There have been few truly indelible moviegoing experiences in my life, but seeing 'An American Werewolf in London' for the first time was one of them. I was ten years-old and already a diehard horror fan, or so I thought -- most of my pre-teen fright film experiences up until that point had been old black & white Universal monster movies, or edited-for-content viewings of 'Psycho' and 'Rosemary's Baby' on TV. So after talking my sister into taking me to see 'Werewolf' on a double bill with the original 'When a Stranger Calls,' I really thought I was hot shit. Needless to say, my bravado lasted approximately ten minutes into the movie. I promptly had to be escorted back out to the lobby, after a near-heart attack from fright turned me into a quivering mass of Jello. All I saw of the rest of the movie was the bald head of the guy sitting in the theater seat in front of me.
The story that terrified me so? David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two horny college students backpacking their way across England during summer break. Lost on the moors, they fail to heed the dire warnings of the pub patrons of "The Slaughtered Lamb," and wander off the road -- right into the path of a rabid wolf. Jack is killed, while David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital. Despite a concerned doctor (John Woodvine) and the affections of the beautiful Nurse Price (Jenny Agutter), David fears he is rapidly descending into madness. Haunted by bizarre dreams and the recurring visitation of the rapidly decaying Jack, David is told that they in fact were attacked by a werewolf, and David will suffer the same fate come the next full moon. As bodies begin to pile up and the authorities turn their suspicions towards David, he can no longer ignore the unbelievable. Will David make the ultimate sacrifice, or risk eternal damnation?
Truth be told, 'An American Werewolf in London' does not hold up as a particularly terrifying cinematic experience. I'm sure younger viewers will find the film funny, though not always intentionally. That 'Werewolf' was the first of the '80s "horror comedies" shouldn't come as much of a surprise given that its director, John Landis, also helmed such comedy blockbusters as 'Blues Brothers' and 'National Lampoon's Animal House.' As interested in tickling our funny bones as our nerve endings, much of Landis' tight-wire act on 'Werewolf' still works quite well. The chemistry between Naughton and Dunne remains authentic and endearing, and Agutter is so much better than her material that you wonder where the heck her career went. I also liked the classically stage-trained Woodvine, who plays it straight and gets us to suspend our disbelief for even the most ludicrous of dialogue. Landis also inserts plenty of gratuitous sex and violence into the proceedings, which gives 'Werewolf' a strangely seedy allure and makes it perhaps the first "gore porn" flick ever produced in-house by a major studio.
What does crumble under the weight of twenty-five years time is 'Werewolf's once-pioneering makeup effects. I remember being astonished when I was ten years-old by Rick Baker's Oscar-winning latex illusions -- indeed, they are still wonderful examples of craftsmanship and ingenuity. Of course, today's teens weaned on CGI will likely chuckle at such antiquated tomfoolery. Watching Naughton's face and body contort in a myriad of directions, accompanied by the strains of "Blue Moon," remains exciting and hilarious, if woefully nostalgic.
Yet I continue to clutch 'American Werewolf' close to my heart. Granted, I'll never be able to untwine my youthful experiences seeing the film with its cinematic virtues, but it remains a cult classic for good reason. It reminds us that there once was a time when we weren't so jaded by CGI effects that we could still let our eyes be deceived by the power of illusion. 'An American Werewolf in London' is one of the few remaining artifacts of the lost art of the onscreen cinematic magic trick, and no matter how laughable some may find it today, watching it will always bring a huge smile to my face.
'An American Werewolf in London' hits HD DVD on a HD 15/DVD-9 doubl-side combo disc, containing a 1080p/VC-1 transfer minted from the same master used for the film's 20th anniversary edition DVD released back in 2001. Certainly, that remaster was a huge step up from previous video versions, which were so dark and grainy you could barely make out most scenes. Unfortunately, the HD master still suffered from still suffered from some noticeable age-related defects, none of which have been fixed here.
Indeed, the opening scenes of 'American Werewolf' do not exactly inspire confidence. The credits roll into a scene that first introduces Jack and David (and a pack of lambs -- how fitting), but the image is so grainy and flat that it is hard not to be crestfallen. Luckily, the quality does improve. Some subsequent low-light scenes are just as bad, but there are also some highlights. Daylight exteriors are bright and cleaner, with depth slightly beefed up. There are also a few shots, however few and far between, that deliver that wonderful sense of three-dimensionality that HD is all about.
Colors enjoy the most improvement over the standard-def DVD. Like Universal's recent HD DVD issue of John Carpenter's 'The Thing,' 'American Werewolf' boasts one of the better upgrades in terms of color reproduction of any catalog title I've yet seen on either next-gen format. Primary colors in particular benefit from better vibrancy but less noise and fuzziness. Otherwise, detail is no great shakes, and the film is predictably soft (hey, it was 1981). I also noticed some video noise amid all that grain -- the overcast skies of the "Slaughtered Lamb" scenes definitely fare the worst. Major compression artifacts such as macroblocking are not a problem, however.
Universal has gifted 'An American Werewolf in London' with a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 track encoded at a hefty 1.5mbps. Alas, like the transfer, the original remix couldn't do much with the original source elements, so I can't say this high-def upgrade offers much excitement. (Note that there is also a DTS track on the disc, but only on the standard-def side of the combo.)
Dynamics are somewhat flat, with decent depth and clarity. Certainly, dialogue is far better reproduced than all those old video versions, which were so tinny and harsh it was like listening to people talk through tin cans. Low end is also a bit heftier, which is most notable in the deep growls of the werewolf and the big car-crash finale. Still, this ain't no 'King Kong.' Surround use, however, is pretty dismal. Rear effects are all but non-existent, with only a tiny bit of atmosphere during the opening scenes on the moors, and the sporadic werewolf attacks -- think rear-channel grows and maybe some rain, and that's about it. Don't expect to be blown away by this one.
To honor the the 20th anniversary of 'An American Werewolf in London' back in 2001, Universal has scared up a pretty nice assortment of supplements for the standard-def DVD. Since this is another HD DVD/DVD combo disc, we get all the same goodies, and they do hold up rather well.
First up is an excellent, highly enjoyable screen-specific audio commentary with actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. The duo ease back into a friendly banter as if no time at all had passed. Also interesting is that the actor's reveal that the film was shot in chronological order (unusual in major studio production), which makes for a hilarious series of stories from Dunne how his ever-decomposing makeup earned him few fans on the set. Naughton also reminisces about his one big role in Hollywood, which is tinged with a bit of sadness, for aside from running around London naked and singing "I'm a Pepper!' on those old soda commercials, he's not remembered for much else. I'm usually suspicious of "actor commentaries," but not this one -- as a big fan of the film myself, I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish.
Next up is the film's "Original 1981 Making-Of Featurette." I love these cheesy old EPKs, and this one doesn't disappoint. Hokey narration guides us through a five-minute tour of the then-cutting edge update of the werewolf legend, complete with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, an offset interview with director John Landis (who likes like a werewolf himself with a scruffy beard) and an amused Griffin Dunne watching Naughton's head molding session.
Brand-new in 2001 were two separate Interviews, with director John Landis and effects maestro Rick Baker, running 18 and 10 minutes, respectively. Landis recalls the tough journey he had pitching the studio on his original concept, as well as how to sell audiences on the idea of a "horror comedy." Landis is jovial as always and quite informative, offering valuable insight on most of the film's key scenes and creative decisions. Only the rather weird camera angles distract. Baker also fondly remembers the film that won him his first Oscar, though his somewhat jaundiced eye towards the outdated effects may surprise some fans.
Also included are four shorter vignettes of never-before-seen making-of footage. "Casting of the Hand" is an amusing 13 minutes devoted to making a mold out of David Naughton's digits. "Outtakes" runs nearly 4 minutes, and though lacking sound is rather amusing, with Landis mugging with the werewolf and cool shots of the creature rampaging through Piccadilly Circus. The "Storyboard-to-Screen Comparison" dissects the climactic crash, while the "Photograph Montage" is notable not just for its rare production stills but it's audio. which isolates select cues from Elmer Bernstein's original score, which as of this writing still remains unreleased on CD. Too bad Universal didn't include more such excerpts, as they remain highly sought after by collectors.
(Note that the DVD side of the disc also includes some production notes and cast and crew biographies, as well as the film's Complete Screenplay accessible only via a PC DVD-ROM drive.)
'An American Werewolf in London' remains a fun film and a true cult classic. I don't know how well the film holds up for today's seen-it-all, CGI-happy audiences, but it I find it a nostalgic gem that never fails to cheer me up. This HD DVD is solid with some entertaining extras, though the remastered transfer and soundtrack still suffer many age-related defects (especially a grainy and dirty print). I don't know if even diehard fans will really find this version a must-have upgrade over the standard-def DVD, but I'm still recommending it, both for the film and a package that delivers good bang for the buck.