Prior to 1981, an Oscar had never been given for Best Makeup, but that all changed on March 29, 1982, when Rick Baker took the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the 54th Annual Academy Awards to accept the golden statuette for “An American Werewolf in London.” Written and directed by John Landis, (Animal House) the 97 minute film was released on August 21, 1981 in both the United States and the UK. The harrowing psychological thriller, which also mixes in a dose of comedy, was made for an estimated budget of approximately ten million dollars. The movie would go on to gross over thirty million.
Two young, American tourists, Jack Goodman, (Griffin Dunne) and David Kessler, (David Naughton), are traveling the English Moors when hunger calls, so they stop off at a pub called “The Slaughtered Lamb.” Upon entering the establishment, the boys quickly can discern that they are not very welcome based on the icy reception they receive. The travelers are permitted to stay until Jack makes the mistake of inquiring about the symbol of a pentagram which is drawn on the wall of the pub. David and Jack sense that they better leave if they know what’s good for them. They do, however, receive one piece of advice before they venture back into the cold of night, it is the same advice they received from a truck driver who drops the tourists off at the beginning of the film. That advice is to stay to the main roads and keep away from the moors.
Inadvertently thwarting the advice of the locals, the two find themselves off the road and in the moors. At first all they hear is a guttural sound that pierces the night air. Next, they sense that whatever made the sound is watching them. It matters not that they run, because shortly thereafter, Jack is savagely killed and David is injured to the point where he is rendered unconscious, spared only by the help of the locals from the pub, who are feeling guilty, and come to his aid, without a moment to spare. David is taken to a hospital in London, where he will recuperate for three weeks, however, he did not sustain the type of injury that one recovers and moves on from. No, David has been attacked by a werewolf, even though the local police report indicates that the two tourists were attacked by an escaped lunatic. Regardless, the attack is the catalyst which sets the remainder of the film in motion.
Upon waking from the attack, David remembers what transpired and is insistent that he was attacked by a wolf-like creature. One person who believes David’s story, to the point where he sets off on his own to investigate it, is Doctor Hirsch played by John Woodvine, (Coronation Street). During his stay in the hospital David meets nurse Alex Price portrayed by Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run). Alex takes a liking to the charismatic David and his feelings are mutual. Once he is discharged, he moves into her apartment. Throughout the course of the film, in addition to having hallucinogenic dreams, David is visited by the apparition of his dead friend Jack, but he does not appear to him in an angelic spirit form. Instead, Jack appears to David in different states of decomposition and with each appearance Jack becomes increasingly more grotesque. It is during these visits from Jack, that David learns of what he is to become once the full moon rises and that his fate is inexplicably linked with Jack’s. If David does not end his own existence, thereby destroying the bloodline of the werewolf that killed Jack, then Jack will have to suffer in limbo until such a time as that happens. Jack further warns David that if he chooses to live like a werewolf, he will wind up killing innocent people, not because he wants to, but because he can’t help it, and that those victims will also linger in limbo until David is dead. Will David commit suicide? Will he ignore Jack’s warnings and attempt to go on with life as usual? I wouldn’t dare spoil it for those of you who have not yet watched what, in this blogger’s opinion, is one of the best werewolf themed films ever made.
Trivia buffs take note: Landis wrote the screenplay in 1969, while working as a production assistant in Europe on the Don Siegel directed film “Kelly’s Heroes.” Actor David Naughton was supposedly cast in the film by Landis after he saw him in a commercial for the soft drink brand Dr. Pepper. The wolves that are used in the scene that takes place at the London Zoo were owned by Roger Palmer, who became the founder of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust which is still in existence. The King of Pop, Michael Jackson, hired John Landis to direct his highly regarded music video “Thriller,” because he was so impressed with the special effects and makeup that were used in the film. One of the more interesting pieces of trivia involves ventriloquist, Señor Wences, who guest starred on an episode of “The Muppet Show” that is playing on television during David’s nightmare sequence. Even though Wences is not shown Miss Piggy and Kermit clearly are. Many people believed the episode to be a fake. The reason for that widely held view was that the segment of that particular episode of the Muppets was never aired in America.
An American Werewolf in London (Full Moon Edition) was released on Blu-ray DVD on September 15, 2009. The special features include, but are not limited to, an interview with director John Landis and make-up artist Rick Baker, a feature length documentary titled “Beware the Moon,” and feature commentary by cast members Griffin Dunne and David Naughton.
The makeup effects employed by Rick Baker have stood the test of time the past thirty-four years. They are still extraordinarily impressive and even more so considering that they were done long before the advent of CGI. Six days was the amount of time it took to film David’s transformation scene which takes place fifty-eight minutes into the movie. With the wonderful blending of atmospheric location, plot, phenomenal special effects, and makeup, the film, at the time, updated the classic werewolf tale and brought it into the modern age.