In 1981, John Landis took advantage of his newfound clout after directing the hit comedies Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980) by directing a weird comedic horror movie he had been trying to make for over a decade. An American Werewolf in London starred David Naughton as David Kessler, a young American human who becomes a werewolf while backpacking in England.
Despite continued protests from his walking dead bestie, Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), that he should kill himself before he kills again, David hesitates—both because of the strange situation and because of his newfound romance with the nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), who treated his wounds. Here’s what you need to know about the predecessor to all horror films with a sense of humor. (Warning: There is violence and nudity in the clips below.)
1. John Landis wrote the script for An American Werewolf in London when he was a teenager.
In 1969, John Landis was 18 years old and working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes (1970) in what was then Yugoslavia. He first got the idea for An American Werewolf in London when he saw a man get buried feet first and wrapped in garlic, because it was feared he would come back to life. Throughout the 1970s, Landis had no success making his script a reality.
“No one would make this f***ing movie,” Landis said in 2012, before noting that by 1981, the tide had not just changed with his career, but with movies featuring lycanthropes. “There hadn’t been a werewolf movie in years. When I finally got the opportunity to make it, there was The Howling (1981), Wolfen (1981), Teen Wolf (1985), Full Moon High (1981), there was like five werewolf movies, so it was a zeitgeist.”
2. A famed James Bond producer refused to get involved.
Landis tried to land producer Albert R. Broccoli for his project, after Landis made some uncredited rewrites on The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). It turned out to be a non-starter; when Broccoli read the script, he told Landis, “Hell no, it’s weird!”
Ironically, the bus driver for the Piccadilly Circus scene in Werewolf was Vic Armstrong, who would later be employed as the stunt coordinator in James Bond movies, including Never Say Never Again (1983), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and Die Another Day (2002).
3. David Naughton was doing promotional work for Dr. Pepper when he heard about the auditions.
Landis had been familiar with Naughton’s commercial work for Dr. Pepper; he told Naughton they were both Peppers. The day after their talk, Landis called Naughton and asked him if he wanted to be a werewolf. At the end of their meeting, Landis asked Naughton “to call him in the morning and I thought, this is odd but OK, I’ll call you tomorrow. And next day he said, ‘D’you want to be a werewolf?’ And that was it.”
Dunne got the part after a 10-minute conversation and a quick read of the script with Landis.
4. They purposely shot An American Werewolf in London in February and March.
Landis wanted bad weather for his movie. According to the production notes, the Welsh town of Crickadarn had snow, sleet, rain, and extensive sunshine all in one day. (What it didn’t have was an actual pub; the production had to turn a local cottage into The Slaughtered Lamb bar seen in the movie.)
The variable weather caused problems for Naughton, because he was told to run as if it was warm. “That’s rather difficult to do because it’s cold and you’ve got no shoes on and I don’t jog in bare feet in any weather even back in California,“ the actor told SF Site. “That’s the hardest part, you’re running in wooded areas, on slick paths, trying not to look like going, ‘Ooh, ow, oh, ouch!’ And they were saying, ‘C’mon, it’s warm, this is a dream, you’re leaping, you’re like a deer.’ So I just had to go for it.”
5. Becoming a werewolf involved a very long makeup process.
The first thing special makeup effects designer and creator Rick Baker said to Naughton when they met was, “I feel sorry for you.” Naughton had to have molds of his body made for prosthetics, and on the days when his character was supposed to transform, the actor got picked up at 4:30 a.m. and taken to the studio, where he sat in a chair for 10 hours with nothing to do. Naughton said it was like “a long flight that never gets there.”
6. Griffin Dunne had his own technical issues.
During filming, Dunne tried to use the bathroom in the one trailer that had one. While doing his business, a driver hooked the trailer to his pickup and towed it away.
7. Dunne was told to stay happy after dying.
Landis told Dunne that once he was back from the dead he should never sound like anything but in a “really good mood.”
8. An American Werewolf in London was shot pretty much in order.
“It’s a little unusual to shoot a movie in sequence,” Naughton told SF Site. “We shot the opening first. It was scheduled to give Rick Baker as much time as possible to finish up on the things which would require special makeup, prosthetics, etc. So all his stuff was going to be shot at the back end of the 10-week shoot.”
9. Naughton really was naked an in a cage with wolves.
In the movie, David wakes up after a late-night jaunt as a werewolf to find himself in a zoo enclosure filled with actual wolves. Naughton was not only fearful of the wolves, but he admitted later that he would have preferred it if the trainers weren’t women. “Do we have to have women trainers here, fellas? I’m naked you know!” he protested to Landis and his crew, to no avail. One of the wolves approached him during the take, which was not expected: “Dogs will at least give you warnings that they're not comfortable with you but wolves just look at you with these very distant yellow eyes,” Naughton said.
10. Landis bribed the local police to get permission to film at Piccadilly Circus.
Landis set up a free screening of The Blues Brothers and invited 300 members of London’s Metropolitan police force. “They loved it—and, whaddaya know, suddenly I had permission to shoot in Piccadilly Circus,” Landis said. They were allowed to film between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. on two February nights and were able to stop traffic three times for two minutes maximum. Before Werewolf, filming there had been banned for 15 years. Landis made a cameo in the scene as a pedestrian who gets hit by a car and goes through a plate glass window.
11. Landis tried to get as many songs with moon in the title as possible.
He managed to get the rights to songs like Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” but failed at obtaining Cat Stevens’s “Moonshadow” and Bob Dylan’s “Blue Moon” cover. Stevens, according to Landis, refused because he believed werewolves were real. Dylan declined because of his religious beliefs.
12. Landis shot the porn film within the film.
“When I was working [in London] in the 1970s, I went to those little cartoon theaters they had, such as the Eros on Piccadilly,” Landis explained. “So in the original script, I had him going into the Eros and there was a Road Runner cartoon playing. But when I got back to London in 1980, all these theaters had become pornos. So I had to change the script to show a porno called, in the best smutty British tradition, See You Next Wednesday. We made the porno ourselves and it was the first scene we shot. It starred Linzi Drew, who was a Page 3 girl at the time; she went on to have an impressive porn career.”
13. Some of the violence was toned down—which Landis later regretted.
In order to get the movie down to an R rating, Landis had to tone down the sex scenes and cut out a part where a piece of toast fell out of Jack’s undead throat. He also edited out a scene where the werewolf attacked a group of unhoused men after preview audiences freaked out. He later had regrets about the edits.
14. Rick Baker won the first Oscar for makeup artistry for the effects in An American Werewolf in London.
The only two other makeup artists to win Oscars—John Chambers and William Tuttle—did so in an honorary capacity. Landis admitted to The Los Angeles Times that he had “no idea” how Baker and his crew were going to pull off the werewolf transitions. “In the screenplay it was the worst possible thing for an effects artist, it specifies that it happens in bright light and it’s extremely painful. And I wanted to show it,” Landis said, adding, “When I saw the movie last, I thought I showed the wolf way too much. I think I was just so enamored of what Rick had accomplished.”
15. Michael Jackson was a big fan of Baker and Landis’s work in An American Werewolf in London.
Jackson called Landis and told him he was a big fan of An American Werewolf in London and of Baker's work particularly. In 1983, Landis directed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video, with Baker again in charge of the make-up effects. Landis said his only “marching orders” from Jackson were, “I want to turn into a monster.”
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.