An American Werewolf in London Arrow Limited Edition Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: October 29, 2019
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 97 minutes
Director: John Landis
American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are savaged by an unidentified vicious animal whilst hiking on the Yorkshire Moors. David awakens in a London hospital to find his friend dead and his life in disarray. Retiring to the home of a beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter) to recuperate, he soon experiences disturbing changes to his mind and body, undergoing a full-moon transformation that will unleash terror on the streets of the capital... (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) is regularly cited among the most influential horror comedies of its era. It is particularly notable for never ceding scares in favor of laughs, unlike the Abbott and Costello movies that had (for the most part) defined the genre since the ‘40s. Of course, around the same time, several of Landis’ contemporaries had produced funny/scary revamps of classic horror templates. Fellow Roger Corman protégé, Joe Dante, had released a similarly subversive werewolf movie, The Howling (1981), a few months before American Werewolf in London. Before that, Corman himself had developed his own cheap and campy variation on horror comedy in the ‘60s, including A Bucket of Blood (1959) and The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), while Herschell Gordon Lewis invented the gore comedy soon after, in 1963. Arguably, the most influential of all the ‘80s horror comedy movies were Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981) & Evil Dead II (1987), science their manic variation on the funny-to-scary formula traveled well and inspired other filmmakers the world over. Yet Landis’ version stands apart, because (as opposed to almost every straight comedy he has ever made) it’s comedy and drama are derived from honest human interactions, rather than Corman/Lewis’ camp, Dante’s irony, or Raimi’s whimsy. Not to say those filmmakers were incapable of such things (well, maybe not Lewis…) or that such things are vulgar; just that Landis had hit on something unique for this specific movie and that filmmakers have struggled to recreate his balance of relatable laughs, poignant relationships, and shock horror. Crucial exceptions include Dan O'Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985) and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004).
Additionally, American Werewolf in London is remembered as the movie that kicked off ‘80s horror’s obsession with elaborate special effects. Gore make-up had been growing in popularity throughout the ‘70s, spearheaded by the likes of Dick Smith and Tom Savini, alongside huge strides in technical visual effects as seen in blockbusters, like George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) or Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Everything sort of came to a head with American Werewolf in London and Dante’s The Howling, which were developed around the same time and even shared burgeoning FX star Rick Baker, who had left The Howling to work with Landis (reportedly to honor an agreement the two had a decade prior, but only after Landis threw one of his patented tantrums), leaving a young Rob Bottin in charge of FX on Dante's film. The Howling’s man-wolfy creature designs are cooler than American Werewolf in London’s giant dog designs, but Baker’s transformation sequence and decaying corpse make-up was so impressive that the Academy more or less created a new award (Best Make-up), so they could hand it to him. Bottin would have to settle for developing the outstanding effects for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) the following year and winning a shared Special Achievement Award for Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990). Pricey studio movies benefitted from Baker’s work, naturally, but the B-market embraced icky, intricate transformations, too, stretching their comparatively tiny budgets in creative and charming ways (i.e. Luigi Montefiori’s Metamorphosis , Frederico Prosperi’s Curse II: The Bite , Philippe Mora’s The Beast Within , and John Carl Buechler’s Troll ).
American Werewolf in London is remembered for its use of tonal change-ups and groundbreaking visual effects, while its thematic richness often goes ignored. Perhaps its themes aren’t as obvious as those found in George A. Romero’s satirical horror drama Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Philip Kaufman’s sci-fi horror show Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), both of which skewered the aging boomer generation as it entered the 1980s, but it actually fits the same model. Each film re-worked older genre analogies for the modern era. Romero adjusted his own Night of the Living Dead (1968) formula to castigate consumer culture, Kaufman remade Don Siegel’s original 1956 movie as a condemnation of the Me Generation, and Landis retold a classic lycanthrope tale from the point of view of an alienated and angst-ridden young American. Werewolves tend to be metaphors for stigmatic illnesses, dangerous masculinity, or frustrated sexuality – all motifs that fit Landis’ story – but, as the title indicates, An American Werewolf in London is about the culture clash between two societies. David is essentially infected by the bygone folklore and movies that Landis is paying homage to. Ostensibly, the film’s closest cousins are George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), various Paul Naschy werewolf movies (usually featuring Naschy as Waldemar Daninsky), and (largely by coincidence) The Howling, but American Werewolf in London’s old British vs. new American culture clash ties back to a series of ‘70s English folk horror movies about ideological warfare, including Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973).
Landis’ best films – this one, The Blues Brothers (1980), and Coming to America (1988) – all explore and spoof culture shock and xenophobia. Beyond that, these films, Three Amigos (1986), and The Stupids (1996) are also variations on the fish-out-of-water motif (Blues Brothers admittedly least of all). Landis attributed the mid-movie, Jewish-themed nightmare sequence, in which werewolf and zombified SS soldiers murder his family while he looks on, to actual repeating nightmares he had throughout his life. Taken at face value, this is just another autobiographical touch in an already very personal movie (Landis reportedly began writing American Werewolf in London at least a decade before he shot it and based it loosely on an experience he had working in Yugoslavia). Some may argue that its perceived randomness doesn’t fit the rest of the narrative, but David’s nightmare further defines the barriers between him (and Landis) and the British townsfolk/city dwellers, who experience the werewolf’s curse through the eyes of Old World Protestantism, versus those of a college-aged North American Jew born in the first generation following WWII. Arguably, the SS nightmare is even more important to the movie’s identity than its celebrated transformation scene.
The nightmare sequence also helps illustrate the film’s loose structure, which can be divided by acts, but tends to wander from sequence to sequence, rather than adhering strictly to format. Again, this is more or less a featured component of Landis’ greater premise, which is to meld tones of opposing dramas without sacrificing any of the emotional payoffs or spirit of the movies he is paying homage to (notably, Landis’ first four movies as director are basically sketch/skit compilations). Customarily, lycanthropic stories are tragedies, so, while An American Werewolf in London encourages its audience to giggle and invest themselves David’s budding relationship with Nurse Alex, it’s also constantly reminding us of the bleak future awaiting these characters. The semi-episodic structure helps keep us off balance, then, when it’s time for the story to end, we smash-cut to credits. Also remarkable is the film’s sense of pacing, which feeds its episodic nature by making the film feel leisurely, despite its short and sweet 97-minute runtime. Landis’ original cut, which was trimmed in order to conform to the confines of an R-rating, would’ve featured additional scenes of violence and, as a result, was probably even more episodic in nature. Those edits were not preserved, though, so we’ll never really know.
An American Werewolf in London was a smash hit and, as a result, has been released on almost about every home video format known to man, including VHS, Betamax, Laserdisc, Capacitance Electronic Disc (CED), SelectaVision videodisc, DVD, HD DVD, and Blu-ray. The 1984 Laserdisc was actually the last home video release from MCA/Universal for seventeen years. During that time, the studio’s catalog was distributed/re-distributed by Vestron Video, Image Entertainment, Video Treasures, and LIVE Entertainment, including multiple American Werewolf in London reissues. The original DVD was a non-anamorphic, barebones affair from LIVE in 1997, followed by an anamorphic special edition from Universal themselves in 2001. Universal chose to back HD DVD during the short-lived format wars, and American Werewolf in London saw its first high-def disc on the format in 2006. Then, when HD DVD died, they slipped essentially the same transfer onto Blu-ray, complete with a bevy of new and old extras, in 2009. The transfer in question wasn’t great, even by early HD reissue standards. The image was from a somewhat compressed VC-1 source and the scan was surprisingly dirty with CRT noise and grain, but the bigger issues were oversharpening and aggressive contrast. This led to edge enhancement, some crush, and, most problematically, it magnified the noise and grain. For the film’s 35th anniversary, Universal attempted to correct the issue with a “restored edition” in 2016. This was reportedly a 6K scan, but the effort was lost when the final product was smoothed into oblivion with excessive DNR. Basically, Universal had gone from one extreme to the other and both were pretty bad.
Arrow Video’s news that they’d be releasing the film again was pretty surprising, given how many times Universal has re-released American Werewolf in London since it reacquiring distribution, but a 4K remaster from a trustworthy studio was still a welcome sign. I was going to include comparison sliders on this page, but I honestly forgot that the restored edition existed and don’t have a copy of it handy, so you’ll just have to take my word for it when I tell you that this is probably the closest we’re going to get to a definitive home video release of An American Werewolf in London. Cinematographer Robert Paynter’s photography is pretty soft, so the more even-handed sharpness levels fit the look far better than the oldest Blu-ray’s heavy oversharpening. To the same token, the use of diffused light was completely lost when the second release DNR’d the shit out of everything. Grain levels appear accurate, if not a little on the yellow side, and distinct machine noise is minimal, practically nonexistent. Skin tones and other neutral colors (aside from the slightest muddying during some of the darkest scenes) are consistent and the primary hues pop without bleeding.
This disc’s video quality is a big upgrade, but so is the audio, because Arrow has remastered the original mono sound and presents it in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. This is the first time a home video release has featured the original mono since the non-anamorphic LIVE DVD. Every other version has included only the 5.1 remix that was created by Universal for their first special edition DVD. Arrow has also included that and it’s fine, but the lo-tech, single-channel track is the one I’m going to review here. Admittedly, I’ve gotten pretty used to the surround remix over the years, so I sometimes missed the wider scope of the music and the occasional eerie, rear-channel wolf noise, but American Werewolf in London uses a lot of dynamic range in its sound design, so there’s little need for stereo enhancements. Clarity is impressive and the sound floor is low enough to avoid hissing during the quiet moments. Composer Elmer Bernstein, who also scored National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers, provided a classy, simple score for American Werewolf in London, which Landis coupled with a cavalcade of moon-themed pop songs. Some of the songs are sharp and overlapping dialogue gets a little muddy, but there isn’t any notable high-volume distortion.
Commentary with actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne – This track was recorded for Universal’s first special edition DVD and has accompanied pretty much every release ever since. The discussion is loose and fun with emphasis on behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
Commentary with documentarian Paul Davis – This new track features the director of Beware the Moon: Remembering An American Werewolf in London (2009) discussing the making of the film. It is a solid factoid track, though Davis’ documentary is already so thorough that there is overlap.
Mark of The Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf (77:18, HD) – Initially, Daniel Griffith’s brand new, Arrow exclusive, feature-length documentary may seem excessive, given the breadth of Beware the Moon (which is included below), but the subject matter stretches a bit beyond previous retrospective docs/featurettes to include a look back at shape-shifting in lore/storytelling, Universal Studios’ horror tradition and the entirety of their werewolf/wolfman output (including Hammer productions), and the history of werewolf transformation make-up. Even if it had been nothing but overlap with Davis’ documentary, Mark of the Beast is an artful and entertaining production and well worth inclusion here.
An American Filmmaker in London (11:41, HD) – A new introduction/interview from Landis for this release, where he chats about his affection for and work in British cinema (Arrow is a British company, after all).
Wares of the Wolf (7:58, HD) – Special effects artist Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store look at props, costumes, and memorabilia from the film.
I Think He's a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret (11:26, HD) – A video essay by filmmaker (Anyone Can Play Guitar, 2019) and critic Jon Spira that explores the film’s Jewish cultural significance, from lycanthropy’s role in German mythology, to connections between werewolves and Nazis, Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s Jewish heritage, and the various references to Judaism throughout the movie.
The Werewolf’s Call (11:26, HD) – Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow, 2015) and writer Simon Ward recall their experiences seeing the film at formative ages.
Beware the Moon: Remembering An American Werewolf in London (97:39, SD) – The complete retrospective documentary, including interviews with cast/crew members, tours of the locations as they appeared in 2008/9, and more.
Making An American Werewolf in London (4:54, SD) – Original EPK
Interview with John Landis (18:19, SD)
Makeup Artist Rick Baker on An American Werewolf in London (11:13, SD)
I Walked with a Werewolf (7:30, SD) – Another interview with Baker
Casting of the Hand (10:59, SD) – Footage from Baker's workshop
Storyboard featurette (2:27)
Trailer, teaser, TV spot
Image Galleries – Production stills, behind the scenes, posters, lobby cards, storyboards, and shooting schedule.
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