Having recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary, An American Werewolf In London has received a stunning 4K Ultra HD release from Arrow Video that’s packed with special features and behind the scenes footage, that reminds viewers that this relatively low budget horror film that studios were scared about taking the risk on is one of the most important, and influential films in cinema history.
Chances are most of us will know the story of An American Werewolf In London, it’s been a mainstay on television in Britain for years and sold ridiculously well on home release when it first came out (I distinctly remember stealing my uncle’s VHS copy to watch as a child). But for those unawares, the plot follows two American backpackers as they journey around England.
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The film begins with David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), two young men from New York, as they’re journeying across the Yorkshire moors. Standing out against the drab and gloomy countryside around them, in their bright puffer jackets and big backpacks, the two of them wander the desolate landscape, griping about the weather. Eventually they find a small village pub, the Slaughtered Lamb, in which to take shelter; however, the two of them immediately garner unwelcome glances and muttered comments from the locals.
When Jack asks about the strange pentagram painted onto the pub wall, they are told to leave, given two pieces of advice as they do so; ‘keep to the road’ and ‘beware the moon’. Journeying out into the night in the pouring rain, Jack and David soon find themselves accidentally straying from the safety of the road, wandering out into the moors. After hearing a terrifying howling, and realising the full moon is shining down upon them, they are attacked by a vicious beast.
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When David awakens following the attack he learns that it’s a few weeks later, and that he’s in hospital in London. Here he learns that whilst he survived the attack from a supposed ‘escaped lunatic’, Jack was killed. Trying to come to terms with his loss David begins to have horrific nightmares about monsters, and soon hallucinates his dead friend, who warns him that the two of them were attacked by a werewolf, and that if David doesn’t kill himself he’ll become one too, and then more killings will begin.
When it was first released in 1981, An American Werewolf In London surprised audiences for two main reasons. The first was that the film managed to walk the incredibly fine line between horror and comedy, due in large part to the wonderful writing and directing of John Landis, who at this point was most well known for comedy films such as Animal House, and The Blues Brothers. The film wasn’t silly or slapstick, and had a very natural form of comedy where characters expressed humour in very real ways, often using it to help deal with the terror of what was happening. The film also didn’t downplay the horror either, being genuinely scary and featuring some jump scares and frights that have become so copied over the decades that they’ve become tropes of the genre. Other horror comedies have tried to blend the two genre’s together since, but none have really managed to do so half as well.
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The second way that the film shocked audiences was thanks to the werewolf transformations. Up to this point werewolf films took a rather laid-back approach to these kind of things, either having slow dissolves over actors as they sat in a chair getting hairier, or using clever cuts to switch between stages of make-ups. These older films made the transformations appear quick and easy, and this was something John Landis set out to change.
With the help of makeup artist and special effects wizard Rick Baker, An American Werewolf In London made the transformation into a painful, shocking experience, and audiences watched as David’s body broke and twisted as he became the titular beast. The effects were so revolutionary that hundreds of films since have changed the way they handle transformation scenes to copy this gold standard, and Baker himself won the first ever Best Make-up Academy Award.
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This new release not only brings audiences a wonderfully detailed new version of the film, presented in 4K for the first time from the original camera negative, but also packs the disc full of extra features. There are a number of archival behind the scenes looks and interviews with the cast and crew, mostly taken from around the time of the film’s release as part of the original promotion, but there’s also a lot of new stuff on here too.
There’s a full feature length documentary about the history of werewolves in cinema from the early days of the Universal Monsters right up to this film, the feature length exploration of the film, Beware The Moon, and a video essay that looks at how the film explores Jewish identity. There are also new interviews, looks at the special effects, and discussions about how the film inspired other filmmakers. Added to this are two full length commentaries, one with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, who share their experiences making the film, and the other with filmmaker Paul Davis, who created the Beware The Moon documentary, which goes into a lot of detail around the making of the movie.
Having grown up watching An American Werewolf In London, having seen it dozens of times and counting it amongst my favourite films, this was easily the best experience I’d had with the movie. The new 4K release looks beautiful, everything is crisp and clear, and the extras are amazing. Despite the film only being an hour and a half long I spent about five times that length going through everything this release had to offer, because it was packed with so much content. Whether you’re a long time fan or coming to this new, this might be the best version of this film on the market, and well worth the price.
An American Werewolf In London is out on 4K Ultra HD Limited Edition Blu-ray on 14th March from Arrow Video.