An American Werewolf in London
One of the greatest directors of the 1980s, John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Trading Places), expertly combines macabre horror with dark humour in the lycanthropic classic, An American Werewolf in London. American tourists David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are savaged by an unidentified vicious animal whilst hiking on the Yorkshire Moors. David awakes in a London hospital to find his friend dead and his life in disarray. Retiring to the home of a beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter, Walkabout) to recuperate, he soon experiences disturbing changes to his mind and body, undergoing a full-moon transformation that will unleash terror on the streets of the capital... An American Werewolf in London had audiences howling with laughter and recoiling in terror upon its cinema release. Landis’ film has gone on to become one of the most important horror films of its decade, rightly lauded for its masterful set-pieces, uniquely unsettling atmosphere and Rick Bakers’ ground-breaking, Oscar-winning special makeup effects. Now restored in 4K, and presented with an abundance of extra features, this big beast of horror can be devoured as never before...
Arrow Video presents a brand-new Blu-ray special edition for John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. Though Universal had done a new restoration not all that long ago, Arrow has performed their own 4K restoration for this release, sourced from the 35mm original camera negative.
I have not seen Universal’s Blu-ray release, which was sourced from the alternate restoration, but there is no way I can imagine it besting what we get here: what Arrow has done looks absolutely astounding. The film comes off looking so fresh and rich, and if it wasn’t for some of the more obvious dated effects (not knocking the transformation, that still looks unbelievably great today) and the 70s/80s look it could be easily passed as something made today. The image is razor-sharp throughout, every little detail and nuance popping off screen, with grain rendered gorgeously; it’s a grainy film, and it can get heavy, but it looks completely natural and clean, which holds true for the darker scenes as well (and there are of course plenty of those). The black levels prove to be strong as well, providing excellent shadow delineation, and never crushing out the details. Colours look remarkable, with some nice pops of red (whether it be the red North Face jacket our hapless hero wears at the beginning or the pools of blood that show up). Flesh tones look accurate and everything is balanced out nicely, not leaning overly cool nor warm.
The digital presentation itself doesn’t present any artifacts that I could detect. The foggy moments are rendered well with no banding present, transitions and gradients are smooth, and film grain doesn’t come off noisy. The encode handles everything beautifully. And on top of that the restoration is pristine, and I don’t even recall a single blemish, not even during some of the more effects-heavy moments. In the end I was beyond thrilled with what was accomplished here. This is one of the more film-like and natural looking high-definition presentations I’ve seen and I’m hoping it may one day make it on to a 4K UHD disc.
Arrow provides two soundtracks: the original mono presentation presented in 1.0 DTS-HD MA, and then the remastered 5.1 surround presentation in DTS-HD MA.
The mono track, which I assume is the original soundtrack for the film, shows its age a bit but I ended up still being pleasantly surprised by it. It’s very clean, free of any severe damage (just some audible background noise at times) and it features modest range and fidelity. Dialogue can be a bit flat but screams and other louder moments manage to pack a punch, as does any music that pops up. It’s a fine presentation, but obviously limited by being focused to the center channel.
The 5.1 sountrack ends up being—to the surprise of no one I’m sure—far more dynamic and active, though it is a complete remix. It adds in more sound effects, or amps up ones that existed in the mono track to a milder degree. The best example is any scene in the hospital: in the 5.1 presentation you can hear voices coming in over intercoms, or more busy work in the background, which is missing entirely in the mono one. City streets also have more bustle, and there are more prominent ambient effects in the countryside sequences (like the wind). While purists may cringe, at the very least these added effects are directed impressively through the sound field, and the track as a whole is far more dynamic and rich, dialogue sounding to have slightly better fidelity as well.
I guess I found the 5.1 track unnecessarily aggressive at times, with more activity there simply for the sake of it, but it’s mixed well and doesn’t distract from what is important. At the same time, though, the mono presentation may be the weaker one, but it’s clean and is more dynamic than I would have expected. In the end it will come to personal preference.
Arrow really packs on the material for their special edition, offering up a number of new features while porting over Universal’s previous material. Things start off with a new audio commentary featuring Paul Davis, the filmmaker behind the making-of documentary Beware the Moon, which does appear as a supplement on this disc. Davis’ track ends up being summation of everything he learned while making his documentary and as sequences come up he talks about how the sequences were filmed (right down to the equipment used sometimes) or how certain effects were pulled off. He even talks about the scenes that became an issue for censors, share stories around the porn-film-within-the-film, how everyone was concerned a 4K restoration of the film would make the effects look horrible now, and even goes into detail about a planned sequel and how that ended up becoming An American Werewolf in Paris (with Davis snidely pointing out “no one is releasing a Blu-ray of that.”) I’ll say that I’m beyond impressed at all of the little details that Davis knows but Davis’ delivery leaves a bit to be desired (he’s better as a narrator/host in the documentary) and there are times where topics can feel dragged out a bit. Still, if you were looking to learn new things around the film this commentary may hold plenty.
Arrow then ports over the commentary that first appeared on Universal’s collector’s edition DVD featuring actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. This track is more of a “hang-out” track as you listen to the two revisit the film and talk about whatever pops into their heads. When it’s not about their shared crush on co-star Jenny Agutter, the two recall funny stories around the shoot or the various difficulties they had around make-up and effects. Naughton’s experience around the transformation, which was a grueling experience calling for him to sit in a hole in the floor for hours all for one quick shot, proves to be the most interesting portion of the track. It can be a fun track but it admittedly doesn’t offer a whole lot.
The video material then starts off with the lengthy 77-minute Mark of the Beast: The Legacy of the Universal Werewolf, which, as the title suggests, looks at how the Werewolf/Wolf Man has changed through the years, going from the first Wolf Man film all the way up to the Benicio del Toro remake, though special attention is paid to American Werewolf than most of the others. It’s a fun retrospective that does span out a little to the other Universal monster films, and also points to how the prior Wolf Man films directly influenced Landis’ film.
Arrow then records a new interview with the always loud and lively John Landis, which runs 12-minutes. Landis appears consistently throughout the features so having yet another interview with him seems a bit redundant, but this interview has the filmmaker focus more on his time in London and Europe during the late 60s while working on other films, and how those experiences played into influencing American Werewolf. He also talks about the British films that influenced him, and recalls proudly how he stumbled upon the very first airing of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and how blown away he was by it.
Wares of the Wolf is a fun if short 8-minute extra, featuring Dan Martin and Tim Lawes offering a look at a few of the surviving effects props from the film, including one of the Nazi wolf masks and one of the animatronics used for the transformation (the “skin” is missing but this allows you to see the mechanics of it). This is then followed by the rather odd (at first) video essay by Jon Spira called I Think He’s a Jew: The Werewolf’s Secret, Spira suggesting there’s a subtext found in the film around Jewish identity. I admit I wasn’t sure what this would be exactly at first but Spira, who doesn’t believe Landis added it purposely, offers a great analysis as to why he feels this way about the film, touching on the more subtle aspects (like the uses of the words “putz” and “schmuck”) and the moments that may not be at all obvious to those unfamiliar with the Jewish faith. It’s a breezy 11-minutes.
Also new is an interview between director Corin Hardy and writer Simon Ward, found under The Werewolf’s Call. The two talk about how the film influenced them (each recalling how they first saw it), showing them how a film can blend humour and horror for starters. Though it’s great seeing how the film has played into the work of filmmakers today this proves to be an incredibly dry feature, even at a short 12-minutes.
We then finally get to Paul Davis’ making-of, Beware the Moon, running 97-minutes, as long as the main feature itself. Davis plays host, revisiting locations used in the film (the pub has received a helluva makeover), revisiting sequences in the film in the order they appear. From here, through interviews, we get an incredibly in-depth look at the film’s making, even featuring unused footage and behind-the-scenes material, with the most rewarding section being around the transformation sequence and its amazing effects. It also touches on post-production aspects, even getting into issues Landis had with the censors and how he got around them. I was mixed on Davis’ commentary but he has managed to wade through all of the material he gathered and has edited together an incredibly comprehensive and thorough recount of the film’s production that proves both entertaining and insightful.
This is followed by a short 5-minute featurette from 1981 around the making of An American Werewolf in London, which features footage of molds being made of Naughton for the effects in the film. Arrow also throws on a couple of interviews recorded by Universal for their previous releases: one with John Landis, the other with effects artist Rick Baker, running 18-minutes and 11-minutes respectively. Both interviews do repeat material we’ve heard throughout the other features, though Landis expands a bit more on the Gypsy burial he saw while traveling in Europe (which was the main inspiration for his film) and talks about how The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie influenced his dream sequences.
Baker, after touching subjects covered elsewhere on the disc, talks a bit more about the effects work that went into Dunne’s deteriorating character. One other thing I don’t believe was mentioned elsewhere (though I could have missed it) was Baker was actually determined to do the transformation in one shot, though he’s thankful now that Landis pushed it would be more dramatic with cuts, because chances are they would have never pulled it off. Arrow also throws in another interview with the artist, I Worked with a Werewolf, with him recounting how the classic monster movies inspired him to become an effects artist, and how he jumped at the chance to work on the Wolf Man remake starring del Toro.
11-minutes’ of archival footage is found under Casting of the Hand, showcasing footage of the effects team making casts of Naughton, which is then followed by 3-minutes’ worth of outtakes, though without audio. There’s a short 2-minute storyboard featurette around the last section of the film, comparing them to the finished product.
theatrical trailers and then an image gallery close off the disc. The galleries are split into “production stills,” “behind the scenes,” “posters,” “lobby cards,” “storyboards,” and “shooting schedule,” the last item literally being the sheets for the shooting schedule. It was also mentioned in the features how the theater scene was conceived differently (in a rather horrifying way I might add) and you can find evidence of this in the storyboard gallery.
This limited edition also features a fold out poster (featuring new artwork on one side and an original poster on the other), 6 postcard size lobby card reproductions, and then a 58-page booklet. Like most of Arrow’s releases the booklet is a rather big addition, first providing an essay on the film and this time period in horror, written by Craig Ian Mann, followed by an essay on the film’s young stars, written by Simon Ward. There is also a reprint of an article about The Howling and An American Werewolf in London being released at the same time, written by Jordan R. Fox for Cinefantastique in September of 1981, followed by reprintings of reviews written around its initial release. The reviews sampled come from Philip Strick for Films and Filming, John Brosnan for Starburst, and John Pym for Monthly Film Bulletin.
Overall it should all keep fans busy and offers an incredible wealth of material with a few good surprises thrown in.
An impressive special edition loaded with excellent material around its production and legacy, while also featuring one hell of a digital presentation. Very highly recommended.