John Landis' American Werewolf in London has always been one of my favorite horror comedies. Since I first saw the movie (when I was far too young), I have been taken by its easy blend of dark humor and werewolf action. Arrow Video has now released the definitive edition of the film, with restored video and audio and a host of supplemental material. With its Academy Award-winning effects by Rick Baker, upbeat rock soundtrack, and excellent performance from lead David Naughton, American Werewolf in London holds up better than most films of its era nearly 40 years later. Director Landis does not reinvent the wheel on werewolf mythology but instead drops the creature into modern London alongside a pair of wisecracking American tourists, one of whom is forced to wear the mark of the beast. Hilarious and quickly paced, with some real suspense and a splash of gore, American Werewolf in London is one of the best films of the 1980s.
American backpackers David Kessler (Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) hitch a ride with a sheep farmer across the moors in Yorkshire. As night falls and rain moves in, they stumble upon a local pub, the Slaughtered Lamb, where they notice a five-pointed star on the wall. The pub patrons do not take kindly to the men when they inquire about its purpose, and the bar matron informs them there is no food, only beer and tea. The men set out into the night, leaving the remaining occupants to begin questioning whether they can, in good faith, allow the men to leave. A fierce howl is heard in the distance, and the action cuts back to David and Jack, who are soon attacked by a large beast. Jack dies in the attack and David is badly injured. He awakens at a London hospital three weeks later under the care of nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), who eventually takes him in after he is released. After several visits from his dead friend and at the next full moon, David undergoes a painful transformation into the same werewolf creature that bit him.
This film is a true hybrid, a dark comedy with plenty of suspense and some decidedly gory sequences, so it is not surprising that early audiences and critics gave it a mixed reaction. Landis was coming off a string of big comedy hits, including Animal House and The Blues Brothers, and much of that humor makes its way into his script for this movie. The director reiterates in a new interview on this set that inspiration for this film was derived from an experience he had in Yugoslavia while serving as a production assistant on Kelly's Heroes in 1969. He observed a group of gypsies performing rituals on a criminal being buried to keep him from rising from the dead. Landis found that concept fascinating and tooled around with the concept for American Werewolf in London for a decade before securing financing. The film certainly introduced me to British humor, and it apparently introduced American audiences to the dry British wit not common to domestic films at the time. The Brits in this film react to the savage creature with some hilarious indifference, and the film offers an interesting mix of that deadpan humor and broader, Animal House-style comedy.
I have seen this film criticized for its somewhat rambling, unfocused presentation during the first reels. I think this easygoing vibe is one reason the film succeeds. Viewers journey with David while he is riding high and feeling great, and then are thrown into his transformation and ultimate bloodlust. The effects work from Baker is excellent, and the film at first treats David's nighttime wandering with humor, waking him up naked in the zoo, but turns at the climax into a more straightforward horror film. The interludes of rapidly decaying Jack popping up to chastise and advise David about his situation are some of the film's best scenes, and Naughton and Agutter share a real chemistry on screen. Naughton's David simply feels like a likeable guy here, your college roommate bro, though I always wondered why his family has no interest in coming to fetch or at least visit him in Britain. Landis' use of super obvious foreshadowing and having supporting characters predict upcoming events is hilarious, and the film's upbeat soundtrack, with cuts from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Van Morrison, is a lively complement to the action. Although the climax of the film feels a bit rushed after the slower first half, the resolution offers a surprising burst of human emotion. American Werewolf in London is a wholly entertaining film, and Arrow Video's new edition is the one collectors will want to own.
This new edition offers a sparkling, restored 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded image. According to liner notes, Arrow Video scanned the original camera negative in 4K and then graded and restored the image in 2K; all of which was approved by Landis. This restoration is leaps and bounds above any of the previous DVD and Blu-ray editions, which suffered from edge enhancement, clumpy grain, black crush and noise, not to mention questionable color timing. This is likely a very close approximation of the theatrical experience, and I was stunned from the opening scenes how sharp, clear, detailed and natural the image is. The grain is consistently filmic, and the noise that frequented nighttime scenes on the older releases is all but gone. Skin tones are natural, highlights are appropriately kept in check, and colors are bold and gorgeously saturated. I did not realize before how nicely this film was shot on the streets and in the tubes of London, and every poster on a wall, raindrop on the street and furnishing in interior sets is visible. Sharpness is solid throughout; wide shots are deep and clear, and close-ups reveal excellent fine-object detail. I noticed no print damage, compression artifacts, wobble or other hiccups. This is a very solid transfer.
The soundtrack was also remastered by Arrow Video and is presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround and LPCM 1.0 mono variants, with optional English SDH subtitles. The mono mix should please fans, and it is a clear, crisp presentation without overcrowding, hiss or distortion. The surround mix offers excellent dialogue reproduction, whether from the center or surround channels. Ambient effects waft through the surrounds, and action-effect pans are frequent and rumble the LFE. The rock-music soundtrack is given appropriate weight and sounds natural and full.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This gorgeous Limited Edition from Arrow Video arrives in a sturdy cardboard box. The single-disc release is packed in a clear case with two-sided artwork. Inside that case are six lobby cards for the film. Also included is a two-sided poster, with original key and newly commissioned artwork, and a 60-page booklet with photos and film information. There is an excellent mix of recycled and new material for fans to comb through.
Extras include a new Audio Commentary by Paul Davis and a vintage Audio Commentary by Actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne; Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf (1:17:18/HD) is an interesting, newly created overview of the studio's history with werewolves; An American Filmmaker in London (11:41/HD), is a short, newly shot interview with Landis; Wares of the Wolf: Artifacts from An American Werewolf in London (7:58/HD) is a new piece that sees SFX artist Dan Martin discussing the props and effects from the film; I Think He's a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret (11:26/HD) is also new, and focuses on the Jewish cultural subtext in the film; and The Werewolf Call (11:26/HD) is an interview with director Corin Hardy and writer Simon Ward about the film's influences on them.
Recycled extras include Beware the Moon (1:37:39/HD), a strong retrospective documentary with plenty of cast and crew interviews; Making An American Werewolf in London (4:54/HD); An Interview with John Landis (18:19/HD); Make-Up Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London (11:13/HD); I Walked with the Werewolf (7:30/HD), also an interview with Baker; Casting of the Hand (10:59/HD), about the prosthetic work here; Outtakes (3:07/HD); Storyboard Featurette (2:27/HD); Trailers (4:25/HD); and several Image Galleries.
Arrow Video's Limited Edition Blu-ray release of An American Werewolf in London presents this wholly entertaining mix of black comedy and horror from Director John Landis as never before. The remastered picture and sound are excellent, and hugely improved from previous releases. The disc is handsomely packaged and includes hours of new and vintage bonus material for fans to enjoy. DVD Talk Collector Series.