Though Rick Baker would win the first Academy Award for Best Makeup for his groundbreaking work on An American Werewolf in London, the film was not well received when it was first released in 1981. Critics and audiences alike were taken aback and puzzled by the film’s mix of comedy and gore. Gary Arnold in the Washington Post called the film “slack and uncertain.” Dave Kehr, writing in the Chicago Reader, called the film “a failure.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times suggested that the film seemed “curiously unfinished, as if director John Landis spent all his energy on spectacular set pieces and then didn't want to bother with things like transitions, character development, or an ending.”
These men were wrong. Time has been good to the film; a recent viewing confirmed that the film holds up remarkably well (AWIL celebrates its 40th birthday in only two years!) and, in fact, is timeless. Like hundreds of other classic films that did not receive their due when first released, AWIL now stands as a classic of its genre.
A big part of its artistic success is due to Griffin Dunne’s funny and painful performance as Jack. Though really only in four scenes in the film (the extended opening scene on the moors and his subsequent three meetings with David), Dunne’s character functions as both the film’s comic relief and its moral center. This is a tricky combination to pull off, but Griffin Dunne is more than up to the challenge. What’s even more remarkable is that this was only Dunne’s fourth film performance.
A TIDBIT OF TRIVIA: Landis reveals that the MPAA nixed a scene where Corpse Jack takes a bite of David’s toast and we see the tidbit fall out of his windpipe and onto the bed when he swallows!
But Dunne never lets the make-up swallow him up. His bright, disarming performance stands in funny contrast to his grotesque visage. It helps that Dunne is given a lion’s share of the film’s funny lines: asking for a piece of toast off David’s hospital tray, explaining that talking to a corpse is boring, and later ogling David’s new girlfriend as she sleeps unaware in her apartment. Dunne triumphs as the undead because he is never quite undead; he’s the same Jack we saw earlier in the film. Dunne’s comedic timing is impeccable. It’s a performance that should be studied by young actors trying to better their craft.
This proves to be difficult because in each subsequent scene, Dunne’s make-up grows more grotesque, first turning green and then becoming a flesh-draped skeleton. I was so happy when I learned in the special features that, when a sophisticated puppet takes Dunne’s place for the final stage of Jack’s decay, it was Dunne both operating the mouth and recording his audio live during filming of this sequence. This certainly qualifies “Puppet Jack” as part of Dunne’s performance, and it’s seamless. The special effect never comes across as a mere puppet, but as an extension of Jack because of Baker’s expertise and Dunne’s vocal performance.
In American Werewolf in London, Griffin Dunne gives a performance for the ages. It’s the perfect synergy of script, performance, make-up, and cinematography. It’s a great horror performance.