1981’s An American Werewolf in London was a major change of direction for filmmaker John Landis. After directing comedy classics National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers, Landis surprised many by making a gory supernatural horror movie in which a backpacker from the US is mauled by a beast, and ends up turning into a beast himself.
Yet as scary and gruesome as it is, An American Werewolf in London is also as hilarious as anything Landis ever made, and all these years later it remains one of the best blends of comedy and horror ever put on film. Here are 20 facts about An American Werewolf in London you might not have known.
20. The studio wanted Landis to cast Blues Brothers actors John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd
After the box office success of The Blues Brothers in 1980, execs at studio Universal were keen for director John Landis’ follow-up to capitalise on that film’s success – namely by bringing that same dream team back together. When Landis began work on American Werewolf, executives pushed Landis to cast Blues Brothers stars John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as American backpackers David and Jack.
Landis, however, was adamant that the film should feature unknown actors, and insisted on giving the roles to newcomers David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Part of Landis’ reasoning was that fresh faces deserved the chance to make their own impact on Hollywood, but the far more pragmatic reason was that Belushi and Aykroyd were already busy working on Neighbors, a movie that the pair had wanted Landis to direct.
19. David Naughton’s role in the film got him fired by Dr Pepper
Prior to being cast as David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London, actor David Naughton was best known for appearing in a long-running ad campaign for Dr Pepper. However, his performance in John Landis’ film didn’t go down well with the soft drink company. Reportedly Dr Pepper felt that Naughton’s nudity in American Werewolf didn’t gel with their family-friendly image, so they terminated their contract with the actor.
To make him feel better about the loss of both the regular acting gig and the funds that came along with it, on the last day of shooting, many members of the cast and crew gathered around Naughton in a circle. While he was still in his werewolf makeup, they danced around him singing “I’m a werewolf, you’re a werewolf, wouldn’t you like to be a werewolf too”, in reference to the iconic Pepsi commercials.
18. John Landis was inspired by a funeral he witnessed where the body was wrapped in garlic
As well as directing An American Werewolf in London, John Landis also wrote the film. Whilst he was inspired by the classic monster movies he loved growing up, Landis also drew on a real-life experience that made a strong impression on him. When working as part of the crew on 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia, Landis witnessed a Roma funeral in which the body was buried in an unusually deep grave feet first and wrapped in garlic.
When he asked around about the ritual, Landis discovered that bodies were buried in this way in an attempt to stop them from rising from the dead. While not a werewolf-specific prevention tactic, and indeed one that usually brings to mind vampires, the ritual nonetheless sparked Landis’ imagination, both for the werewolf element of American Werewolf and the lingering spirit storyline.
- Credit: Annulla via Wikimedia Commons
17. Every song in the film features ‘moon’ in the title
As we all know, werewolves only come out when the moon is full. An American Werewolf in London nods to this in a sly way, by only using songs that feature the word moon: Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Moondance by Van Morrison and no less than three versions of Blue Moon. There were also several moon-related tracks that Landis wanted for the movie, but couldn’t get.
In particular, Landis also wanted to make use of Moon Shadow by Cat Stevens, but Stevens refused permission. His refusal was apparently on moral grounds, as he objected to the violence of the film and didn’t want it connected to his song. However, Landis has since insisted that Stevens refused because he believed werewolves are real.
16. It was the first film allowed to shoot in London’s Piccadilly Circus for 15 years
An American Werewolf in London’s spectacular climax takes place on the streets of Britain’s capital, including the famous landmark of Piccadilly Circus. In fact, it was the first film granted permission to shoot in Piccadilly Circus for 15 years. The crew took over the location between 1am and 4am over two nights, and were even allowed to stop traffic during that time (albeit for just two minutes each).
Landis helped secure the rights to shoot at Piccadilly Circus by hosting an exclusive screening of The Blues Brothers for members of London’s Metropolitan Police. During that time, Landis made sure to mention his positive working relationship with the Chicago PD, which he had cultivated whilst working on The Blues Brothers. Landis even made a scale model of Piccadilly, to show how minimal traffic disruptions would be.
15. The love scene had to be toned way down to avoid an X-rating
An American Werewolf in London was never going to be a PG. However, the filmmakers were forced to pare back on the more extreme content in order to secure the desired R rating, after US ratings board the MPAA threatened them with a prohibitive X rating. To avoid an X, David Naughton and Jenny Agutter‘s love scene had to be toned way down.
The scene between the newly undead David and the nurse who brought him back from the brink had to be made much shorter, and the amount of nudity was reduced significantly. As well as making the love scene far less amorous, the violence of other scenes had to be pared back, too, in order to avoid frightening audiences past the point of no return.
14. The film’s makeup was so good it helped inspire a new Academy Award
One of the main things An American Werewolf is best remembered for is its remarkable practical makeup effects, most notably in the lengthy transformation sequence where David morphs into a werewolf for the first time. This sequence was so impressive, it helped inspire the introduction of a new category at the Academy Awards: Best Makeup.
An American Werewolf in London’s special effects makeup artist Rick Baker won the very first Best Makeup Oscar for his work on the film. Baker’s excellent skills added to pressure that originated the previous year, when the amazing make-up of The Elephant Man was overlooked come awards season. Baker has since won the award a further seven times, the most recent of which was for another werewolf movie: 2010’s The Wolfman.
13. Michael Jackson loved the film so much he hired John Landis to direct the video for Thriller
After earning over $62 million off the back of a $6 million budget, An American Werewolf in London was a big horror hit. One of the many who saw it and loved it was none other than pop superstar Michael Jackson, who proceeded to reach out to director John Landis with an offer to direct the music video for Jackson’s song Thriller.
Premiering in December 1983, Michael Jackson’s Thriller became one of the most celebrated music videos of all time, a reputation which it still holds to this day. The 13-minute short film sees the King of Pop first turn first into a werewolf and then into a zombie, inspired by both Jack and David’s fates in turn. The inspiration stops there though, as no one moonwalks in An American Werewolf in London.
12. John Landis’ son almost directed an American Werewolf in London remake
In 1997, An American Werewolf in London got a largely unrelated sequel in An American Werewolf in Paris, a critically reviled flop. In the years since, there have often been rumblings of a possible remake of the original 1981 film. For a time, this looked set to be written and directed by John Landis’ own son Max Landis, who rose to prominence in his own right with such projects as Netflix TV series Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
Rumblings about the proposed remake first surfaced in December of 2016, and in early 2017 Max Landis confirmed via Twitter that he had just finished working on his first draft of the American Werewolf remake script. However, by the end of that year, Landis had been accused of emotional and physical abuse by multiple women, leading to plans for the remake being put quietly and indefinitely on hold.
- Credit: Gage Skidmore
11. The werewolf makeup process took 10 hours
When special effects artist Rick Baker first met David Naughton, who was to take the lead in American Werewolf as the reluctantly lycanthropic David, he only had one thing to say: “I feel very sorry for you.” That was the first exchange the two men had, so confident was Baker that he was about to put Naughton through a serious trial of endurance in the makeup chair.
While Naughton didn’t have to be in makeup as often as co-star Griffin Dunne, who was set to play the murdered Jack, on the days where he Naughton did have to be in makeup it was pretty gruelling. Naughton would be picked up at 4:30 in the morning, and then would spend ten whole hours in the makeup chair, unable to nap or even read a book during that time. Poor guy.
10. The movie was shot in sequence
As kids, most of us harbour the belief that movies are shot in the order we see them, with the opening shot being the first thing to be filmed, and the closing shot wrapping up the production. However, this illusion doesn’t last long, as we soon realise that it makes more sense to shoot by location, with a thousand other little pragmatic decisions factoring into the filming order.
Quite unusually, An American Werewolf in London was one of those rare films to be shot almost entirely in sequence, in order to put all of the big transformation scenes towards the end of the shooting schedule. This decision was made to give Rick Baker and the rest of the special effects team as much time as possible to work on prosthetics and other pieces.
9. Griffin Dunne was at one point towed away while using the bathroom
Griffin Dunne did not have an easy time on the set of An American Werewolf in London. Despite his character dying right at the beginning of the movie, Dunne had a lot to shoot, due to Jack sticking around as a slowly decaying spirit for the rest of the film. This involved a lot of time in the makeup chair, and Dunne also had a hard time dealing with the surprising emotional toll of seeing what he would look like as a corpse.
In addition to these unpleasantries, Dunne also had himself another, more embarrassing experience during the production. When he went to use the bathroom in the only trailer that had one on set, Dunne had his private moment interrupted when the trailer was hooked up to a truck, and hauled off to go to the next location. Whoops!
8. David Naughton found the hospital bed scene the hardest to film
The role of David Kessler would present some big challenges to any actor, not least for the heavy make-up required, and the scenes that required the actor to be unclothed outdoors in the cold British weather. However, according to David Naughton, the hardest scene of all to film was the nightmare scene in which he lies in a hospital bed, then opens his eyes to reveal monstrous pupils and fangs.
The actor has explained that this scene was particularly gruelling due to the large glass contact lenses, which were extremely uncomfortable to wear. The contact lenses were custom designed and fitted to sit snugly in his eyes, but even that couldn’t minimise the discomfort completely. Thankfully Naughton put in a good performance, so the scene could be shot in as few takes as possible.
7. Landis shot the blue movie that’s seen in the film
One of An American Werewolf in London’s most prominent easter eggs is See You Next Wednesday, a fictional adult film that is referenced throughout the movie. Adverts for it can be seen in multiple locations, including the tube station and the adult cinema, and we even see a little bit of the movie, which Landis shot himself.
Some directors would have simply used a ‘mature’ movie in the public domain or bought some already existing adult fare to play in the background, but Landis went the extra mile and shot one of his own. For this fake film, Landis hired Linzi Drew, a prominent page 3 model, who later went on to have a successful adult film career as a direct result of starring in the fictional See You Next Wednesday.
6. The violence had to be toned down to avoid an X rating
As well as toning down the one love scene that An American Werewolf in London had, John Landis had to seriously tone down the violence of the film in order to avoid an X rating, something that would seriously diminish the movie’s reach and audience. Many scenes had to be cut down, and the quantity of blood and the realism of the gore was also reduced in others.
Specifically, Landis had to remove a scene that would have seen a piece of toast fall out of the slit throat of Jack’s spirit, leftover from his breakfast. A whole sequence was also removed in which the werewolf attacked a group of homeless men whilst on a rampage, due to preview audiences believing the scene was too cruel and out of step with the rest of the movie’s tone.
5. Shots of the transformation only take up seven seconds of the film
An American Werewolf in London is full of amazing moments, but none so memorable as David’s full transformation scene. The scene took weeks of work as all the pieces had to be designed, sculpted and finished, though it would only last a shocking seven seconds on screen. Not only that, but only one take was needed, so the pivotal moment was over in a flash.
The transformation mechanism was so much work and shot for such a short time that it almost led to some animosity between Rick Baker and John Landis, with Baker believing that all the work he’d put in wasn’t worth it. However, when the transformation scene was first shown to audiences, they all burst into spontaneous applause, vindicating Baker.
4. Dunne was nearly denied a visa because the British government thought there were enough American actors in the UK already
It would be a pretty sorry movie if An American Werewolf in London wasn’t actually shot in London, but filming the movie in England required permission from the British government first. Landis had to request four British working permits, one for himself, one for special effects artist Rick Baker, and then one each for co-stars David Naughton and Griffin Dunne.
The first three were granted without delay, but Dunne’s was initially denied, on the grounds that there were already plenty of American actors living in the UK that could portray Jack just as skilfully. It was only when Landis threatened to rewrite the script and change the movie’s title to An American Werewolf in Paris that Dunne’s application found itself fast-tracked.
3. There’s a conspiracy theory that the film contains a fake episode of The Muppet Show
During the iconic nightmare scene, David can be seen watching the episode of The Muppet Show: Señor Wences, from the year 1980. It’s a popular episode that aired both in the UK and the US, but many American fans insist that An American Werewolf in London features an entirely fake episode, rather than the one credited. The question is: why?
The confusion stems over the fact that the part of the Muppet Show episode we see is a part that was cut from the US airing, though it did air in the UK. To head off conspiracy theories purporting that he had bought a Kermit puppet to fake the Muppet scene, Landis even included Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy in the credits, but the scene still causes bafflement amongst American fans today.
2. There were disagreements about how many legs a werewolf would walk on
Rick Baker and John Landis had an excellent working relationship all the way through An American Werewolf in London’s production, but they did have one stumbling block that they had to get out of the way at the beginning of the shoot. Essentially, the two men disagreed about what a werewolf should look like, and how many legs one would walk on.
Baker insisted that a werewolf would be bipedal, and used as his evidence the many werewolf movies he had seen when he was younger. However, Landis wanted a werewolf that, when transformed, was almost entirely wolf, and walked around on four paws like a “hound from hell”. Landis’ vision prevailed, and Baker based his werewolf design on his own dog in response.
1. Naughton really shot naked in a cage with wolves
David Naughton plays his part in An American Werewolf in London to a T, balancing the humour, terror and tragedy of David expertly. Ironically though, the poor actor had a real-life fear of wolves, and so tried not to look too hard at himself when his transformation makeup was on. More than that though, Naughton really struggled in his scenes with real wolves.
This meant that the scene where David wakes up in the wolf enclosure in London Zoo was pretty difficult for the actor, for two reasons. Not only was Naughton scared of the real wolves that he had to film in close proximity to, but all the wolf trainers on set were female. This was a big problem for Naughton since he had to be naked in front of them for the entire scene. Poor guy.