As Simon Ward points out in his essay, “One Full Moon, Two Young Stars,” An American Werewolf in London (1981) “has ‘werewolf’ in the title … we know what we’re in for.” And, even if we didn’t, the film’s music would alert us soon enough. As much as the werewolf is expected, though (along with the infamous transformation sequence made possible by Rick Baker and his special effects makeup team), what might not be as predictable is how unmoved the film is by the wolf’s entrance. John Landis, who wrote and directed the picture after coming up with the idea while he was a gofer on Kelly’s Heroes (1970), makes the film’s mythology cut and dry. Like David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), when they first arrive in England, the werewolf is the odd man out. If it weren’t for him, the film wouldn’t deal with the supernatural, and as much as the encounter is central to everything else that happens, it’s an anomaly. If it weren’t for the title (and if you started the film late) you might go awhile before realizing werewolves exist.
It’s this unwavering ordinariness that makes An American Werewolf in London so peculiarly distinctive. It’s the reason the best scenes in the film are the ones about Jack and David’s friendship. Baker rightfully won the first Oscar for makeup after this movie, but you wouldn’t care about these characters if Dunne and Naughton didn’t sell their bond. It’s bigger than what’s happened to them and that isn’t lost amidst everything that happens.
As for the special features, it’s not like Arrow has a reputation for being stingy when it comes to bonus content, but you really get the sense that they thought of everything when they put this Blu-Ray release together. It’s a formidable package and one that’s hard to imagine any other company being able to top someday.
The showstopper is a video essay by Jon Spira titled “I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret.” Using that line from the film (“I think he’s a Jew”) as a jumping off point for more research, Spira looks at Carl Siodmak’s script for The Wolf Man and what was happening during WWII. By running with this idea, he’s able to provide an entirely new lens for watching this movie. It’s a well-edited essay, too, so the presentation only bolsters the material.
Another highlight is Daniel Griffith’s documentary, Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, which provides a timeline for werewolf appearances in film and a better sense of when certain parts of the mythology came in. With talking heads from various directors and special effects artists, if you haven’t seen a ton of the Universal monster movies, Mark of the Beast will put some titles on your radar.
There are two commentary tracks. One is new and by Paul Davis, who also directed the 2009 documentary, Beware the Moon: Remembering ‘An American Werewolf in London.’ That’s also on this disk and is the best watch for cast interviews (and not just the main cast, but the actors from the pub Jack and David stop in before their werewolf encounter). The commentary is a great listen by itself. Understandably, there’s some overlap with the documentary, but it speaks to how well-versed Davis is in this movie that he’s able to have new stuff to say (including information on what an American Werewolf in London sequel might have looked like). The other commentary is by Dunne and Naughton, who both have a sense of humor, and can speak to what filming was like firsthand and, in “Wares of the Wolf,” SFX artist Dan Martin and Prop Store’s Tim Lawes get to show some of the props and costumes that are still in good condition today.
Arrow’s limited edition box set also comes with a double-sided poster of the box art by Graham Humphreys on one side and the movie poster of the wolf that looks like blood splatter on the other; six lobby cards; and (the essential item) a booklet which includes three essays (two of them new) and some of the reviews that came out at the time (the paper qualities an upgrade, too – no fingerprints). Craig Ian Mann’s essay is about body horror, and Daniel’s willingness to believe that he’s crazy before believing he’s a werewolf. Ward’s is about the casting of Dunne and Naughton and the careers they would go on to have afterwards (Dunne can currently be seen on This Is Us, where he’s a series regular this season).
An American Werewolf in London is available now on Blu-Ray from Arrow.