Forty years ago, we witnessed one of the grimiest werewolf transformations in cinema history.
My first experience of An American Werewolf in London hinged on the three-minute transformation sequence of actor David Naughton’s role as David Kessler turning into the iconic 1980s werewolf. I was a teenager, six or so years after its original theatrical release, watching it for the first time at home. By then, John Landis’s film was a successful VHS release in the rental stores. It was this legendary effects montage that horror film junkies flocked to and still study as foundational effects work. It also helped that the film won an academy award for Best Makeup. I probably did not get the full effect that actor Griffin Dunne described as “moviegoers jumping out of their seats.” But the cringeworthy and painful sequence made its impact so thoroughly that the rest of the film dissolved in my mind. Special effects master Rick Baker was the unseen hero of this film. What Jack Pierce did to Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man, Rick Baker set as a precedent for werewolf films to come.
Kessler jumping out of his chair screaming was the first indication that something was not right. He sat around idly throughout the day, impatient for the full moon to rise from the horizon and determine his fate. It was like someone waiting for the hallucinogens to kick in. But for Kessler it became a sordid reality and boy did it kick in. The first accomplishment was the hand expansion. Landis wanted to change the perception of werewolf iconography from a two-legged man running around to a creature that moved swiftly on all fours and devouring victims like a rabid animal. Baker was able to construct a method to have Naughton’s hand expand without multiple takes. Then came the hair. Although we see the progression, the growing of hair was actually shot in reverse. Lastly, the development of the snout. That sealed the deal. In the same method as the hand, Kessler’s face turning into a wolf was a glorious accomplishment to watch.
Before Baker was at the helm of the effects magic, he spent years working with Landis on the conceptual idea of what goes into the transformation of man to wolf. He first worked with Landis in 1973 on the low-budget film Schlock. Landis had written An American Werewolf in London in 1969 while working with Kelly’s Heroes, and storyboarded his idea with Baker soon after the making of Schlock. According to Baker, he was given years to brainstorm the transition scene and discover how that was going to be successfully played out. What took months was shot in minutes. Played out, it still overshadows most special effects sequences today. According to an interview in the Collector’s Edition of the film, Baker has always wanted the opportunity to use a mixture of modern technology with core effects to create an even more explicit werewolf-changing sequence. He found that chance with Jack Nicholson’s Wolf.
Forty years later, An American Werewolf in London remains an important film that holds up very well. At the time of its release, they received critical responses including Roger Ebert writing about its “lackluster plot structure” and “unfinished” ending. Landis was known at the time for his comedy films National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers. People understood him as a director of famed comedy films but not horror. Like the werewolf image, Landis decided to turn the horror genre upside down. Luckily, with his previous films, he had the budget to take risks. However, that blend of comedy and horror displaced the realities of true horror most people would find abominable. When the two college students are walking through the British Moors after being banished by patrons of The Slaughtered Lamb, and the sound of a wolf animal howls off in the distance, Dunne comments that they “found a macabre sense of humor when you are actually scared.” Naughton describes the moments as the story “hitting below the belt with these actors as kids and then having them brutally murdered.”
What was surprising to me was Frank Oz being cast as the American Embassy representative, who informs David that his parents had been notified after the brutal attack in the field. Later in the film comes an easter egg; The Muppet Show is playing on a background television screen. David becomes delusional after learning the reality that Jack is dead. The guy who is responsible for 1970s childhood pop culture and the voice of Fozzy and Mrs. Piggy blurts out this great line, “These dumbass kids, they never appreciate anything you do for them.” Typecasting Oz as this serious curmudgeon solidifies Landis’s usage of creepified minimalist comedy. Its snarkiness does not trail off too far while the horror elements never stray too deep into derangement. The most we feel for these characters is sympathy for David’s character, a victim of unfortunate circumstances. It’s not even fate. There is nothing in the character’s background that gives us indication that anyone deserved this. The two fell into a curse that plagued the moors. But despite the horrors that erupt, we never feel the plight of these people. Even when nurse Alex Price, played by Jenny Agutter, breaks down at the end, it’s not enough for us to latch on to their plight as Landis surrounds serious emotions with kitschy soundtrack music, reminding us that horror is entertainment after all.