Color, 1981, 97 mins. 16 secs.
Directed by John Landis
Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD), Universal (Blu-ray & DVD) (Worldwide) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Live Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)

Proving An American Werewolf in Londonthat the classic movie monster was far from An American Werewolf in Londonobsolete after the up and down vampire craze of the late '70s, An American Werewolf in London charged into theaters in 1981 along with two other high-profile lycanthrope projects, The Howling and Wolfen. Horror fans have been compared them ever since in a debate that shows no sign of ever slowing down, but what's indisputable is that this film was a watershed release for its skillful blend of modern horror and comedy as well as its groundbreaking makeup effects by Rick Baker, which wound up winning the very first competitive Oscar in that category (presented by none other than Vincent Price and Kim Hunter). Director John Landis had become known for his wild comedy hits like National Lampoon's Animal House and The Blues Brothers at the time, so it was startling for many viewers when this turned out to be just as effective as a pure horror film complete with moments of shocking violence and effective jump scares.

While backpacking across Europe, best friends David (Naughton) and Jack (Dunne) end up on the English moors where they're warned at a local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, to stay on the cleared pathway at night if they're still foolhardy enough to go out under the full moon. Sure enough, they're attacked by a hairy beast that tears Jack to shreds and leaves David with savage scratches on his chest. Back in London, David recuperates at the hospital and strikes up a romance with nurse Alex (Agutter). However, he's plagued by grisly nightmares (as well as jarring visitations by a very decomposing Jack) and realizes he's been cursed to turn into a werewolf and kill innocent people whenever the moon is full. He takes increasingly drastic measures to prevent this from happening, all leading to a violent finale in Piccadilly Circus.

So good that it's been enshrined as a classic in line with the iconic monster films from its releasing studio, Universal Pictures, An American Werewolf in London originated as a script by Landis as a teenager during a stay in Europe for the filming of Kelly's Heroes. That's a remarkable origin considering the fine tightrope the film walks from start to finish, with the macabre appearance of Jack packing the biggest punch and paying off during the porno theater encounter with other werewolf victims cheerfully offering their own solutions to David's problem. The romance between Naughton and Agutter is nicely etched as well and delivers the necessary emotional crescendo in the final scene, which takes the material very An American Werewolf in Londonseriously and casts aside any suggestions that this could be some kind of spoof. Countless moments have since entered the pop culture lexicon (though "A naked American man stole my balloons" may still take the cake), but the film works together as a very cohesive whole with winning performances An American Werewolf in Londonand reverence for the genre ensuring it continues to hold up perfectly today.

Multiple home video versions of this film have circulated over the years, with Universal temporarily losing it to Vestron (and then Live Video) all the way up to a poorly presented DVD from them. (However, that disc was notable as the only one to contain the atmospheric teaser trailer for many, many years.) In 2001, Universal got the film back and released a collector's edition DVD featuring a slew of new extras, all very worthwhile and still mainstays of subsequent releases to this day. An audio commentary with Naughton and Dunne is laid back and enjoyable as they chat about the challenges of hitting the tonal balance of their roles and share memories about the makeup jobs; it's especially surprising which one caused Naughton the most grief. The excellent "Beware the Moon" (97m39s) runs a tad longer than the film itself with 25 interview subjects (including Landis, Naughton, Dunne, Agutter, Baker, producer George Folsey, and more), new location coverage, unseen test footage, and loads more. Among many other subjects they touch on some issues the film ran into with the MPAA and the creation of the score by Elmer Bernstein, who really wanted to score the big transformation sequence. (Be sure to watch all the way to the end credits, too!) A vintage promo featurette (4m54s) features a shaggy-haired Landis on set talking about his love of classic werewolf movies, followed by video interviews with Landis (18m19s) and Baker (11m13s) offering overviews of their experiences making the film after first teaming up at a very young age on Schlock with lots of time to plan in between. "I Walked with a Werewolf" (7m30s) brings back Baker to wax poetic about his own lifelong love affair with werewolf movies (especially The Wolf Man, which he got to revisit later for a troubled semi-remake that earned him an Oscar), while "Casting of the Hand" (10m59s) shows Baker's workshop in action working on Naughton's transformed appendage. Also An American Werewolf in Londonincluded are a silent outtakes reel (3m7s), a storyboard comparison (2m27s), and a photo montage.

An American Werewolf in LondonThe first Blu-ray release (a "Full Moon Edition" came out in 2009 from Universal, featuring a VC-1 encoded transfer that pleased few with its soft, drab look and heavy, unnatural-looking grain, though that would have been even worse had the studio DNR-ed it to death like other catalog titles around the same time. That edition also featured a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that's fairly entertaining with some nice manipulative surround effects, but the superior and more effective mono mix was nowhere to be found. That release ported over everything from the DVD, namely "Beware the Moon," "I Walked with a Werewolf," the vintage promo, Landis and Baker interviews, "Casting of the Hand," outtakes, storyboards, photo montage, and Naughton-Dunne commentary. In 2016, a "Restored Edition" popped up on Blu-ray with the same extras and a transfer that sparked its fair share of controversy due to more fine detail and robust colors but significantly less grain that had some crying foul.

In 2019, Arrow Video delivered another Blu-ray edition that addresses concerns about the film's past presentation thanks to a new 4K restoration from the original camera negative supervised by Landis. A significant amount of extra image info is visible here on the sides and blacks have a lot more depth and subtlety here, with film grain looking fine and natural with better compression than the past two versions. Color timing looks close to the earlier transfers for the most part, albeit with some variations like the more sensitive treatment of the color red. Perhaps even more of a selling point, the original mono track is finally, finally back in commission here and sounding great in a DTS-HD MA 1.0 track; the usual 5.1 mix is also here, with optional English SDH subtitles provided.

An American Werewolf in LondonEverything from the earlier Universal releases is ported over here (commentary and featurettes), but you also get a whole lot more. An American Werewolf in LondonA new audio commentary by "Beware the Moon" director Paul Davis is extremely informative with a barrage of trivia about the film right from the opening frames, including considerable notes on unused film bits that ended up on the cutting room floor, the story behind that opening dedication, the makeup procedures required for the big show stoppers, and a lot more. Very highly recommended listening. Daniel Griffith's "Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf" (77m18s) is essentially a greatly expanded twist on the earlier Baker interview as Landis, Baker, Joe Dante, Steve Haberman, Preston Neal Jones, Mick Garris and more enthusiastically covering werewolf cinema from Werewolf of London onward with lots of chatting about Jack Pierce's makeup wizardry and the evolution of the mythology they mostly discovered as monster kids all the way through the Universal monster combo films, Hammer Films, and the explosion of the '80s. Lots of fun and a real blast for werewolf movie hounds. A new Landis interview, "An American Filmmaker in London" (11m41s), features him in London chatting about his favorite British cinema including Dead of Night, the Carry On series, the films of Richard Lester, Monty Python, Hammer and more. Then it's time for a new special effects featurette, "Wares of the Wolf" (7m58s), with effects artists Dan Martin and Tim Lawes of The Prop Store showing off some artifacts from the film (including that red jacket) while covering the film's massive impact on movie makeup. The interesting "I Think He's a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret" (11m26s) is a video essay by Jon Spira about the film's relationship to Jewish culture by seizing on a seemingly odd throwaway line and extrapolating it to a meditation on Judaism, shapeshifting, and the implications of the stormtrooper nightmare sequence as well as David and Jack's last names. Finally The Nun director Corin Hardy appears in "The Werewolf's Call" (11m26s) to converse with writer Simon Ward about a fateful early experience with the film and its creative influence. The disc closes out with the teaser (back in action at last), the long and somewhat awkward theatrical trailer (which has never been on a home video release of this film before but did pop up on Trailer Trauma 3), and a TV spot, plus separate massive galleries for production stills, behind the scenes shots, posters, lobby cards, storyboards and the shooting schedule. The limited edition comes with reversible cover options (including a striking new design by Graham Humphreys), a double-sided fold-out poster, six lobby card reproductions, and an insert booklet.


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UNIVERSAL (2016 Blu-ray)

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Reviewed on October 20, 2019.