Ironically Howling at the Moon with An American Werewolf in London
The soundtrack to John Landis’s much-loved horror comedy inventively subverts the clichés of the genre.
John Landis’s 1981 classic horror film An American Werewolf in London was something of a pet project: the script was written by the director many years before but the studio thought it either too funny or too scary to green light. Following the success of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), Landis found himself with a carte blanche for his next project. Despite its odd comedy/horror mix An American Werewolf in London became yet another box-office smash. In 1981 it was a film everyone was talking about – particularly horror makeup man Rick Baker’s first-rate gore and the great man-to-wolf transformation scene. Landis and Baker would team up again in 1983 to zombify Michael Jackson in Thriller.
After all these years the inventiveness of the film remains striking. It is clearly in the horror genre and yet sidesteps cliché at every turn, and nowhere more memorably than with the soundtrack. There’s no scary music; instead we get mood music so subtle it is hardly noticeable and handful of pop songs with the word ‘moon’ in the title. All great songs and used with irony and humour.
The film opens with a shot of the moors, but not the foggy storm-battered moors of horror classics. These hills are pleasant and green and lit by a slowly setting sun. These shots are accompanied by the first of the film’s three moon songs, Bobby Vinton’s classy 1963 version of ‘Blue Moon’. It was recorded for his ‘blue’ concept album along with his hit records ‘Blue on Blue’ and of course ‘Blue Velvet’. This smooth, sweet, almost sugary confection stands as a paradigm of American pop music between rock’n’roll and the British invasion. With its lush production complete with subtle tasteful instrumentation and backing vocals whispering ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’, this is perhaps the piece of music with the least tension ever to open a horror film.
There is a gap of an hour featuring a visit to a pub, a wolf attack and a few dream sequences before the next song accompanies the young lovers: the werewolf attack survivor and his nurse take a shower to Van Morrison’s 1970 ‘Moondance’. Although less obviously ironic than the other songs its light jazzy swing is certainly at odds with the typical wailing saxophone that usually enhanced such scenes in 1981. The third moon song follows shortly after. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s apocalyptic stomp ‘Bad Moon Rising’ (1969) accompanies our lycanthrope as he spends a weekday afternoon battling boredom (he even tries British daytime television), a strange restlessness and lack of appetite. It is a truly great song and a great stripped-down production with one of the best drum sounds ever recorded, and it is completely at odds with the scene. Boredom never seemed so much fun.
Two more versions of ‘Blue Moon’ follow. Sam Cooke’s unique soulful phrasing plays over the painful transformation scene. And after the heartbreaking ending, the end titles are accompanied by the famous ‘bom-di-di-bom’ of The Marcels’ upbeat doo-wop version. It is now the most famous version of the song written in the mid-30s by show-tune specialists Rodgers and Hart. The joyful ending seems so perfect for a film imbued with the love of making movies. Landis’s career went from strength to strength and many more box-office successes followed. Those subsequent films were tight and entertaining but his love of cinema was never again so obvious.