An American Werewolf in London

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Beware the moon, David.

An American Werewolf in London is a 1981 Universal comedy/horror film written and directed by John Landis. (It was advertised with the Tagline, "From the director of Animal House, a different sort of animal.") Starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, and John Woodvine, the film featured special effects by master make-up artist Rick Baker. (Frank Oz also made a cameo appearance, as did Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy -- not to mention Landis himself.) It was shot on location in the UK, with Wales standing in for the Yorkshire moors, and "The Black Swan" pub in London for "The Slaughtered Lamb." The background music consisted of a number of cannily deployed popular songs (all of which have "moon" in the title), bolstered with some eleven minutes of moodily atmospheric music by Elmer Bernstein.

AWiL was not particularly successful in its initial run. Critics were reportedly confused about whether to regard it as a comedy film with horror elements or a horror film with comedy relief, though Landis himself regards it as entirely in the vein of the old Universal monster films of the Forties. (There are also striking similarities between the Landis film and a 1941 British film, The Night Has Eyes, starring James Mason.) Since the Eighties, the film has come back from the dead (so to speak) as a Cult Classic. Naughton and Dunne handled their "buddy-body" banter excellently (the film really might have been entitled Road to Lycanthropy); Jenny Agutter as sexy nurse Alex Price is supremely enticing; and the acting throughout is generally well-handled -- the characters come across as both interesting and sympathetic. It is true, however, that Landis does not seem quite to know what to do with such engaging characters; the initial parts of the film are both thrilling and funny, but about two-thirds of the way through, the plot seems to lose direction, and merely piles gory scene on gory scene in massive confusion until the film abruptly -- stops.

AWiL has infuriated some Britons, particularly Northerners, with its somewhat cartoonish and stereotypical depictions of life in the UK; it is possible that this was a deliberate echoing on Landis's part of the sketchily researched versions of Britain found in the Universal horror cycles of the Thirties and Forties.

In 1997 a sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, appeared; despite an engaging pair of leads (Tom Everett Scott and Julie Delpy), this was so fundamentally ill-conceived and executed (Landis was barely involved at all) that it was not very well received.

Based largely on this film, Michael Jackson engaged Landis to direct his 1982 "Thriller" music video, and hired Rick Baker to do the make-up effects for it.

There is now a Slaughtered Lamb Pub in the Greenwich Village section of New York City.

A remake of the film is rumored to be in the works.

Tropes used in An American Werewolf in London include:
  • Academy Award: Was awarded the first Oscar for Best Makeup in the year the category was established. The Oscar was presented by Vincent Price.
  • All Just a Dream: The nightmare sequence is actually a parody of this, in that David has a horrific dream, then wakes up and believes everything is fine... until a creature comes from the curtains and stabs the nurse! Then he wakes up again, exclaiming "Holy Shit!".
  • Ambiguously Jewish: It's never confirmed that the two guys are Jewish, but they have Ashkenazi-sounding names and use a bit of Yiddish, though they're both from New York. A nurse suspects that David is Jewish after checking out his package, but Alex says that circumcision is no longer strictly a Jewish thing.
  • American Title: In London.
  • Body Horror: Not only David's, but also Jack's gradual transformation.
  • Britain Is Only London: The film starts out in the North, but David quickly winds up in London after his injury, even though it's hundreds of miles away.
  • British Stuffiness: Averted. David tries to get himself arrested in Trafalgar Square by shouting curse words, but the local British aren't particularly insulted and assume he's got some other motive.
  • British Tourist Attractions: Piccadilly Circus, the Tower Bridge, Trafalgar Square, the Zoo.
  • But You Screw One Goat!: Not a direct reference, but Deadpan Snarker Jack does call out a flirty "Bye, girls!" to the truckful of sheep after the driver drops the boys off near East Proctor.
  • Catch Phrase: Each of Landis's films works in the phrase, "See You Next Wednesday" somewhere. In AWiL, it serves as the title of the porn film David and Jack and "friends" watch.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Frank Oz appears as an American consulate. Soon afterwards, David has a dream featuring Miss Piggy, who is voiced by Frank Oz.
  • City of Weirdos: David tries to get himself locked up so he won't kill more people at moonrise, but is merely told to move along when he starts shouting insults about the royals and Britain's cultural icons in public. This, after his running around the park naked is greeted with a mere sniff of disdain by an older lady.
  • Credits Gag: The credits feature an Our Lawyers Advised This Trope gag.
  • Creepy Child: The two children who laugh at David outside Alex's flat are actually credited as "Creepy Little Girl."
  • The Dead Have Eyes: Apparently, eyes don't rot.
  • Dead Person Conversation: Not so "boring" after all, it would seem.
  • Death by Cameo: John Landis appears as a pedestrian who is hurled through a plate-glass window by a crashing car.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: One of the film's great successes is actually making David and Jack likable before the werewolf appears.
  • Downer Ending: David's love interest confesses her love to him while he's in wolf form. She actually seems to get to him a little, but he still dies in the end.
    • That being said it's more of a Bittersweet Ending, albeit very bitter, but if David wasn't killed he would have murdered more people doomed to be among the undead.
  • Dream Within a Dream: David awakens from a nightmare only to find himself in another nightmare.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: The animals can tell that David is a werewolf, and all go insane at him. Well, except the wolves.
  • Evil Feels Good: David awakens from his first transformation feeling fantastic and re-energized.
  • The Florence Nightingale Effect: How Nurse Price falls in love with David. She finds him handsome and "sad." Another nurse admits to checking out his penis, which hints that his being a werewolf may be inspiring these feelings as well.
  • Ghostapo: Because he is a nice Jewish boy, David's nightmares naturally involve hideous monsters -- wearing SS uniforms.
  • Hand or Object Underwear: David goes through a few of these after waking up naked in a wolf cage at the zoo.

"A naked American man stole my balloons."

  • Hello, Nurse!: As Griffin Dunne remarks in the DVD commentary à propos Alex's treatment of David: "I want to stay in that hospital!"
  • Hope Spot: The three seconds where it looks like Alex is about to save the day with the Power Of Love, or at least be the one to mercy kill him, as he hinted at earlier in the film. Instead, he lunges at her and gets gunned down by the police.
  • Idiot Ball: The two guys really don't have any reason to wander off the road. They're in the dark, in a strange area with no real idea of where they're going. Why would they just wander into the moors after being warned several times that it's dangerous? In fact, they quickly find themselves lost. And eaten.
    • Admittedly, they don't wander off the road intentionally. They're unnerved by the reaction of the locals and they start joking to calm themselves down. When they leave the road, it is a complete accident and they don't even realize it until it's too late.
  • The London Underground: Where Gerald Bringsley has an unfortunate encounter.
  • Mirror Scare: Jack appears behind David when he adjusts a mirror.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Though poor David Naughton wasn't laughing, after Dr. Pepper sacked him as its spokesman for appearing nude on film.
  • Names to Run Away From Really Fast: "The Slaughtered Lamb," with a grisly picture of a severed wolf's head on the sign. Old British pubs do tend to have rather blunt names, though.
  • Nightmare Sequence: Several, getting worse and worse and worse...
  • Oop North: Wheer tha maught find East Proctor.
  • Or Was It a Dream?: David awakens from a nightmare only to find himself in a Dream Within a Dream.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: No one killed by a werewolf can pass on to the afterlife until its bloodline is cut off, leaving David haunted by The Undead forms of the people he himself has killed, and at least one of the people killed by the werewolf that bit him.
  • Our Lawyers Advised This Trope: "This Is a Work of Fiction -- any resemblance to actual persons living, dead, or undead, is purely coincidental."
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: The werewolf in this film is a definitely quadrupedal, oversized animal, looking rather like a Huskie that has swallowed a large barrel, with limbs set more like a crocodile's than a wolf's; moreover, it has a howl like a train-whistle.
  • Painful Transformation: As in, bone-cracking. One of the best, most definitive examples of all time.
  • Real Song Theme Tune: "Bluuuue Mooooooon..."
  • Remember the Alamo!: "I remember The Alamo. I saw it once in London -- in Leicester Square."
  • Resist the Beast: David tries but, alas, fails.
  • Sci-Fi Writers Have No Sense of Scale: The main characters, when they are attacked are taken from the Yorkshire Moors, in the North of England, where there are any number of good hospitals, to London, which is in the South. The contrast between the Moors and a northern city wouldn't have been as severe as with metropolitan London.
  • Sex Is Violence: Both Alex and David are shown biting each other repeatedly as foreplay.
  • Shout-Out:
    • As Jack says of the pentangle at The Slaughtered Lamb: "Universal Studios and Lon Chaney, Jr., maintained that's the mark of The Wolf Man!"
    • The pair also toss fictional references back and forth when they hear the howls:

David: The Hound of the Baskervilles?
Jack: Pecos Bill?
David: Heathcliff.
Jack: Heathcliff didn't howl.
David: No, but he was on the moors.

    • The Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed is also mentioned.
  • Shower of Love: David and Alex, and don't we envy both of them.
  • Silver Bullet: Averted, and mocked. When David is advised by his victims to kill himself, he asks, "Don't I need a silver bullet?", whereupon Jack tartly replies, "Oh, be serious!"
  • Sinister Subway: The London Underground is suddenly quite empty when a werewolf comes prowling.
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: Roughly around the middle somewhere. John Landis said it's not a comedy, but in context he seemed to have been committing an equivocation fallacy between "comedy" as opposed to "drama" and "comedy" as opposed to "tragedy".
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: To the extreme, particularly in the ending. The songs were all apparently chosen for having "moon" in the lyrics rather than fitting the mood of the scene.
  • Stay on the Path: "Beware the moon... and stick to the road... oops."
  • Stylistic Suck: The porn film See You Next Wednesday that David and Jack watch features some delightfully absurd scenes that go nowhere. In one scene, an angry man bursts in on the copulating couple to accuse his lover of cheating on him. Both the man and the woman have no idea who he is, so he apologizes and leaves. Later, the naked woman answers a phone call, but it's a wrong number, so she hangs up. David comments, "Nice movie!" leaving it unclear whether he's being sarcastic or if the film is intentionally some sort of Dada porno.
  • Take That: One line, "Sean, I think there are some hooligans in the park again," (spoken as a werewolf is ripping some people apart) is a parody of a remark reportedly made by Margaret Thatcher.
  • This Was His True Form: The monstrous werewolf that attacks David is revealed to be a small, bald old man in his true form.
  • To Serve Man: The werewolf cuisine of choice, though venison is apparently David's dream-food.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: East Proctor.
  • Transformation Trauma: One of the most famous werewolf transformation sequences, courtesy of Rick Baker -- and this is without CG.
  • The Undead: Those killed by a werewolf haunt him in the form of rotting, but sentient corpses. It is left somewhat uncertain whether they are actual material beings or not.
  • Urine Trouble: "Those sheep shit on my pack."
  • You Fail Geography Forever: The film presents Yorkshire and London as being fairly close together, in spite of being on opposite ends of England.
  • You Have to Believe Me: First, Jack tries to get David to believe him: "Goddammit, David, please believe me! You'll kill and make others like me! I'm not having a nice time here." Later David tries the same with Alex and others.