Two American backpackers out in the English countryside walk into a village pub, meeting with a frosty reception when they ask about the pentagram drawn on one wall. Escaping into the night, they wander onto the moors and are hunted down by an unseen beast which attacks them, leaving only David (David Naughton) left alive. But when his dead friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) appears to inform him in hospital that he's now a werewolf, David doesn't know what to believe...
This melancholy, blackly comic horror was written by director John Landis, and was released around the same time as that other werewolf hit, The Howling. But where The Howling was content to parade a series of shocks, effects and in-jokes, Landis' film has more of an emotional core - although Rick Baker's excellent special effects and makeup were the main attraction.
The gory shock scenes are played straight, but the addition of comedy setpieces makes American Werewolf easy to warm to, and ironically gives the tragic elements more prominence. Funny bits include David waking up to find himself naked in the zoo (do they really keep wolves in zoos?) and trying to get arrested ("Queen Elizabeth - is a man!"), and there are plenty of nice details such as the punks on the underground or the TV with only three channels - none of which are worth watching - which offer an amused look at Britain from an American point of view.
This is that rare horror film with no real evil behind its tragedy - in fact the strongest emotions on display are guilt and regret. Even the villagers are consumed with guilt, and David has the burden of having the ghosts of past victims following him around. Alex (Jenny Agutter) is the nurse who falls in love with him, and contributes the heart of the film as she realises she cannot help him. The possibility of a romantic ending - David only being able to be killed by someone who loves him - proves to be foolish whimsy.
Naughton fits the role of the innocent abroad, and you feel it's a real shame that fate should deal him such a unlucky hand when his nightmares become his reality. The other actors are equally effective, with the sardonic Dunne and the sweet-natured Agutter standing out. That ending always gets me. Music by Elmer Bernstein, and the soundtrack includes many oldies with "moon" in the title. Little joke there.