Story of the Scene: An American Werewolf in London

Examining one of the most historic scenes in movie history


By Jay Hunter Earlier this month, the world came to a standstill. As J. Robert Oppenheimer once said, “we knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried.” News filtered through media outlets, news that we all feared for so very long but never thought would come to pass, was confirmed as truth…An American Werewolf in London was getting a remake.

Now, the inclusion of The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman can’t hurt, but whether or not John Landis’ heir will recreate the movie with any sort of gumption is yet to be seen (you can get an idea of how the remake will turn out in the video below).

Got that out of your system? Okay, good. Let’s digress. The point of this article isn’t to address Max Landis’ credentials as a movie director or even if remaking An American Werewolf in London is or isn’t a good idea. No. The point of this article is to revisit the original classic and more specifically, revisit a particular scene.

In what I hope to be the beginning of a popular series in which I dissect some of cinemas most iconic moments, let’s take a look at the transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London.

Setting the scene

Rick Baker on the set of An American Werewolf in London
Rick Baker on the set of An American Werewolf in London

Released on August 21st, 1981, An American Werewolf in London opened to positive reviews from critics and audiences alike. Grossing $62 million at the box office from a $10 million budget, the movie would go on to be the most celebrated of John Landis’ career and cement itself as a true classic in not only horror, but comedic cinema.

Starring David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne, the film’s plot pursues two young American men, David Kessler (played by Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Dunne), who wind up being mauled by a werewolf on a rambling trip in England. With Jack killed, David is taken to a London hospital, where his now deceased friend becomes a modern day Banquo, informing him that he is a werewolf and will transform at the next full moon in increasingly nightmarish fashion. Of course, David doesn’t believe him – until it happens. When the bad moon rises, David experiences an agonising transformation into a lycan and starts to range the streets and the London Underground.

Changing the face of cinema

The detestable sound of bones changing shape frame the legendary sequence
The detestable sound of bones changing shape frame the legendary sequence

It goes without saying that the centrepiece of Landis’ movie is the iconic transformation sequence, which sees David screaming out in a hot flush before the very bones of his body begin to shift and bend. The human-to-wolf transformation lit by the bright lights of a British sitting room would be a scene that went on to revolutionise the horror landscape. The seeds of which were sewn almost a decade earlier, on the set of Landis’ first feature, Schlock. Working with the enterprising practical paladin Rick Baker, the nucleus of Werewolf developed, as two men with a love of old-school effects, dared to film the un-filmable.

When enough money finally materialised for An American Werewolf in London, Baker had to outsource his job on The Howling to his apprentice, Rob Bottin (who went on to gain notoriety for John Carpenter’s The Thing) in order to develop techniques for Werewolf‘s ambitious special effectsBaker used these free months to painstakingly plan the scene that would result in just a two-an-a-half minute metamorphose.

 The first thing Baker said to Naughton when they met in California before filming began was;

“I feel sorry for you”.

Referring to the time and endeavour that was going to be required to make the make-up casts and holds for the shoot. Which took six days to shoot, with roughly 10 hours a day spent on applying the makeup, 5 hours on set, and 3 hours of makeup removal. Additionally, one of the five days required Naughton be secured beneath the floor (pictured below) with only his head, arms and upper torso exposed. Something that Naughton paid the price for, stating;

“They’d take five and they’d all leave, shut the lights off and I’d just kind of hang in there, in the floor going ‘this will be over one day.’”

The shoot saw Naughton suffer hours upon hours of make-up application
The shoot saw Naughton suffer hours upon hours of make-up application

Because the makeup took so long to apply and remove, there was only enough time for one setup a day. Out of these countless hours, Rick Baker estimated that only half an hour of footage was actually shot during the entire seven days. The historic snout swelling was the last shot to be filmed in the sequence and it did not include Naughton, but an animatronic head (pictured below). 

Rick Baker claimed to have been disenchanted by the amount of time spent shooting the face changing shot for the transformation after having spent months working on the mechanism, only for Landis to require one take lasting less than eight seconds. Baker felt he had wasted his time until seeing the film with an audience that applauded during that one eight second shot.

After months of preparation, the animatronic head was needed for just a few seconds
After months of preparation, the animatronic head was needed for just a few seconds

Ever the brash raconteur, Landis chose Bobby Vinton’s spectral interpretation of ‘Blue Moon’ to score the sumptuous, sequacious scene. Playing tenderly in the background, it is dominated by the sound of every rupturing bone and splintering cartilage as David’s body reconfigures it’s own DNA. Naughton is notably scintillating in the sequence and whilst the long hours he spent in make-up surely must have been tortuous, the product is undoubtably worth it. After all, what is art without sacrifice? His lacerate lupine screams and cries of pain, chillingly accentuate the transformation as they derive into a string of feral, frightful roars. Baker climaxes — with extending jaws and mandibles, the scene deadlines on a crescendo of a quadrupedal bushy torso ready to consort with the night.

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (and if you haven’t, don’t watch another movie before you do), it serves as a yardstick for the horror genre. In what is unquestionably one of cinema’s most sobering transformation portrayals, Landis and Baker do not rely on camera tricks or shadows to show the true antipathy of the sequence. Yet, the scene is a microcosm which reflects the movie itself. For all it’s dread, there is still a jesting undertow. Watch the transmutation again. The brace insist on showing every hair follicle, splintered vertebrate and painfully prolonged paw in the harsh light of a London living room but in the midst of it all, Naughton himself, yelps, “I didn’t mean to call you meatloaf, Jack!”.

Nevertheless don’t just take my word for it. 

The Prince of Pop himself, Michael Jackson was so bowled over by the movie – (specifically by the the makeup and visual effects) – he insisted on hiring the culpable crew for his mountainous music video, Michael Jackson: Thriller (1983). When John Landis agreed to direct, he brought with him his foremost werewolf band including, Robert Paynter (cinematography), Elmer Bernstein (music), his wife Deborah Nadoolman (costume design) and of course, Rick Baker himself, to meticulously recreate the movies magic

. In fact; the audio track of the werewolf’s roar is the exact same track used in the opening scene of Michael Jackson’s, Thriller.

Of course, there’s many eternal debates amongst horror hounds and which werewolf movie has the superior transformation scene: American Werewolf in London or Joe Dante’s The Howling, is one example. Whatever your preference might be, it’s clear that we’ve come on leaps and bounds from the diffuses and dissolves of Lon Chaney’s The Wolf Man (1941).

Reaping the reward


Because of the film, makeup and industry technological contributions finally became recognised by the Academy Awards in 1982. With Rick Baker becoming the first to receive an Oscar in the new category, his efforts clearly paid off, paving the way for movies such as The Fly and Terminator 2: Judgement Day to also win the award in future years.

The sequence is a piece of ingenious avant-garde cinema. Without a computer effect in sight, it suffused claw-scratching anguish and the darkest of laughs (or howls). Baker and his team set a new benchmark for practical effects which was seldom matched, never mind outperformed by the dawn of the computer-generated age.

What iconic movie scenes should I talk about next? Sound off below and remember…beware the moon.

Author: Jay Hunter

Owner of Jump Scare UK. Award nominated writer. The Playlist, Fangoria, Rue Morgue, The Guide Liverpool & more. I killed Mufasa #LFC

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