John Landis ("National Lampoon's Animal House," "The Blues Brothers") is a member of the wise-guy generation of movie directors. The wise guys include major talents like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and lesser talents like Landis and others. What they have in common is their neo-hip attitude. "I am a movie camera," the wise guys might say, and what they see through that camera is not so much the real world as other movies, which they parody, put on, take off and otherwise play with like the brilliant kids they are. Landis has now come up with An American Werewolf in London, a nearly perfect specimen of the wise-guy movie.
This film is a spoof of the old wolfman horror classics starring beloved cornballs like Lon Chaney Jr. Landis's heroes aren't corny, they're college smoothies….
The wise-guy essence of the film is its blend of gory horror and cute cool, sort of like The Fonz Meets Frankenstein. When the undead [Jack] returns to shoot the breeze with [David], his face is seen close up in an advanced state of putrefaction, liquefaction and general yukkifaction while he tells his buddy about non-life in lupine limbo. "Have you ever talked with a corpse?" he asks. "It's boring." The movie mocks the creaking romantic mysticism of the old horror flicks while being infinitely more horrific than they ever were….
[Connoisseurs] of monstrous metamorphosis will be thrilled out of their Adidases by the scene in which [David] is transformed into a werewolf. None of your hoary 1940s lapdissolves here: you actually see and hear [his] face convulse, bones cracking, features erupting into a snout, ears sharpening to points, claws popping from fingers, follicles sprouting into the hairy hide of a snarling carnivore.
This is state-of-the-art stuff, and clearly Landis is as proud of it as those kid prodigies who build computers out of Q-Tips. Landis also out-palms Brian De Palma, not only giving you nightmares about massacres but double nightmares that go on to meta-massacres just when you think they're over. But despite all of this super-sophistication … [An American Werewolf in London] is finally just as silly as the old horror pictures it ambiguously kids. There's nothing like a rotting, wisecracking corpse to embody the bubble-gum nihilism of the Wise-Guy Wave.
Jack Kroll, "Cool Ghoul," in Newsweek (copyright 1981, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCVIII, No. 10, September 7, 1981, p. 82.