreviated.   The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying, I thought.  Instead of some kind of closure, we’re treated to Kessler’s naked, bullet-riddled body lying in a London alley surrounded by his girlfriend and a British SWAT team. The End.

Really, John?

I kind of expected more from the guy who gave us “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, and the outstanding “Blues Brothers.” But what do I know?

8 thoughts on ““An American Werewolf in London,” written and directed by John Landis”

  1. Gwen, we seemed to both enjoy this movie for a lot of the same reasons, but you mentioned something I noticed, but quickly dismissed: The doctor’s flip-flopping attitude. I mean, he went from “sedate him” to “he’s a werewolf” with little evidence!

    It was a great movie, and you’re right: it did hold up for well for being 35 years old.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, Chad. I missed that part, believe it or not. Funny how I liked him so much better when he stopped being an upper-class twit and started showing some character.


  2. Hey! I resent the comment that you would expect doctors to naively take a crazy patient home and sleep with them. I will have you know I have never taken one of my patients home or slept with her. LOL. But I agree, that nurse never believed him until the end when the doctor basically talked her into it. So why oh why would you do such a thing–maybe it was the sexy American accent.

    I loved the soundtrack as well and found the doctor AND the inspectors to be daft fools. The doctor did redeem himself but I will say that his treatment of the nurses initially is unfortunately pretty spot on for the time period. Even now there are docs who treat nurses as if they are second hand citizens there specifically to wait on the doctor’s every whim.

    You know, I noticed the weird porno story as well and I wondered what the point was, because they did tale the time to show us quite a bit of it. Is there some secret there I missed?

    The end was so abrupt it is my main complaint. First of all, besides the fact that David was a werewolf, what exactly was so special about the monster? he was just shot and killed. No silver bullets, no special strength, no real fight there. So, the first time I ever watched it, I thought “Is love going to reverse the curse? Is this some weird Disney ending?” but nope, he was shot and killed just like any other feral wolf in a London alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, you know, about how there was “nothing special” about the werewolf. I was very disappointed in the ending, and can only attribute its abruptness to either a lack of funds, or ADHD in the director.
      And about the infamous doctor/nurse “relationship” — yeah, I’m well-aware of how of how shitty it was, and, in some instances, still is.
      And the “reckless” comment? Hey, I calls ’em like I sees ’em.


  3. The ending did seem rather abrupt, but I felt that worked for this movie. There really wasn’t any other way to end it. Jack had started foreshadowing David’s inevitable demise from his first undead visit. There was no where else for the story to go, and the sudden shock of the end was probably the pinnacle of the horror in the story. David is a tragic character, doomed from the moment he and Jack wandered out of The Slaughtered Lamb. So for me, it was closure. Though I know plenty of people who feel more akin to your thoughts on the ending. My mom hates this film because she wanted him to be redeemed at the end instead of killed.

    The doctors character I’m torn on.I found him likable enough at the beginning. More like he was keeping his nurses in line that were sneaking a peak at their patients genitals and joking about his circumcision rather than being mean to them. However, his sudden shift from assuming David was crazy to investigating seemed unprovoked.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. After I watched the film, I researched and found out that Landis directed several of the other comedies, which makes sense as to why he would have the humor in this movie. One thing I hadn’t thought of though is that in the 80’s those goofy types of films were prevalent and this is just another that fits into that era.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been thinking about the ending and I wonder if anyone has suggestions to make it less abrupt? The film was so much in David’s POV that it might feel cheap and humorless to take it elsewhere at this point. I think a pan out to the London skyline might have given me more closure, maybe some sad music in the credit, but would that have fit the film?

    My other thought was a scene in the afterlife where he meets Jack again (all the other victims are walking away annoyed with him because he didn’t kill himself when he had the chance). But he and Jack now go backpacking into the afterlife which might be cute, but also might undercut the horror of that last scene… I don’t know. Anyone else have thoughts?

    Where oh where, you ask, was Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”? Nobody knows.

    I know.

    But I’m not telling.


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