Janet Maslin

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Imagine a college boy from Great Neck, L. I., carrying a knapsack and wearing a down parka, wandering very, very incongruously across the English moors. Now imagine two such innocents abroad, to the musical accompaniment of "Blue Moon." As the song suggests, the sun will be going down soon, and the moon will be coming up, and those deserted moors will prove to be not so empty after all. "An American Werewolf in London" begins on a note that's equally balanced between comedy and horror, and that also has a fine touch of restraint. It gets off to a wonderful start.

John Landis, who also directed "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers," has the makings here of a much better movie than either of those. He's serious about the hipness of his two leading characters, who behave, even after one has been killed by a werewolf and the other maimed, as if this were all part of a fraternity hazing. Mr. Landis is also serious about making this a horror film that packs a wallop. For a while, he is able to fit both of these seemingly irreconcilable ingredients into the same movie, the offhand humor and the terror, too.

When the movie backfires, which it finally does, it's because too much grisly footage has been used too lightly. Mr. Landis's comic detachment, which has been fascinating throughout much of the movie, is something he holds on to even when a deeper response is needed. Eventually it becomes less comic than callow….

[David and Jack] are attacked by a monster early in the movie, and it's hard to say who fares worse of the two. Jack is mauled and relegated to the ranks of the undead, which in a movie like this hardly means he won't be heard from again. David is due to become a monster every month, which is something Mr. Landis signals by playing Van Morrison's "Moondance," Creedence Clearwater's "Bad Moon Rising" and two more versions of "Blue Moon" on the soundtrack. How Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" escaped him is the movie's one big mystery….

The werewolf gimmickry, though it is plenty scary, is only part of what Mr. Landis offers in the way of horror. The movie can't fail to catch its audience off guard, because many of David's savagely violent fantasies begin as harmless, realistic-looking conventional scenes.

The biggest jolts come with these moments of the unexpected, but there is another brand of horror here, too. Jack keeps coming back, in worse and worse states of decomposition, to chat with his friend. "I realize I don't look so hot, David, but I thought you'd be glad to see me," he chides the first time. David isn't, and you won't be either—though the camera lingers on Jack and his ghoulish makeup for a very long time….

In addition to Jack's various visits and David's worries about the full moon, the movie has a love-story subplot…. The romance does not mix well with anything else in the movie, and Mr. Landis's including it is a measure of his occasional indiscriminateness. By the end of the film, he has graduated to car crashes à la "The Blues Brothers," with the dubious new ingredient of bodies to be crushed between the cars.

The last part of the story cries out for some emotion over David's fate, since werewolfhood is not a condition for which the director has a cure. All Mr. Landis offers in the way of sentiment are some dented fenders.

Janet Maslin, "Film: 'American Werewolf, Horror Plus Laughs," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 21, 1981, p. C12.


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