"A naked American man stole my balloons."
1981 was the year of the werewolf. April saw the release of Joe Dante's The Howling, a dark, tense thriller laced with cynical humor, followed by an environmental call for action, Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen in July. (I'll be writing more about both next week.) An American Werewolf in London was the last of the unrelated modern "wolf meets man" trilogy to be released that August, but is probably the best loved and most remembered of the three.
In part that's because John Landis was at the top of his game. Just 31 at the time of the film's release, the writer/director had demonstrated his skill with low-budget comedies (Schlock, 1973; The Kentucky Fried Movie, 1977) and moved with great success into the studio system (Animal House, 1978; The Blues Brothers, 1980), capturing the zeitgeist of a movie-loving generation eager for irreverent, frat boy humor that was still deeply rooted in conservative, Middle American values.
Indeed, David Kessler, the hero of American Werewolf, is a cheery, jocular, modest, responsible everyman. As played by David Naughton, who had achieved a degree of fame by singing the theme song to a failed sitcom ("Makin' It") and starring in a series of soft-drink commercials ("Wouldn't you like to be a pepper too?"), David always strives to do the right thing, no matter how stereotypical it may be.
He and his best friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) set off on a three-month backpacking tour of Europe. For some unexplained reason, David wants to start their trip in Northern England, and the film begins with the two exiting a sheep truck to hike across a beautiful, completely barren landscape as the sun sets. The joking banter between the two is light and mocking, and continues as they seek refuge from the weather in The Slaughtered Lamb, a typical British pub with atypically unfriendly locals and a pentagram painted on the wall. Hurried out into the night with odd warnings ("Beware the moon!" "Stay off the moors!"), the two soon find themselves bathed in the light of a full moon, smack dab in the middle of the moors, and listening with increasing disbelief to the howling of a wild animal in the night.