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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » American Werewolf in London, An (HD DVD)
American Werewolf in London, An (HD DVD)
Universal // R // November 28, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 2, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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My 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 through Europe. The British moors aren't exactly the sunny beaches and easy women they had in mind, and they duck into a pub in the middle of nowhere charmingly named The Slaughtered Lamb for a break from the chilly weather. The locals don't take kindly to a couple of Yanks asking so many questions, leaving them 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' Advice, you can connect the dots.

David wakes up several weeks later in London, somberly informed that his friend Jack had been butchered by an escaped lunatic. He tells anyone who'll listen that it wasn't a man but some sort of...wild dog that mauled Jack, but aside from the lovely nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) who's strangely intrigued, everyone thinks him mad. Not only is seemingly everyone convinced that he's losing his mind, but David himself starts to wonder as he's tormented by grotesque nightmares and is repeatedly visited by his decomposing friend Jack. 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 it's too late. David tries to convince himself it's just another nightmare, but...yeah, the movie's called An American Werewolf in London for a reason.

The movie may be best known for Rick Baker's Oscar-winning makeup effects, but unlike a visual spectacle such as The Thing, An American Werewolf in London doesn't define itself 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, and that's part of why I love it so much. Landis doesn't use heavy-handed stings in the score or an onslaught of ominous imagery, and it's that combination of the mundane with David's descent that's so fascinating. This is a flick with a rotting, mutilated corpse gabbing about who showed up at his funeral while munching on a piece of toast. The tattered flesh around his neck flapping all the while, Jack practically mentions offhand that, oh, yeah, David, you're going to transform into a four-legged killing machine in a couple of days unless you off yourself. That's much more interesting than some sort of orchestral boom and a grim-voiced gypsy emerging from the shadows.

It may have a cacklingly dark sense of humor, but don't mistake An American Werewolf in London for a comedy. The kills are unsettling and brutal despite not being especially graphic. 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 heightens the tension, and the fact that the wolf doesn't rear his fanged head like clockwork every ten minutes gives the darker scenes that much more of an impact. Rick Baker's make-up effects of David's slow, agonizing transformation still hold up a quarter century later, and the fleeting shots of the wolf himself are used sparingly but effectively.

Younger, jaded horror fanatics might shrug it off as being slow and dated, but An American Werewolf in London gets the nod as my favorite werewolf flick. It's one of very few 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 gets me all these years later. I've watched An American Werewolf in London again and again, and it still seems every bit as fresh and original to me now as when I was a young, wide-eyed kid. Highly Recommended.

Video: This single layered 1.85:1 combo disc is underwhelming at first glance. Sure, the grasses of the British moors seemed better defined, and yeah, certain close-up shots such as the jump scares that close out David's feverish nightmares had that distinctive HD DVD pop, but too much of the rest of the movie just seemed like a marginal step up from a regular DVD. At least, that's what I'd convinced myself until I actually did an A/B comparison between this disc and Universal's DVD release from 2001.

Admittedly, an HD DVD trumping a five year old DVD isn't exactly cause to close off a few city blocks and throw a ticker-tape parade, and if An American Werewolf in London were being newly transferred and encoded for DVD today, I think the differences would be much more slight. Still, just going by what I have in front of me, the 2001 DVD is much softer and boasts an anemic palette compared to the high-def release. The colors are so much more robust on HD DVD that switching back and forth between these discs, David doesn't even look like he's wearing the same jacket as he strolls through the British countryside. An American Werewolf in London may be one of the least strikingly detailed HD DVDs I've seen, but the 2001 release doesn't come close to being in its league. Neither disc suffers from any wear or speckling of note, and the film's grainy texture and the limited capacity of a single layer don't appear to have posed any problems for Universal's compressionists. Reading over a review I wrote of the previous DVD in 2001, I noted that there were a couple of abrupt jumps in the transfer, but they're either not present in this HD DVD version or I've just gotten so used to them that they don't stand out anymore.

An American Werewolf in London is and always has been a grainy, somewhat soft movie, and viewers should go in with realistic expectations. Although this HD DVD doesn't instantly earn a "wow!" the way so many other releases on the format have, it's a very noticeable improvement over previous DVD editions, even if it takes a direct comparison to fully appreciate it.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio is dated but generally alright. The mix uses the surrounds effectively during the lycanthropic stalk-and-slash and to sell some of the atmospherics, but it otherwise tethers itself to the front channels. The sound effects and music (more the licensed songs than the score) are punchier and more detailed than the previous DVD. It's a bit inconsistent, though; the gunshots have a rich, full sound that wouldn't have seemed out of place in a movie filmed ten years later, while the crunch of leaves under David's feet as he dashes through the forest sounds like a wheezing bicycle pump. The reproduction of the film's dialogue has the drab, somewhat muffled quality you'd probably expect from something from the Class of 1981, but it comes through well enough, and I never had any trouble making out what was being said. This is an okay track, considering the movie's age and monaural origins, but it's unexceptional.

The disc doesn't include any dubbed soundtracks, but it does optionally offer subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. The DVD side of this combo release includes audio in Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as DTS.

Supplements: No new extras have been unearthed for this HD DVD. All of its bells and whistles have been carried over from the DVD release from 2001, and the only of them to appear on both sides of the disc is the audio commentary with actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. It's a really fun listen, despite not having the movie's writer-slash-director in tow and even though they occasionally fall into the trap of watching the movie instead of talking about it. It's just a couple of longtime pals quipping back and forth, lobbing out a slew of hysterical stories from production (my favorite involving a very portable bathroom), and endlessly fawning over the lovely Jenny Agutter.

The remaining extras are only available on the DVD side of this combo disc. Even though John Landis didn't chime in on the audio commentary, a fairly lengthy interview with the affable writer/director runs viewers through An American Werewolf in London in detail, 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 groundbreaking make-up effects in this movie, and in his eleven minute interview, he comments on how he was able to make his four-legged beastie mobile, the implementation of the different stages of Jack's gradual decomposition, and, of course, David's transformation. The two interviews together run just shy of half an hour, although they're a good bit shorter if you don't count the excessively long clips from the movie generously scattered throughout.

The narration alone on the behind the scenes reel makes that hysterically dated featurette worth a peek, and the disc's other extras include a featurette on the casting of Naughton's hand for his transformation, a few minutes of outtakes, a montage of production and promotional stills, and a comparison of the original storyboards with the filmed climax. The DVD side of this disc is for all intents and purposes identical to the 2001 special edition DVD, although the DVD-ROM extras from the previous disc are gone.

Conclusion: An American Werewolf in London is an unconventional horror movie, boasting a wicked sense of humor and rooted around its characters rather than stock scares. It's a longtime favorite of mine and a very welcome addition to Universal's HD DVD library. Gearheads purely interested in home theater eye candy will walk away disappointed, but this is by far the best that An American Werewolf in London has ever looked on home video. It's not an essential upgrade for owners of the previous DVD release, but for everyone else, this HD DVD comes very highly recommended.
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