It was 35 years ago today that An American Werewolf in London was released. From the moment I first saw it in the theatre upon its initial release in 1981 it has been my favourite werewolf movie of all time and one of my favourite movies at all time. I have to admit that I was probably at the prime age for a werewolf movie centred on an American college student. That year I had just graduated high school and I was about to enter college. I could easily identify with poor David Kessler (played by David Naughton), who is forced to undergo a transformation every full moon.
Of course, looking back 1981 was a particularly good year for movies, especially for a young man fresh out of high school. It was the year that saw the release of such films as Scanners, Excalibur, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the original Clash of the Titans, Dragonslayer, and Superman II. And 1981 was definitely the Year of the Werewolf. Earlier in the year both The Howling and Wolfen were released. That having been said, I always thought American Werewolf in London was the best of the three. It was also by far the highest grossing at the box office.
The film's director and screenwriter John Landis developed the idea for An American Werewolf in London in 1969 when he was only 18 and working as a production assistant on Kelly's Heroes (1970) in Yugoslavia. According to Mr. Landis in various interviews, he witnessed a funeral held among the gypsies, complete with a complex burial ritual. Apparently the dead man was buried with rosaries and garlic to prevent him from rising from the grave. This led John Landis to the question of how a rational person would confront something he had believed to be untrue and how he would then deal with it. John Landis wrote the initial screenplay for An American Werewolf in London that year and then shelved it for literally years. It was after he had found success with the films Schlock (1973), The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), and The Blues Brothers (1980) that he returned to the idea of An American Werewolf in London.
An American Werewolf in London received largely positive reviews upon its release. It also did extremely well at the box office, earning $30 million in the United States and $62 million worldwide.
As to why An American Werewolf in London succeeded, it was probably multiple factors. Chief among these were the special effects. Indeed, Rick Baker won the Academy Award for Best Makeup for the film. At the time the transformation scenes were simply astounding. David Kessler did not simply transform from an human into a creature that still looked more man than wolf (as in Universal's classic The Wolf Man), but into a full-fledged, gigantic wolf. At the time the special effects in An American Werewolf in London were state of the art, and I must say that they still hold up well today. Indeed, I think that they are much more convincing than today's computer generated effects.
Of course, even great special effects would not have guaranteed success for An American Werewolf in London had it been a bad movie. Fortunately it is a very good movie. With An American Werewolf in London John Landis pulled off a very complicated juggling act, blending horror and comedy seamlessly together. At times it is a very funny movie. At other times it is very frightening. What is more, I think John Landis succeed in addressing his initial question of what happens when a rational human being is forced to confront the irrational.
An American Werewolf in London was followed by a sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris, in 1997. That same year it was adapted as a radio show for BBC Radio 1. Since then there have been various reports of a remake. Perhaps I am biased, but as far as I am concerned there is no need for a remake. An American Werewolf in London may not be a perfect film, but it is certainly a very good one. In a year that saw multiple werewolf movies released, it was the very best. In fact, I think it could possibly be the best werewolf movie ever made.