An American Werewolf In London

Review by Guido Henkel

An American Werewolf In London  (1981)
Universal Home Video

Length:        98 mins.
Rated:          R
Format:       Anamorphic Widescreen · 1.85:1
Languages:English
Subtitles:    English, French, Spanish
Extras:        Commentary Track
                     Original Featurette
                     Interviews
                     Outtakes
                     Storyboards
                     Photo Gallery
                     and much more

When in 1981 John Landis unleashed his horror hit "An American Werewolf In London" onto audiences, no one really knew what to expect. The film became an instant box office hit and horror classic, featuring horror dynamics that had not been seen in this form before. With groundbreaking special effects and Landis’ trademark humor, the film shocked and tickled at the very same, making it a roller coaster that tosses the viewer between fear and laughter. Universal Home Video has now prepared a "Collector’s Edition" for this movie, complete with a number of great supplements.

Two American students, David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are vacationing in Europe. Their tour starts in rainy England and is planned to take them all the way to sunny Rome. As they walk through the Welsh countryside they are attacked by a monster and Jack is killed. David awakes three weeks later from a coma in a London hospital, only to find that his own nightmares have just begun. His dead friend Jack repeatedly pays him visits – in increasingly decayed states, beautifully set up by make-up effects maestro Rick Baker – to warn him. He tells David that they had been attacked by a werewolf and that David now carries the seed of the wolf in him and unless he kills himself, soon he will turn into a werewolf himself and go on a rampage, killing innocent people, turning them in undead creatures themselves. David’s story is done away with a hallucinations and dreams by everyone, but as the full moon rises a few nights later, David undergoes a horrific transformation and turns into a ferocious beast that is now loose in the midst of London.

If you go into "An American Werewolf In London" expecting one of John Landis’ comedies, the first 10 minutes of the movie will be an extremely sobering experience. Very quickly the movie establishes itself firmly as a graphic horror movie with shocks and a good level of gore. At the same time, the film manages to create funny moments that are typical for Landis’ work, such as the fumbling police officer, David’s attempt to get arrested, and many more. As a matter of fact in many instances, it is the humor that makes the horror in the film tolerable, as Landis and his make-up guru Rick Baker get increasingly overt and graphic with their display of the aftermath of werewolf attacks towards the end of the film.

"An American Werewolf In London" is beautifully paced and not once does the tension of the film really let up. First we are shocked into the reality of the movie, then we are haunted by David’s nightmares, which are then replaced by his reality of turning into a werewolf and ultimately the maiming effects he has one the people around him. The film’s climax in which Landis stacks cars on top of each other, almost in "Blues Brothers" fashion, is truly memorable and shocking, and when the story comes to its resolution, the viewer is left breathless and speechless. In the end, "An American Werewolf In London" is a gory horror film that never degrades into mindless splatter and always challenges the viewer emotionally. Horror just doesn’t get much better and it is great see on this DVD that the movie is almost unaffected by its age. It works as well today as it terrified me 20 years ago when I first saw it in theaters.

Universal Home Video brings us "An American Werewolf In London" in a beautiful widescreen transfer that is enhanced for 16x9 television sets. The transfer is very clean and devoid of any speckles or defects, although I noticed two broken splices, causing the image to jump for a split second. Grain is evident in a number of shots, but other than that, the presentation is absolutely clean and free of blemishes, giving this film an incredibly vivid look that is very film-like. The colors of the transfer are fantastic. From the subtle gradients of the layered fog in the moors, the atmospheric blue hues of the night, to the natural fleshtones, all the way to the stark red blood, this DVD brings out the best of the movie in vibrant tones and tinges like never before. The level of detail is also very good, allowing you to take in every bit of Baker’s staggering effects work and the film’s skillful cinematography. Blacks are absolutely solid and shadows never break up, loosing detail. The result is a bold image that is extremely dimensional and has a lot of depth, just the right mix for a horror film in which what you don’t see is just as important as what you do see. The compression is also without flaws, maintaining all definition of the transfer without introducing any compression artifacts.

The movie’s mono audio track has been remixed and is presented as a 5.1 channel mix in Dolby Digital and DTS on this DVD. The remix has helped to give the track a nice natural ambience and a good bass roll-off, which makes especially the dialogues less harsh-sounding than in the original mono track – which is not included on this DVD. However, the surround usage is somewhat limited. It is mostly used for effects purposes, where it is extremely effective, as the wolf is circling the students and continually howls at them from all directions for example. In other instances the surround channels are engaged much less prominently but overall it is a good remix that makes the best of the mono source elements. The frequency response has been vastly improved, giving the film a natural-sounding quality without sibilance or distortion. The dynamic range is also very good, vastly enhancing the experience that is "An American Werewolf In London." Differences between the Dolby Digital and DTS version are marginal to say the least and not really noticeable.
Fans of the film will love the extras that come with this DVD, so much is clear. Offering a great mix of original features from 1981 and new material, the bonus material found on this disc give you a very good look behind the scenes of the film, most notably the creation of the spectacular make-up effects that still baffle and amaze even today.

First up is a feature length commentary track featuring actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. The track is entertaining and informative as the actors share their memories of the making of the movie and offer a great number of behind-the-scenes anecdotes. They try to maintain a light-hearted note throughout and manage to relay quite a few exciting tidbits that I am sure will please fans.

The 1981 "Making Of An American Werewolf In London" featurette can also be found on this DVD. Featuring interviews with cast and crew members – man, were they young - the documentary is as informative as it is entertaining. John Landis is someone who could easily do stand-up comedy and it shows in every interview, including the footage included in this featurette. Covering anything from the serious to the hilarious, the featurette gives viewers a good look at the people who made the film, their aspirations as well as the means by which they accomplished it.

Next up is a brand-new interview with John Landis, as he remembers the making of "An American Werewolf In London" in retrospect. Once again his presence is infectious and his stories funny and exciting. He seems to remember every tiny detail about the making of the film and allows viewers to share the memories that he has on so many levels.

The same is basically true for the new interview with Rick Baker, who has quickly become a living legend among make-up artists after his work on "An American Werewolf In London." In a 10-minute interview he offers valuable insight into his inspiration and approach to the wolf make-up and in rare, unused footage, viewers get a good look at how these effects were ultimately achieved. In his understated manner Baker covers many aspects of his work on the film, but ultimately the centerpiece of it is his explanation of the infamous transformation scene, combined with great behind-the-scenes footage.

Then, get ready for some workshop footage as Baker is taking a mold of David Naughton’s hand. It is a candid look behind the scenes that gives viewers an indication, just how tedious and laborious the process must have been to create all the make-up effects for the film and how taxing it must have been on the actors to work with them.

4-minutes of outtakes and "mysterious" footage, sadly without audio, is also part of the release, as well as a storyboard to film comparison of the climactic porn cinema scene in the movie. A gallery of production and publicity photographs, production notes and cast & crew biographies round out this release, together with DVD-ROM features, and bonus trailers.

Ever since I have seen "An American Werewolf In London" I have never been able to look at Tottenham Court Road subway station the same ever again, and every time I visit it, I turn around to revisualize the memorable shot from atop the escalator of the wolf appearing out of the hallway. The film has had a lasting impact on me, and to me it is simply the best werewolf movie ever made. Universal Home Video is serving up a grandiose special edition for the film here that contains a good number of exciting and informative extras. A version that I cherish. The film is presented in beautiful quality, making "An American Werewolf In London" an item that has to go on every horror fan’s chopping list.

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This title is scheduled for release on 9/18/2001
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August 24, 2001

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