Starring David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine
Directed by John Landis
Distributed by Arrow Video
I had considered opening this review with a disclaimer stating there are certain films within the horror genre that need no introduction, as admitting you haven’t seen one is practically grounds to have your Horror Fan card revoked… but then I remembered I am a 38-year-old man and there is an entire generation that has never known the comfort of a video store and was raised on early 2000s horror. Even the most popular films of the ‘80s can easily fly under the radar, bogged down by endless DTV horror tripe, ubiquitous CGI FX, and currently hot stars. So then, it seems entirely plausible many might have missed the genius of writer/director John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) and are in need of some old-school, er, schooling. The term “classic” gets lobbed around an awful lot these days but there is an upper echelon to horror where a handful of venerable titles exist – and this is unarguably one of them.
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are a couple of Americans backpacking abroad, hiking through the moors of Yorkshire toward an unknown destination. As night falls the two men decide to find comfort in a local watering hole, The Slaughtered Lamb, where they come across the exact opposite. There’s no food. Only beer or spirits. The locals aren’t friendly. And there’s a pentagram etched into the wall. Sensing their presence is not in the least bit wanted, the two men hurry out back into the night. Soon after, they are both attacked by a werewolf, with Jack succumbing to his savage wounds. David manages to survive… though when a mutilated Jack, stuck in limbo, appears to him in a vision and proclaims David is now a werewolf who must kill himself David begins to question his sanity post-attack. But when the moon turns full, David learns his rapidly rotting friend is making no bones about the situation.
It isn’t easy to pinpoint any one aspect of filmmaking Landis gets right because, really, the answer is all of them. Naughton is the ideal bumbling American, his charm similar to someone like Christopher Reeve, which makes his tragic transformations all the more painful. Dunne is positively upbeat in every scene – tragic death aside – his candor a constant despite the flesh literally rotting off his face. Robert Paynter’s cinematography is swathed in smoke and dreadfully atmospheric, providing a visual palette that feels steeped in classic horror roots. The music, and every rendition of “Blue Moon”, perfection – even if Landis wasn’t able to acquire all of the cover versions he wanted. Elmer Bernstein’s score is minimal (it adds up to maybe 12 minutes total) but highly effective.
And then, of course, there is Rick Baker’s special effect work, which won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Make-Up (though to note, twice before Special Achievement Oscars were handed out to William J. Tuttle for 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and John Chambers for Planet of the Apes (1971)). His efforts here are on par with what Rob Bottin did for The Thing (1982), with Baker producing a multitude of creatures and gore that stands up to the greatest test of all: HD video. David’s transformation is still astounding and it remains the greatest example of a person going full-wolf ever seen on film. No description can do it justice. The Nazi werewolf nightmare is the stuff of, well, nightmares because Baker makes that scene positively terrifying. Also terrifying is Werewolf David, which is one of the coolest designs ever – obvious mobility issues aside. Not to take anything away for any of Baker’s werewolf work but you know what always gets me every time? The loose flap of skin hanging from Zombie Jack’s neck. Dunne said he was unnerved by the progressive make-up because it provided a visual for what his actual corpse might look like as it slowly rots away. Baker’s work on Jack is some of the most viscerally potent ever. See how I keep saying everything is the best “ever”? I’m not prone to hyperbole; this film is that good and more.
Has anyone grown tired of purchasing this on home video? Dead formats aside, this film has received a couple of DVD and HD releases, with each touting superior video quality and more bonus features than the last. Will this be the last time? Until there’s a proper 4K release, absolutely. The 1.85:1 1080p image was culled from a 2018 4K restoration of the original negative, as supervised by John Landis. This film has always been grainy, so don’t expect this release to offer up some slick presentation. It does, however, provide the best visual quality on home video so far with improved detailing, tighter contrast, brighter colors, and increased shadow detail. Every iteration on home video has been incrementally better, and if you aren’t a hardcore videophile it’s likely the improvements will appear minimal or even invisible, but those of us who salivate over new transfers will be highly pleased with Arrow’s results.
Audiophiles will be equally as happy, since Arrow has included the original mono track via an English DTS-HD MA 1.0 option. Most will probably opt for the 5.1 surround sound option, though, as that offers the greatest experience in terms of envelopment and sound placement. The opening attack on the moors alone makes great use of the rear channels to create a sense viewers, too, are being stalked by a werewolf. That’s just example of many. Dialogue is clean, clear, and always understandable. Elmer Bernstein’s score sounds fantastic, as do the many source music cues heard throughout. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
- New 2018 4K restoration from the original camera negative supervised by John Landis
- Original uncompressed 1.0 mono and optional 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
- Optional subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- New audio commentary by Beware the Moon filmmaker Paul Davis
- Audio Commentary by actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne
- Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, newly produced, feature-length documentary by filmmaker Daniel Griffith, featuring interviews with John Landis, David Naughton, Joe Dante and more
- An American Filmmaker in London, a newly filmed interview with John Landis in which he reflects on his time working in Britain and British cinema
- I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, new video essay by filmmaker Jon Spira (Elstree 1976) about how Landis’ film explores Jewish identity
- The Werewolf’s Call, Corin Hardy, director of The Nun, chats with writer Simon Ward about their formative experiences with Landis’ film.
- Wares of the Wolf, new featurette in which SFX artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store look at some of the original costumes and special effects artefacts from the film
- Beware the Moon, Paul Davis’ acclaimed, feature-length exploration of Landis’ film which boasts extensive cast and crew interviews
- Making An American Werewolf in London, a short archival featurette on the film’s production
- An Interview with John Landis, a lengthy archival interview with the director about the film
- Makeup Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London, the legendary make-up artist discusses his work on the film
- I Walked with a Werewolf, an archival interview with the make-up artist about Universal horror and its legacy of Wolfman films
- Casting of the Hand, archival footage from Rick Baker’s workshop as they cast David Naughton’s hand
- Original trailers, teasers and radio spots
- Extensive image gallery featuring over 200 stills, posters and other ephemera
- Reversible sleeve featuring original poster art and artwork by Graham Humphreys
- Double-sided fold-out poster
- Six double-sided, postcard-sized lobby card reproductions
- Limited 60-page booklet featuring new writing by Travis Crawford and Simon Ward, archival articles and original reviews
Both longtime fans and newcomers will have no problem seeing and agreeing that Arrow Video’s lavish collector’s edition treatment for this werewolf classic ranks among the most exhaustive and definitive home video editions ever. This is the easiest no-brainer purchase of the year.