Even as it keeps one paw planted firmly in the horror-comedy tradition of Young Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London deftly manages to jolt the viewer with scenes of genuine terror -- this feat was unique in 1981, when the film was released, though it eventually became the hot horror trend of the late '90s. The film opens with two college chums, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), embarking on a backpacking trip across Europe. They wind up in a quaint town where the tendency toward tight-lipped English reserve is in stark contrast to the local legend: werewolves that howl and bite. Sure enough, a wolf attacks the boys, and once David is bitten, his lycanthropic destiny begins to get the better of him. Complicating matters is Alex (Jenny Agutter), David's accommodating nurse, who finds David fetching until the unnatural blood lust takes over his body and mind. Director John Landis, fresh off his comedy hits Animal House and The Blues Brothers, goes for slightly more subtle laughs here; employing multiple versions of the haunting "Blue Moon," for instance, most notably in David's first man-wolf transformation. Broader bits, such as Dunne's bone-dry zombie turn, help lay the foundation for the self-referential shockers to come (like the Scream trilogy). Rick Baker earned the first-ever Academy Award for makeup for his remarkable work on An American Werewolf in London; and he teamed up again with Landis in '84 to create monster makeup for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video.
Because of the admittedly justified attention paid to Rick Baker's amazing werewolf transformation effects, certain other elements of this irreverent, impressively realized horror film have been neglected. John Landis' witty script and careful direction strike just the right balance between nervous laughter and savage gore, and a pair of nightmares near the beginning of the film are among the most canny and effective shock sequences of the '80s. The appealing cast is highlighted by Griffin Dunne, who turns in a sardonically funny performance as an increasingly grotesque decomposing zombie which provides most of the film's considerable dark humor. Landis reverts to his usual car crashes and mayhem in the film's disappointing conclusion, and throws in another "See You Next Wednesday" reference for his fans, but the majority of this film -- though definitely not for the squeamish -- is wonderfully entertaining and highly recommended.