When I was five or maybe six years old, my dad rented a VHS movie called An American Werewolf in London. Mum has never liked scary movies so she just read a book while it was playing. I had somehow negotiated my way into staying up and watching it. This was clearly a blip on my parent’s behalf in terms of responsible child-rearing, as they were generally pretty stellar as far as I could tell. I really don’t know what compelled them to fathom that watching something as terrifying and confrontingly gory as AAWiL was suitable for such a young and impressionable lad as myself. Furthermore, I don’t know what it was about that film that made me want to see it.
The story starts on the moors in some backwater English town, where two young American tourists have meandered in search of adventure. They end up in a local pub. The mood is tense and creepy and the Americans are most definitely not greeted with open arms.
Rik Mayall sighting! This eerie scene set the tone for the rest of the film, with its blend of camp humor and the threat of evil lurking around every corner. This is the first film that instilled a sense of foreboding terror in my developing imagination.
Banished from the warmth (in temperature only) of the watering hole, the two young men set out onto the road, where they are warned to not stray from it for reasons that are not explained fully. There is the terrifying howl of something menacing and close, as a beast closes in on them:
It circles them and rips Jack (played by Griffin Dunne) to shreds and attacks David (played by David Naughton) before it is shot by some locals. To this day it is one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever witnessed on film. Alarmingly, it may only be the 5th most terrifying scene in the entire movie!
Naughton’s character is taken to a hospital in London and a freaky dream sequence ensues, a POV shot of something running through a forest.
It is at this juncture that we are introduced to Nurse Price, played by the lovely Jenny Agutter. Even at such a tender age, I could recognise and appreciate the soft English beauty and maternal charm that Agutter brought to the role. I’m still a sucker for a pretty English lass to this day. David falls for her and rightly so. His strange dreams continue, and only become more bizarre and violent.
He is informed by the re-animated corpse of his friend that he will become a werewolf at the next full moon:
David justifiably thinks he is losing his mind and that Jack is a figment of his imagination. Jack encourages David to commit suicide before the transformation, like any good friend would do.
David ignores his decaying pal’s advice and, sure enough, turns into a werewolf at the next full moon. This, to me, is the most terrifying scene in cinematic history. Rick Baker is nothing short of a genius:
This is where CGI has gone wrong. You just cannot replace the real thing, and Baker got it spot on. Keep in mind this film is over 30 years old! Has there ever been a transformation scene that has come close to having the impact that this one has? I think not. This scene on its own contributed to countless nights of interrupted slumber for the years to follow. I think I’m still trying to catch up to this day!
But let’s put the transformation scene aside for a moment and talk about the freakiest scene ever committed to film: the mutant Nazi scene. How much LSD does one need to gobble to conjure up such a bizarre sequence? Muppets? Check. Quality time with the family? Check. A knock on the door from grotesque creatures with a Third Reich fixation toting machine guns and hunting knives? Check. This scene was simply too much for my childhood brain to process, and I’m quite certain that this very scene is responsible for my anxiety and social awkwardness to this very day. This haunted my dreams for years:
And as my poor therapist tries to unravel the mess that is my life and point it to some nebulous childhood trauma, I try to tell her that John Landis is responsible for my current emotional damage and is therefore financial responsible for the treatment of such.