A pioneering film in practical special effects, An American Werewolf in London (AWL) stands alongside 1982’s The Thing for me as landmark horror from a creature-morphing standpoint.
That’s not to say that the story itself isn’t engaging. While AWL follows your standard werewolf rubric, it surpasses the mapped out genre cliches with a nice dose of humor and a fairly unsentimental attitude. While many films of its ilk are obsessed with the mythology and the sympathies that that often implies, AWL is less folkloric than it is ripping (pun intended) yarn and stage for said effects and awesome sound design.
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are travelers attacked by a werewolf on a desolate British moor. Though Jack is killed, David survives and soon learns – from visits from his undead friend – that he too will soon become a werewolf. Despite the affections of Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter of Logan’s Run), David soon goes on a murderous rampage.
AWL is a great example of horror (or suspense) movie where the viewer can find refuge in certain technique. Think, for example, of the killer POV, so prevalent in many films. Halloween really popularized it. When we are the killer – that is, when we are walking in the eyes of the killer – there’s a certain amount of safety. That safety comes in knowing where the killer is and in knowing that the killer cannot jump out into frame and surprise us for the simple fact that, at that moment, we are the killer.
AWL takes on some similar technique, but via music. After David first moves in with Nurse Alex and she leaves for work he’s left alone in the house, bored out of his mind. Landis cuts to an overhead wide-shot and CCR’s Bad Moon Rising (chosen for obvious reasons) kicks in. What follows visually is an extended montage of David basically doing nothing. The music kicks in loudly, drowning out all other sound. This has the same function as the POV. As long as the song is playing, we feel safe. This might be different if it was on a record player – the source would be visible, and it would be interruptable by violence.
Landis cleverly thwarts this same technique later on. Still in Alex’s apartment, and with CCR now well in the past, Blue Moon (played in different iterations throughout the film) rises into the soundtrack. We’ve already been treated to a shot of the full moon, so we know what’s coming. But still, the music seems to give us that safety net from the horror still to come. That Landis has already used a song for a horror-free montage doesn’t hurt the sense of refuge either. But it’s at precisely this moment that the horror begins – David’s transformation. By lulling us into expectations of safety with CCR and then immediately countering that technique with Blue Moon, the shock of the moment is completely not telegraphed and doubled.
Here’s the video of the famous “transformation.” Beware, though a bit dated, it’s still pretty effective:
There are a few noteworthy things here. Obviously Rick Baker’s effects are incredible, particularly in 1981. But listen to that sound design. The creaking, crunching hands elongating at 0:46, the feet that sound like a car being raised in a garage at 1:05, hair that sounds like snakes at 1:16, the spine that could be a loud, un-oiled gear at 1:20, and my favorite at 2:06, the various fruits and vegetables being crushed to make the jaw and ears grow.
It’s a prime example of foley that is really not believable if heard out of context, but when paired with the visuals makes perfect sense. Play the clip again with your eyes closed. Those same sounds don’t immediately indicate the action to which they are paired. This isn’t necessarily a new idea, but it is taken to an extreme here. The sound designers seem to want to make the animal mechanical from an aural standpoint, which is both at odds and in harmony with the visuals: at odds in that it’s clearly supposed to be a living, breathing thing, in harmony in that it’s something that is created rather than born.
In fact, throughout the film it’s really the sound that’s scary. Sure, Landis has a few nicely visual moments: the werewolf jumping out of nowhere on the moor, the werewolf lurking at the base of an escalator in the subway, but for the most part he simply cuts to a close-up of the animal. It’s the overwhelming, hyperbolic roar that accompanies the close-up that really sells the shock.