Almost thirty years on from its initial release, John Landis’ culture-clash horror An American Werewolf in London remains a deeply odd movie. The film’s premise is classic genre stuff; man bitten by wolf turns into werewolf at full moon, and goes on killing rampage. The waters of an ostensibly simple tale are muddied, however, by a series of bizarre tonal shifts from broad comedy to dark psychological thriller, spatial dislocation (why, oh why, does David end up in a London hospital when he’s attacked in Yorkshire?) and a bracingly abrupt ending that verges on the upsetting.
Werewolf begins with two young American tourists traversing the terrain of the Yorkshire moors. David (David Naughton) is clearly the more enthusiastic traveller of the two, with Jack (Griffin Dunne) ill-at-ease in unfamiliar surroundings, betraying his disdain with a stream of sarcastic asides, and more interested in discussing his preferred female conquests. Clad in primary-colour bodywarmers and sporting similarly lustrous brown hair, they enter an ominous pub named The Slaughtered Lamb seeking refuge and sticking out like proverbial sore thumbs. The pub, populated by a collection of stony-faced, flat-cap clad locals (including Kes‘ despotic PE teacher Brian Glover and, in a very early screen appearance, Bottom‘s Rik Mayall), offers them a particularly stony reception. After a terse exchange, they are cast out into the moors and before long, are lost. Suddenly, Jack is mercilessly savaged by a venomous lycanthrope who soon goes after David but only succeeds in injuring him. That, as they say, is that for Jack. Well, it should be, but in a masterstroke from writer-director John Landis (also responsible for Michael Jackson’s visually resemblant Thriller) Jack is soon to return to haunt David as a particularly laid-back corpse languishing in the afterlife.
Already sardonic in the land of the living, Jack becomes positively louche in limbo. In his first post-death appearance, he pays David a visit at his hospital bedside, livid with blood and with skin flapping from his neck, casually urging David to kill himself to avoid any further wolf-based mayhem, and to free him from oblivion. David can’t decide whether Jack’s appearance is merely another of his frequent fever dreams, and is even less certain when he appears for a second time, in a state of further decomposition, at the house of his new girlfriend (his nurse, played stiffly by Jenny Agutter). David fails to heed his friend’s warnings and embarks on a series of murderous jaunts in the form of the wolf (including one memorably tense sequence shot in an eerily empty Tottenham Court Road tube station).
Jack’s final appearance, fittingly for his slightly sleazy nature, finds him rotting away in the back of a seedy porn theatre in Piccadilly Circus, decomposed to the extent that Dunne is now voice-acting only, having been replaced in physical form by a particularly diseased looking animatronic dummy. The jaded Jack is now the de-facto leader of a chorus of corpses in various stages of degeneration, all of whom ghoulishly suggest ways in which David could commit suicide.
Jack is a great character for a number of reasons. Firstly, his close connection with David adds an extra degree of poignancy to the unwitting murders that Jack commits and his ultimate demise; he is giving his friend the best advice he can, but his words of wisdom go unheeded as David gradually loses his grip, eventually succumbing to a barrage of police gunfire; it is worth remembering that at the heart of this story lies the tragic death of two young innocents abroad. As an essentially comic construction however, Jack also strikes just the right note of absurdist humour, simultaneously wry and horrific. Furthermore, in our modern age of bloodless, unemotive CGI, Jack’s appearance (along with David’s spellbinding homo-lupine transition) magnificently showcases a golden age of cinema in which convincing make-up and special effects were a tangible labour of love. Dunne had to sit in make-up for hours each day with Special Effects wizard Rick Baker (Videodrome, Thriller) to achieve the believable look of a man who was certainly dead, but not quite dead enough to preclude him from wandering around the back streets of Soho for a few days.
Jack is portrayed with laid-back elan by Griffin Dunne, a New York actor/director almost certainly best known for his defining lead role in Martin Scorsese’s pitch black 1985 comedy After Hours, in which he essayed a white collar drone way out of his depth in New York’s own SoHo. His performances in these two films can only make one wonder why he didn’t make more of an impact as an actor. After all, how many films can you name in which a sarcastic, decomposing corpse steals the show?