Retro Review: An American Werewolf in The Plaza

By Philip Nutman
Contributing Blogger

Splatter Cinema Presents AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981); Dir: John Landis; Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne; Special Makeup Effects: Rick Baker; Tues. July 12; 9:30 PM; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

Yugoslavia, 1969. Teenage PA/gopher, John Landis, was working on the Clint Eastwood World War II comedy caper, KELLY’S HEROES. While traveling to one of the movie’s many locations, the film crew came to a standstill at a crossroads as a large group of locals performed an ancient burial rite. The corpse that was the subject of all the attention was being buried due to local custom because the dead was believed to be a lycanthrope – a werewolf.

The image of this ritual and the experience stayed with Landis, the future director of THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) and the huge box office successes NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (1978) and THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), finally finding its place in cinema history as the basis for the classic 1981 horror flick, AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.

As the movie’s been so popular since it came out in the summer of 1981, you probably know the story: two clean-cut American college students decide to back-pack around England and make the mistake of going off the beaten path and end up being attacked by a werewolf. One dies; the other (David Naughton) is mauled and becomes a werewolf and the results aren’t pretty. As the body count goes up, the victims come back to haunt the lycanthrope. Tthe scene in a London soft-porn movie theatre is both creepy, amusing and disturbing as the mutilated victims urge the titular werewolf to kill himself and end the accursed chain of predator and victim.

David Naughton begins his transformation in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Copyright 1981 Universal Pictures.

While Landis is a huge fan of the original Universal Pictures’ THE WOLF-MAN (1941), the director also is a natural comedian and decided to see if he could balance horror with comedy – which he largely succeeded in doing.

AN AMERCIAN WEREWOLF is first and foremost a fun movie. It’s also loaded with weirdness and more than a few shock moments. And Oscar-winning make-up effects artist Rick Baker’s pioneering use of prosthetic bladder technology made the werewolf transformations physically painfully to watch (no crap CGI here, folks!). A few months later, Joe Dante’s adaptation of a trashy horror novel, THE HOWLING, came out, and FX artist Rob Bottin (best known for John Carpenter’s version of THE THING) used the same principles. These two very different werewolf movies together heralded a new breed of cinematic wolfman. Gone were the old-fashioned in-camera effects, the lap dissolves as groundbreaking monster make-up trailblazers such as Jack P. Pierce (who created Karloff’s Frankenstein monster) had to work with back in the day. Baker and Bottin’s characters stretched, howled in pain – and physically expanded in front of your eyes for the first time.

Since ATLRetro doesn’t believe in plot spoilers, no more details here for the uninitiated. For the faithful, who probably grew up watching the flick on VHS or DVD, now’s the chance, thanks to the Splatter Cinema gang, to get your werewolf fix on the big screen at The Plaza.

Just be wary of naked men stealing your balloons…


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