An American Werewolf In London's Transformation Scene Was A Week-Long Slog To Film

When it comes to werewolf transformations on screen, it's hard to top the one featured in "An American Werewolf in London." The scene has it all: magnificent practical effects, unbridled anguish, and Sam Cooke's version of "Blue Moon" playing comically in the background. While many have tried to recreate its brilliance by werewolf transformation standards — special nods go out to "Ginger Snaps" and "Dog Soldiers" for their particular takes on the subject — there's really nothing else quite like David Kessler's (David Naughten) in "An American Werewolf in London."  

Directed by John Landis, this horror comedy tells the story of two American friends who accidentally get lost on their backpacking trip across Europe. When they are viciously attacked by a mysterious wolf-like creature, one of the men is killed while the other is forced to discover his new fate as a full-fledged werewolf. It's a wild ride that is made even more enjoyable because of the incredible practical effects of Rick Baker who was in charge of shaping Naughten into a rabid lycanthrope for the film. 

The task was not an easy one, though. In fact, it turns out that the entire process was almost as painstakingly brutal as the fictional transformation depicted on screen.  

A grueling transformation on screen and off

What makes the "American Werewolf" transformation so unique is that pretty much all of it happens on screen. There's no cutting away to dramatic shots of the moon (at least not right away) or cleverly hiding the accursed behind closed doors. Instead, viewers are privy to the whole horrific change, watching as David's hands and feet crackle into elongated paws and his face lengthens into a murderous snout all while he writhes in pain on the floor of his girlfriend's charming English apartment. 

In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, David Naughten explained his experience of becoming the deadly beast for the film. He said that Baker sympathized with him once he learned that Naughten would be playing the werewolf. "I feel sorry for you," he told him, which is arguably not what you want to hear from the guy who's in charge of your makeup on set. 

In order to get the prosthetics just right, Naughten had to have molds made of his limbs and head. "It was really suffocating," he recalls, adding that he remembers asking Baker's assistants, "Are you sure you know how to do this?" Thankfully, they did know and Baker got through the preparation in one piece, but the tediousness was not over. "It was everyone's first time, which was both thrilling and alarming," Naughten recalls. "The transformation scene took an entire week to film, with me having to spend hours in makeup even just for a couple of shots."

Ultimately though, all of the painstaking time and effort was worth it. Baker went on to win the first Academy Award for Best Makeup for his work on the film, and the transformation scene has gone down in horror history as the lycanthrope Gold Standard.