An American Werewolf in London
Universal // R // $26.98 // September 15, 2009
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 15, 2009
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Recommended
E - M A I L
this review to a friend
R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
My
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personal favorite from the, uh, werewolf renaissance of the early '80s, John Landis' An American Werewolf in London opens with a couple of college kids -- David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) -- thumbing their way across Europe. The British moors aren't so much the sunny beaches and easy women they'd pictured, but hey...! It's early yet, and they'll have plenty of time to trot over to Italy and Spain before the season's out, right? In the meantime, the two of 'em duck into a pub in the middle of nowhere charmingly named The Slaughtered Lamb for a break from the brutally cold weather. The xenophobic locals don't take kindly to a couple of Yanks swooping in, especially after being asked about the five-pointed star scrawled on the wall. They leave Jack and David with a warning: "Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware the moon." Since the movie's called An American Werewolf in London and not Two Americans Who Heed Creepy Brits' Ominous Advice, the smart money says you can connect the dots from there.

Flash forward a few weeks. David wakes up hundreds of miles away in London, somberly informed that his friend Jack had been butchered by an escaped lunatic, and he himself had been out of it ever since. David tells everyone in earshot that it wasn't a man but some sort of...wild dog that mauled Jack, but aside from a lovely nurse (Jenny Agutter) who's intrigued with this strange American boy, everyone assumes he's just still reeling from the savagery of that attack. Not only is seemingly everyone convinced that he's losing his mind, but David himself starts to question his sanity as he's tormented by a slew of grotesque nightmares and is visited repeatedly by Jack, who's decomposing, sure, but...hey! They're still friends. His bloodied, mutilated pal tells David that he'll become a werewolf with the next full moon and that he has to kill himself before he transforms into a four-legged, spade-clawed monster. Until the last of the bloodline is severed, everyone he munches on is cursed to skulk the earth as the walking undead. David tries to dupe himself into believing it's just another in a long series of nightmares, but...again, there's a reason "An American Werewolf in London" is splashed across the marquee.

The movie may be most renowned for Rick Baker's Oscar-winning make-up effects, but unlike other visual spectacles from the era, An American Werewolf in London doesn't define itself purely through latex, air bladders, and buckets of stage blood. An American Werewolf in London didn't even get the memo that it's a horror movie, really, and that's a huge part of the reason I love it so much. Landis doesn't lean on heavy-handed stings in the score or a neverending barrage of ominous imagery, and it's that combination of the mundane with David's gradual descent that's so enthralling...that makes it feel so much more grounded in reality. This is a flick with a rotting, mutilated corpse disinterestedly munching on a piece of toast, gossiping about who all happened to show up at his funeral. The tattered flesh around his neck flapping all the while, Jack practically mentions offhand that -- oh, I
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almost forgot! -- David, I say this as a friend, but you're gonna transform into a four-legged killing machine in a couple of days unless you off yourself. That's a hell of a lot more interesting than some sort of orchestral boom and a grim-voiced gypsy emerging from the shadows.

It may have a cacklingly bleak sense of humor, but don't shrug An American Werewolf in London off as just another dark comedy. The kills are unsettling and brutal despite not being especially graphic, and the masterfully staged stalking in the tube station in particular looks like the work of a seasoned pro, not a comedy director in his first genre outing. The movie's sense of humor actually serves to heighten the tension, and the fact that the wolf doesn't rear his fanged head like clockwork every ten minutes infuses the attacks with that much more of an impact. Rick Baker's make-up effects of David's slow, agonizing transformation still hold up startlingly well nearly thirty years later, and the fleeting shots of the wolf himself are used sparingly but effectively.

Younger, jaded horror fanatics might laugh it off as slow and dated, but it's their loss: An American Werewolf in London gets the nod as my all-time favorite werewolf flick and one of my favorites in general, period. This is among just a handful of horror/comedies to deliver as many scares as laughs, and the mix of upbeat music and British mundanity in the context of a werewolf movie still grabs me all these years later. I've torn into An American Werewolf in London more times than I'd care to guess over the years, and it still seems every bit as fresh and original to me now as it did back when I was a young, wide-eyed tyke.

Universal's slowly been catching up on the stack of catalog titles they churned out on HD DVD, but with both Halloween and a remake of The Wolf Man lurking somewhere off in the shadows, they opted to dust off An American Werewolf in London again on Blu-ray. Though the technical end of things really hasn't changed much since that last high-def release, this disc does sport a couple of new extras, chief among them an hour and a half documentary on the making of the film. It's a drag that this same sort of effort didn't go into further polishing this lackluster transfer and its clumsy six-channel remix, though. A better presentation would've made An American Werewolf in London an absolutely essential purchase, but this...? Just Recommended.


Video
I had two kneejerk reactions after popping in this Blu-ray disc:
  1. For whatever reason, I was under the impression that Universal had hammered out a brand new remaster of An American Werewolf in London, but this Blu-ray disc looks identical to the HD DVD from a few years back. Admittedly, I didn't snap screengrabs of both discs and pore over drastically zoomed-in versions in Photoshop or anything, but toggling back and forth between my Blu-ray deck and my old HD DVD player, I couldn't pick out any differences at all: no perceptible boost in detail over the last high-def release, the same flecks of dust in the same places, identical color saturation... Even though the VC-1 encode on this Blu-ray disc has twice the bit budget of that HD DVD release, it didn't amount to much of anything in the scenes I compared.
  2. I was extremely disappointed in the HD DVD when it first came out, but I guess having upgraded since then to a bigger, better display made at least some sort of difference. An American Werewolf in London isn't even close to some startling revelation in high-def, but it does look better than I remembered.
It
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kind of goes without saying that this Blu-ray disc is a monstrous upgrade over the dull, blurry DVD release from 2001. The 1.85:1 high definition image is orders of magnitude crisper, better defined, and more richly detailed. Its colors are a good bit punchier and more natural too, and the couple of abrupt jumps in that musty old DVD are nowhere to be found here. Rick Baker's prosthetic effects hold up remarkably well under the scrutiny of 1080p; there's the legendary transformation, natch, but the tattered bits of flesh that wriggle around whenever Jack post-mortemly chats up his old pal also score a couple of depraved laughs, and the boost in detail offered here just makes it all that much more impressive. For longtime fans of An American Werewolf... who haven't caught the movie in high definition up until now, this Blu-ray disc -- despite its flaws -- is well-worth seeking out.

On the other hand, contrast tends to be rather flat, shadow detail is muddy, and black levels are weak. Like quite a number of other films from the era, the photography is somewhat soft and extremely grainy. I personally love the gritty texture of film grain, but it's more coarse here than I'm used to seeing, and that sheen of grain can look unsettlingly noisy and unstable at times in motion. A modest amount of artificial sharpening has been tossed on, resulting in light halos around edges throughout much of the movie as well. The image is further marred by a mild amount of speckling and wear.

It doesn't look as if Universal really went to all that much effort to remaster An American Werewolf..., and part of me's curious just how long the studio was sitting on this master before dusting it off for the HD DVD release nearly three years ago, let alone before recycling it again here. It's not just that the high-def video has a processed look to it, but even that manipulation looks dated. Yes, An American Werewolf... was a dark and grainy movie to begin with, and I certainly didn't waltz in expecting something glossy and sparkling, but I can't shake the feeling that there's still considerable room for improvement. Then again, even though this Blu-ray disc is more mediocre than it ought to be, it's worlds removed from earlier DVD releases that are borderline-unwatchable these days. It's not worth an upgrade for owners of the HD DVD unless they're chomping at the bit for the new extras, but I'd still recommend this Blu-ray disc, though anyone but the most frothing-at-the-mouth fans of the film might want to hold out for the price to ease back a bit more before forking over their credit cards. This isn't the release An American Werewolf in London deserves, but at least for my money, it's good enough for now.


Audio
An American Werewolf in London doesn't include its original soundtrack, but for whatever it's worth, this 24-bit, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix is borderline-alright. The elements tend to sound strained and dated, not surprisingly -- as drab and lightly muffled as you'd probably expect out of something from the Class of '81 -- but it's all perfectly listenable and is still a worthy upgrade over the previous DVD from eight years back. Surround use in this remix is sporadic and largely atmospheric when it does get around to kicking in. There are some stretches where the rears heighten the action, particularly cracks of gunfire and a werewolf encircling his prey, but even that's hit-or-miss. A handful of these effects are convincing and effective, such as the pan of a subway car and the bustle of Piccadilly Circus, but too many others are distractingly hard and forced...jarring gimmickry rather than something truly immersive. Since this is warming over the same remix off the HD DVD, some sound effects appear to be newly-recorded -- especially gunfire -- and sound completely out of step with the rest of the film. The licensed music is rendered better than most anything else, particularly the thunderous snarl of "Bad Moon Rising", and that's really the best thing I can think to say. I usually keep my expectations in check for any six-channel remix, but this is a particularly lackluster effort, and I really would've just as soon torn into An American Werewolf... in its original mono if I'd had the option. Oh well. It's a passable remix but far from a good one.

Lossy DTS dubs are served up in French, German, Italian, and Castilian. There's a grand total of seventeen subtitle streams on this disc, so whatever you're looking for, chances are it's on here somewhere.


Extras
Two new extras have been assembled for this Blu-ray release, including a documentary as long as An American Werewolf in London itself.
  • Beware the Moon (97 min.; SD): From a teenaged
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    John Landis jotting down a script after watching a gypsy burial all the way to the mixed results of early test screenings, this feature-length British documentary carves its way through everything. Down to the "star" of the fake porno that unspools before the climax, virtually every surviving member of the cast and the key crew is interviewed, there's barely a scene in the movie that isn't delved into in detail...it's astonishingly thorough and just a blast to watch.

    The list of highlights never really lets up: studio indifference from one end of Hollywood to the other, effects wizard Rick Baker briefly winding up attached to The Howling, casting off the back of a Dr Pepper ad, an accidental kidnapping, struggling against the tormentingly cold weather, a grueling Steadicam chase in the tubes, stabs at putting a dog in a werewolf costume, the one and only change made to Landis' orignal script, the scale of the climax at Piccadilly Circus, struggles with the censors (not over what you'd probably expect, either), and, of course, the Academy Award-winning transformation sequence that further ushered in a new era in make-up effects.

    Though Beware the Moon's writer/director Paul Davis does insert himself into the documentary periodically, he's not a constant presence, careful not to distract from the strength of the interviews, and even the slew of excerpts from the film itself are never overwhelming. This is a terrific documentary, and Beware the Moon is well worth setting aside an hour and a half to give a look.

  • I Walked with a Werewolf (8 min.; HD): In the only high-def extra on this Blu-ray disc, Rick Baker speaks about drawing inspiration from the classic Universal monsters for his legendary career in make-up effects before tearing into An American Werewolf...'s enduring and iconic transformation sequence. It's impressive how candid Baker is about it, giving Landis much of the credit -- the concept of an agonizingly painful shift from man to wolf...focusing on individual parts of David's transformation rather than shapeshifting entirely in the space of a single shot -- and really just saying that the techniques he used were nothing groundbreaking the way many of us believed they had to have been. As engaging as Baker is for most of the interview, the shift to plugging the upcoming remake of The Wolf Man leaves its last few minutes feeling uncomfortably promotional.

All of the other bells and whistles have been carried over from the DVD release from 2001.

  • Audio Commentary: This track with David Naughton and Griffin Dunne is a ridiculously fun listen, despite not having the movie's writer-slash-director in tow and even though they occasionally fall into the trap of quietly watching the movie rather than talking about it. It's just a couple of longtime pals quipping back and forth, lobbing out a slew of hysterical stories from the shoot (one highlight...? a very portable Portapotty), and understandably fawning endlessly over the impossibly gorgeous Jenny Agutter.

  • Interviews (29 min.; SD): Even though John Landis didn't chime in on
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    the disc's audio commentary, this 18 minute interview with An American Werewolf...'s writer/director runs through everything from its Eastern bloc origins on the set of Kelly's Heroes through his exact intentions with the legendary transformation sequence.

    Rick Baker took home an Oscar for his exceptionally ambitious make-up effects in this movie, and in his 11 minute interview, he comments on how he was able to make his four-legged beastie mobile, the implementation of the various stages of Jack's decomposition, and, of course, David's transformation into an oversized wolf.

    The two interviews together clock in just shy of half an hour, although they're a good bit shorter if you shrug off the excessively long clips from the movie that are littered throughout. If you've dug into Beware the Moon and Baker's newly-recorded interview, you've already caught the best of these talking points.

  • Original Featurette (5 min.; SD): Vintage making-of pieces are pretty much always more of a curiosity than anything else, but for whatever reason, I love the narration here enough to recommend giving it a spin.

  • Casting of the Hand (11 min.; SD): Truth in advertising, this fly-on-the-wall featurette is exactly what it sounds like: a mold being made of David Naughton's hand and forearm.

  • Outtakes (3 min.; SD): Though the original soundtrack has long since been lost, this outtake reel is still pretty great, offering a peek at Landis slathering one actress in blood while a Nazi dog soldier looks on, the fully-transformed wolf being prepped to skulk through Piccadilly Circus, and a gag on the set of that long-fabled porno See You Next Wednesday, among others. Aside from that last snippet, it's more of a set of behind-the-scenes footage than anything else and isn't played for laughs the way most outtake reels are these days.

  • Storyboard (2 min.; SD): A stack of storyboards are placed alongside the climax of the finished film to follow the final moments of An American Werewolf... from concept to completion.

  • Still Gallery (4 min.; SD): Last up is a decently long montage of production stills and behind-the-scenes shots.

Also tucked inside is $5 in "Halloween Candy Cash". Horror flick...Halloween...candy...whatever. It's good till the end of November '09.


The Final Word
Even though a few really terrific werewolf flicks have clawed their way out over the past ten years -- Dog Soldiers and the first couple chapters of Ginger Snaps in particular -- nothing I've seen has managed to top An American Werewolf in London. Thanks to a wicked sense of humor, barrel drums of splatter, exceptionally ambitious make-up effects, and an emphasis on characterization that just ratchets up the intensity that much more, it gets my nod as the single best werewolf film ever made. As a movie, An American Werewolf... is exceptional, but as a Blu-ray disc...? Not really. Though much improved over the 2001 DVD release, its high definition visuals still fall below par, and its six-channel remix is disappointingly dodgy and uneven. At least this disc sports a solid slate of extras, including a newly-produced feature-length documentary. A stronger presentation would've scored a much more enthusiastic recommendation, but as it is, this Blu-ray disc is a worthy upgrade yet falls short of the essential one I was really holding out hope for. Recommended.


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