Being a tourist in your own skin is another central metaphor of the werewolf genre and Landis externalizes this by making the man behind the beast, an actual tourist, away from the safety of his home. On a backpacking trip across Europe with his best friend, our lead, David Kessler (David Naughton), is actually a well brought up Jewish boy which we learn through dialogue and frenzied dream visions that serve the purpose of providing backstory (screenwriters take note), and allowing for both a scare and a laugh. Struck in the moors by a werewolf, and losing his best friend in the process, David is completely alone in a part of the world divorced from comfort and family. He’s a stranger, even in his own flesh.
Naughton and Griffin Dunne as his best friend and rotting conscience have a chemistry and rapport that is believably genuine. Naughton is great as the everyman American college student, stuck in the age between being a child and having real life responsibilities, so confident in safe environs, and so lost outside of his comfort zone. His final call home is sad in its verisimilitude awkward and elliptical nature. Jenny Agutter as David’s nurse and keeper post infection transcends the typical “love interest” with a gentle warmth and humane spirit. And Rick Baker’s make-up and effects work throughout, but especially on David’s first transformation, and transmit the same painful reaction to the viewer as it does to the slow bone cracking metamorphosing werewolf. Still to this day one of the best effect scenes in the history of cinema, Baker was rightly awarded with an Oscar for his work.
Balancing genres like comedy, horror, and a tragedy is a difficult task, often times if the jokes are too self referential, it sours the tragic implications or lessens the suspense. And transitioning disparate tones can be jarring if ineffective. John Landis succeeds in every way with An American Werewolf in London, and the result is not only one of the best horror films of 1981, best one of the best films of the year, period.