The Story Behind An American Werewolf In London

Still regarded as among the best - if not the best - treatment of the lycanthropic legend on screen - An American Werewolf In London arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.

We thought we'd take a wander back to the barren moors and down the haunted streets of London to discover where this amazing horror came from.

The spooky idea stuck with the young wannabe filmmaker, who quickly realised that the concept of the undead was something he never wanted to confront in real life, and wasn't sure how someone at his tender age would handle it.

But it would make a great idea for a film… If not necessarily a werewolf film. "I did a lot of research before I started writing," recalls the director.

"I knew I didn't want to do a serial killer or a zombie, I wanted something where you really had to suspend disbelief. I settled on werewolves mainly because, other than ghosts, they're the only really international monsters - every culture has man-beast stories. Even Dracula can turn into a wolf!

"That said, I really took from the Lon Chaney Wolfman picture because what that added was this element of tragedy. Historically, people in France and Wales were burned to death for being werewolves or witches and the film made it a curse, where the wolfman himself is a victim."

After writing the script, he didn't find a lot of support for the idea and quickly ended up shelving it for more than a decade. But his career soon began to take off, ironically following his first real stab at a comedy horror with Schlock - the tale of a blind girl who falls in love with an ape-monster.

Quick and cheap, with a $60,000 budget, it got Landis noticed, alongside the film's make-up expert, a man named Rick Baker.

But Landis would veer away from the horror and stick with comedy for the next few years, making his name with the likes of The Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers.

And on the back of the Brothers, he decided to resurrect a furry little story sitting in a drawer…

Next: Full Moon Rising


Next: Making The Make-Up


Next: Casting Some Victims


Next: Hello, London!


5. Hello, London!

"When I was shooting Werewolf, Warren Beatty was shooting Reds here and there was also another little film in progress called Raiders Of The Lost Ark," says Landis

"These were all made under a very useful tax-break agreement called the Eady Levy, which began the boom of Americans coming to make big pictures with largely British casts and crews in London in the 1960s. Turns out mine was one of the last Eady pictures made."

Despite the low budget, he managed to win some early support to pull off impressive sequences in the middle of the city.

"Everyone remembers the Piccadilly Circus scene. London was quaintly chaotic as far as filming went - it was basically a case of persuading the local bobby on the beat, and if they said you could do it, you were sort of OK.

"So I put on a free screening of The Blues Brothers in the Empire Leicester Square and invited 300 members of the Metropolitan police. They loved it - and, whaddaya know, suddenly I had permission to shoot in Piccadilly Circus.

"I got two February nights, between 1am and 4am and was allowed to stop traffic three times, for two minutes maximum. So we rebuilt the Circus off-site and rehearsed the big crash scene many times and my crew were drilled like a Formula One team, so when it came to the big bus crash we could clear it up and do another take in seconds.

"Vic Armstrong, who was the bus driver, went on to design many of the James Bond stunts. Boy, we worked fast."

But there was one big hiccup that Landis had to overcome - a racial issue.
"I had terrible trouble with the unions, too. At that time, you couldn't find what they then called a "coloured" face to be an extra.

"I remember after George Lucas shot Star Wars in London, he showed it to all of us and I said to him after the screening: 'George, is everybody in outer space white?' I knew London to be a multicultural place - we filmed in the year of the Brixton riots, remember - but I just couldn't get Indian or black faces to be in the crowd. Eventually, after a big stand-off, the unions gave in and we got 'coloured' faces into the background."

Among the other faces he slipped into the background were a wealth of British character actors and a comedian or two.

"Frank Oz and Jim Henson were in London making The Muppet Show and they took me to the Comedy Store on a night off and there was this act on, two guys called Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson," Landis wrote in The Observer. "They were basically just screaming at each other, but it was hilarious. I went to meet them afterwards and, I don't know why, I just offered them a part in the movie.

"I don't think they really believed me, because Ade didn't turn up but Rik did - he was right, I didn't actually have a part for him but I loved his face so we sat him down in the Slaughtered Lamb pub for the opening scene and his presence really helps to establish the mood of the movie."

Aside from London, Landis and co shot around the country, including the moors near Hay Bluff on the Welsh border, and the town of East Proctor, while The Slaughtered Lamb Pub is actually two places - a house in Crickadarn dressed to look like an inn and The Black Swan in Surrey, which provided the interiors.

With the footage in the can - including those aforementioned, post-production mini-shoots to produce the wolf moments - Landis could return to the States to edit and get his film into shape to be seen…

Next: Out In The Wild


6. Out In The Wild

Deep into editing, Landis screened his various cuts for colleagues and friends to judge their reaction. Among the edits he made was slicing out some footage of the tramps being killed at the junkyard in order to tone the scene down - but he's since said that he regrets making the edit.

More than one cut exists - there's an unrated version with extra blood and gore, but which is rarely seen these days.

As usual while making his films, Landis loaded it up with winks and nods to his previous work - so we get a look at See You Next Wednesday (in this case, a porn film) and even a sly Animal House mention.

Plus, while editing, the director selected a soundtrack that featured only songs with "Moon" in their title - 'Blue Moon', 'Moondance', 'Bad Moon Rising' and more. He tried to get several others, including Cat Stevens' 'Moonshadow' and Bob Dylan's cover of 'Blue Moon', but both requests were denied.

And you might notice in the credits that there's an odd note congratulating Prince Charles and Princess Diana on their wedding - made to balance the fact that during the scene that finds David trying to get arrested, he shouts "Prince Charles is gay."

Always best not to offend the queen, though we doubt it would've won a Royal Command Performance anyway.

The film finally howled into cinemas on August 21, 1981, with wolf-frenzy slowly overtaking filmgoers.

"People didn't know how to handle the humor aspect of it," explains David Naughton. " John Landis' reputation was one of comedy director. People were expecting a spoof, or at least a lighter film, and it starts off on a light enough note.

"But as soon as we were attacked it was hang onto your seats folks, this is going to get pretty horrific. So I think that was the biggest shock. People didn't know how to review it. This isn't a spoof guys, this is John's attempt at scaring you - and he did.

"The fan reaction has grown. It wasn't a huge initial hit but, over the years, it has become one of those films that has stood the test of time and one that you-have-to-see.

"Fans continue to talk to me about how scared they were. When I go to conventions and signings somebody has to tell me where they were when they saw it, were they able to sit through it, or did they have to leave or look away, did they have to see it again because of the parts they'd missed..."

It's long become an established horror favourite. Since then, however, we've had to endure a follow-up...

Next: From Paris Without Love


7. From Paris Without Love

One of the lesser known facts about the first film is that when Landis ran into problems with acting union Equity, he briefly considered ditching Britain's capital and moving the production to France.

He even went so far as to scout locations in Paris, with an idea that if he couldn't resolve his UK troubles, he'd rename the feature An American Werewolf In Paris and shoot there.

It never happened, but the idea came back to haunt him when a group of companies decided to make a follow-up in 1996. Despite having pondered the idea of a sequel for years, Landis was originally approached for the Paris job, but turned it down (a good thing too - Landis sequels don't have the best history, as anyone who has seen Blues Brothers 2000 can attest).

So the sequel was handed to little-known director Anthony Waller, who rewrote an existing script produced by Tom Stern. "I wrote this film, American Werewolf in Paris which was a really good script and I was proud of it," recalls Stern.

"I was supposed to direct but that didn't happen after my previous film, Freaked, got dumped by the studio. They thought I was a pariah.

"They hired some hack to direct it and they rewrote it like 12 times and turned it into the biggest piece of shit ever. It was so awful. That film was just so terrible that it was embarrassing."

Taking Landis' basic concept, Waller fashioned a story that saw a trio of American tourists (including lead Tom Everett Scott) tangle with a beautiful girl in the City Of Lights (Julie Delpy).

But as it turns out, she's hiding a terrible - and hairy - secret - she's the daughter of David Kessler and is part of a group of lycanthropes working on a serum that would let them transform at will.

Scott's Andy becomes afflicted with the curse and must find a way to destroy it...

Even Delpy realised what she'd gotten into when the sequel arrived in cinemas and was roundly savaged by critics for its rubbish CG wolves and brazen attempt to recapture the original film's blend of horror and comedy.

"I've been praised by critics throughout my career, now suddenly I'm being vilified for being in this silly movie. I can't wait for the film to be released in France; they'll tear me to shreds and that'll be hilarious", she said in an interview at the time.

Fortunately, the original's reputation wasn't harmed by the dodgy sequel and has gone on to enjoy a long, inspirational life through other filmmakers and their output...

Next: The Werewolf Lives On


Next: Beware The Remake?


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Freelance Journalist

James White is a freelance journalist who has been covering film and TV for over two decades. In that time, James has written for a wide variety of publications including Total Film and SFX. He has also worked for BAFTA and on ODEON's in-cinema magazine.