An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)

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Spoiler warning: This article reveals plot details.

Moviedrome was a wonderful way of screening films on television. Broadcast between 1988 and 2000, it was a BBC2 showcase for horror, action, art-house and science-fiction flicks, which were introduced on-screen by the film director Alex Cox and later by the critic Mark Cousins. In truth, the movies would have been screened anyway but the smart and insightful intros made them feel as if they were part of a carefully curated season. It was marvellous television and now much-missed.

If you were watching at 10.30pm on Sunday 22 July 1990, you will have seen Alex Cox – filmed on a bleak hillside and pretending to be spooked by an out-of-shot werewolf – presage that night’s offerings by saying, ‘The film is a weird mixture of naïve comedy and apocalyptic violence with an abrupt ending…’ This was my first viewing of the 1981 comedy-horror An American Werewolf in London, which had been written and directed by John Landis. I was 11 years old and fell in love. To this day it remains my favourite horror film.

Moviedrome

The movie was shot in early 1981, Landis reportedly wanting Britain’s drab weather to provide a gloomy backdrop for his story. The crew did some filming in the Black Mountains in Wales (standing in for Yorkshire), but the majority of the production was based in and around London. So I thought it would be fun to spend a few weeks exploring the movie’s use of the city. Perhaps I could visit some of the filming locations as I try to discuss why I love this movie so much?

AmericanWerewolfTitles

I begin my odyssey, however, by immediately breaking my own rule and leaving London. I’m on a train that will take me a mile or so outside the M25 motorway, a notional defining barrier of Greater London. But I know the journey will be worth it because I’m going to fulfil a long-standing ambition. I’m going to have a pint of beer in the Slaughtered Lamb…

As the movie begins, David Kessler and Jack Goodman climb down from the back of a sheep lorry. They’re young American men on a backpacking holiday in Yorkshire and a local farmer has given them a lift. It’s a terrifically witty introduction and Landis has confirmed that the visual gag – the characters being treated like livestock ready for the abattoir – was deliberate. Tramping across the countryside, the boys then end up in a village pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they get a decidedly frosty reception from the suspicious locals. Brian Glover’s chess player unsettles the newcomers with ghoulish jokes; David Schofield’s darts player threatens them for putting him off his game; Rik Mayall just smirks impishly. The scene is a horror standard: outsiders treated with distrust in a pub. The same kind of thing can be seen in movies such as Dracula (1931) and The Wicker Man (1973). But by combining a genuine air of menace with just the right amount of self-aware humour, American Werewolf’s is the best example.

In reality, the Slaughtered Lamb was a Hollywood-style composite. Despite being set in Yorkshire, the exterior was a redressed cottage in Wales. For the interior scene, meanwhile, the crew found a real pub in the brilliantly named Surrey hamlet of Martyr’s Green. That’s where I’m going now. Getting off the train at the rural station of Effingham Junction, I walk north for about two miles down a meandering and often pavement-less road. On either side of me is woodland, from where I can hear the pop-pop-pop of paint-ball guns. Occasional cars zoom past. A few cyclists are out on morning rides. Then, after 25 minutes in increasingly warm sun, I reach my target: a country pub called The Black Swan. It’s an old building with a modern extension added in 2006. A small beer garden is out front, a car park round the back. The locals affectionately call this place the Mucky Duck.

BlackSwanExterior

It’s 11am as I arrive, the specified opening time on the pub’s website, but a guy tidying up outside tells me they won’t be ready for ‘about half an hour’. He’s friendly about it, rather than the cool reception David and Jack received at the Slaughtered Lamb, so I hide my disappointment and have a wander around the local area to kill time. The Black Swan is opposite a turn-off for the historic village of Ockham, where the 13th-century philosopher William of Ockham was born (he devised the keep-it-simple principle of Occam’s Razor). I walk over there and enjoy the tranquillity of the Surrey countryside.

When I return to the pub at 11.30, a couple are already at an outside table with drinks, so I go inside. What a moment for an American Werewolf fan. Here I am, in the Slaughtered Lamb. The interior of the pub has changed an awful lot since 1981. It’s now less working-class and dingy, more upmarket and airy. All of the film’s set dressing is long gone, of course – that pentangle on the wall wasn’t genuine – but the space has also been opened up and the layout I recognise from the movie is now just part of a larger bar. But I can still see the framework of the Slaughtered Lamb. The way I came in is through the same door David and Jack used; the bar is in the same place; over there is the corner where the chess game was going on. And after I’ve bought a very nice pint of IPA and taken a few photographs I sit at a table just to the right of the door – in other words, on the very spot where David and Jack plonk themselves down during their visit.

BlackSwanInterior

SlaughteredLamb

For a very long time, I assumed that the interior of the Slaughtered Lamb had been a film set constructed at somewhere like Twickenham Studios. It’s wonderful to be in the ‘real’ place, even with all the cosmetic changes. Sadly I can see no acknowledgment of the pub’s popular-culture heritage on display; no signs or framed photographs from the filming. But then something rather wonderful happens. The bar staff have put on a playlist of inoffensive music, as bar staffs tend to do when they want to generate some atmosphere, and before long I’m listening to a track that was used in An American Werewolf in London. It appears to just be a coincidence, but it provides me with a neat way of talking about the film’s music…

An American Werewolf in London does have a score, and it was composed by an all-time great: Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ghostbusters). But what’s more memorable to most viewers are the pre-existing songs that Landis used to complement his scenes. There’s also a cute running joke going on. To reflect the werewolf motif, the director chose tracks with the word moon in the title: three different recordings of the ballad Blue Moon, the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Bad Moon Rising, and Van Morrison’s light-as-air jazz-pop classic Moondance.

Moondance

It’s the latter I can now hear as I drink my beer in the Black Swan. A poetic yearning for a bit of alfresco sex, it was recorded in New York City in August 1969. At the very same time, in Yugoslavia, John Landis was working as an assistant director on the satirical war film Kelly’s Heroes. During his nine months on the movie, he encountered some local gypsies who believed in the undead and the incident inspired him to write a script about a werewolf. But it was then put in a drawer (metaphorically at least) while Landis made inroads in the film industry. At the age of 21 he directed a cheap horror spoof called Schlock (1973), then followed it with three hit comedies: The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

Now a rising star of the Hollywood directing fraternity – someone who delivered popular and profitable films, someone who was friends with Steven Spielberg – Landis dusted off his old werewolf script and began pre-production. He hired his friend the special-effects genius Rick Baker to design the make-up then began scouting locations in England. For the story’s lead character of David, Landis cast 29-year-old David Naughton, who was then best known in the US for a series of Dr Pepper commercials. In the role of David’s pal Jack, the director plumped for Griffin Dunne, who was 25 and later married Bond girl Carey Lowell. David and Jack are superbly cast. They absolutely feel like believable pals with an easy-going yet deep friendship.

DavidandJack

As I leave the Black Swan pub, I have a much more pleasant time than Naughton and Dunne’s characters do in the movie. I simply walk back to the train station. After leaving the Slaughtered Lamb, David and Jack have a terrifying encounter on the Yorkshire moorlands. Lost at night, under the light of a full moon, the pair are menaced by some kind of wild beast – David is badly injured, while Jack is mauled to death. It’s a brilliantly shot sequence, director of photography Robert Paynter creating a lot of menace from smoke and artificial moonlight.

Three weeks later David wakes up in a London hospital and is soon spooked by a ghostly visitation. His now-undead friend Jack appears by his hospital bed to urge David to kill himself, otherwise he will inevitably transform into a werewolf… The scene is a marvel. Jack’s matter-of-fact appearance in the room is all the more effective because Landis simply cuts to him via a conventional edit, rather than using any supernatural effect or melodramatic music. Griffin Dunne also looks so brilliantly ghoulish, thanks to some world-class monster make-up featuring deep scars and bloody rips in his neck. He’s one of cinema’s greatest zombie-like characters.

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The hospital featured in these scenes is fictional, but for the filming the crew used the interior of the abandoned Princess Beatrice Hospital in west London. It had been founded in 1887 and initially called Jubilee Hospital to mark Queen Victoria’s half-century on the throne. Various name changes and redevelopments followed – it was only known as the Princess Beatrice from 1931 – until it was considered obsolete and closed down in March 1978.

When I visit the surviving building on the corner of Finborough Road and Old Brompton Road, having walked there from Earl’s Court tube station, I do so knowing that I won’t be able to go inside and see where David recuperated. It’s long since been converted in hostel accommodation.

PrincessBeatriceHospital

But I’m in the area anyway, as it’s on the way to another key filming location from An American Werewolf in London. When David is discharged from hospital, he accepts an invitation to stay with the nurse who’s been looking after him, Alex Price, and she takes him to her modest flat in a converted townhouse. Much to David’s understandable delight, the pair soon become lovers in a shower-and-sex montage scored by Van Morrison’s Moondance. Alex is played by Jenny Agutter, then 28 years old and the most famous member of the cast after big films such as The Railway Children, Logan’s Run and The Eagle Has Landed. The actress brings an awful lot to the movie, combining star power with believability, an English-rose quality with a fierce sex appeal.

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In the film, Alex’s workplace is a tube ride away from where she lives. In reality, the filming locations are only about 150 metres apart. I turn off Finborough Road and zigzag onto a parallel residential street. Very soon I’m walking into a familiar view and I find myself standing on the spot where John Landis’s camera filmed Alex and David arriving at her home.

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RedcliffeSquare

I’m on Redcliffe Square, which was laid down in the 1860s by the surveyors George and Henry Godwin. Across the road I can see St Luke’s, a squat and rather beautiful Anglican church built in 1872-73 and also designed by the Godwin brothers, while to my right is number 64, the address used as the location of Alex’s flat. What’s most striking is how little it’s all changed. Visiting the Black Swan pub had required a bit of mental squinting to see how it had been transformed into the Slaughtered Lamb. No such process is necessary here: other than the trees being fuller of leaves and the cars being modern – and the obvious absence of Jenny Agutter and David Naughton – I could be in the movie. The architecture of the building is exactly the same. Even the railings and the familiar black front door are still here.

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RedcliffeSquare2

In the film, it’s in this ground-floor flat where the full horror of David’s predicament becomes clear. Alone as the full moon begins to rise, David suddenly shouts out in pain… His werewolf’s curse has struck, and as he screams in agony (‘Jesus Christ!’ he cries. ‘I’m burning up!’) his body contorts and twists, changing him from a man into a hairy, snarling beast… The scene is rightly famed as a wonder of special effects. This is where Rick Baker and his team show off their astonishing skills with prosthetics and make-up. His transformation complete, David leaves the flat. He’s on the hunt…

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David may have metamorphosed into a rabid lycanthrope, but the only notable change to the Redcliffe Square location I can see today is a sign on the front door saying ‘ADDRESSED MAIL ONLY. NO FREE PAPERS, NO JUNK MAIL’ (Perhaps they should add ‘No werewolves’. Or ‘No American Werewolf fans researching blogs’.) I hang around for a few minutes and take my photos, hoping no one asks what I’m up to. No one does. I then chance my arm and walk up number 64’s steps, recreating David and Alex’s approach. It’s always a thrill to be in a location that was used in a cherished film or TV show. The best movies are ‘transportative’; they invite you into a heightened, escapist world that might be superficially similar to reality but somehow seems magical or unreachable.

This happens in An American Werewolf in London. It’s set in an everyday 1980s London – one of packed tube carriages and newspaper vendors and trashy adverts on TV – but even before the supernatural plot comes into focus the film feels ‘other’ and ‘special’. All good films do, if they have smart direction, classy camerawork and a skilful cast (things that distinguish American Werewolf hugely). So there’s a kind of spiritual connection that happens when you visit a filming location. The place is both eerily strange and reassuringly familiar at the same time.

I feel this vivid sensation again a few days later when I head up to leafy Hampstead in north London to see the site of werewolf David’s first kill. Known as Middle Heath Road until the 1860s, East Heath Road snakes around the north of the locale, dividing the streets and houses from the vast open parkland of Hampstead Heath. To get there I take a pleasant, undulating walk from the tube station. I pass through a quiet, well-off residential area and see a house where, according to a blue plaque on its wall, the painter John Constable once lived. Then after a few minutes I hit the T-junction with East Heath Road and see a view familiar from the movie.

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ThePryors

It’s actually quite a short sequence that was shot here in 1981. A young, posh couple (played by Geoffrey Burridge and Brenda Cavendish) get out of a taxi. They’ve come to attend a dinner party with friends, and jovially walk down the side of a building towards Hampstead Heath. They’re sneaking round the back so they can playfully scare their hosts, but they’re about to encounter David in the form of a ravening werewolf… The block of flats featured in the film and which I can now see is called The Pryors. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century to the design of the architect Paul Waterhouse and was only allowed on the Heath side of the road because it was replacing an existing property. Former residents include the novelist Ernest Raymond and the acting couple Jean Forbes-Robertson and André van Gyseghem.

As with Redcliffe Square, what’s immediately apparent is how little has changed – but then again, why would it be different? This is a fine piece of architecture in a well-to-do area of London. I’m oddly amused to see that the post box visible in the movie is still here (or at least there’s now a modern one in the same position), while a pedestrian crossing has been added since 1981. As well as the building’s frontage, I take a look down its left-hand side, where a hedge separates the block from the wilds of Hampstead Heath. This is where the posh couple walked arm in arm to their doom…

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ThePryors2

With dusk falling fast, the trees and hedges feel full of menace. The light from the streetlamps doesn’t reach very far into the Heath and total darkness is only a few steps away. Not wanting to risk an encounter with a werewolf or any other potential danger, I keep close to the road. Occasional cars come past, a couple of joggers too. But mostly it’s quiet. After taking my photographs, I then retrace my steps back towards the tube station. Hungry, I look for somewhere to eat. In a delightful alleyway called Flask Walk, I find an equally pleasing pub called The Flask and dive inside for a beer and a burger.

Talking of pubs, the Slaughtered Lamb makes a reappearance in the film long after David and Jack’s visit. David’s doctor, Dr Hirsch, has had his interest piqued by David’s stories of a werewolf attacking him so he travels to the Yorkshire village of East Proctor to investigate. Hirsch is brilliantly played by the fuss-free actor John Woodvine, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who brings both gravitas and a light touch to the part. He’s just one of many wonderful supporting actors in this film. Elsewhere, there’s the deadpan Lila Kaye as the Slaughtered Lamb’s landlady; Landis’s old pal Frank Oz cameoing as a man from the US embassy; and Paul Kember as a charmingly buffoonish British policeman.

However, back in London, the werewolf David is tearing through the city… After his attack on the posh couple, he stalks some tramps near Tower Bridge then terrorises a lone commuter in an atypically quiet Tottenham Court Road tube station. (The commuter is played by Michael Carter, later Jabba the Hutt’s aide Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi.) The following morning, a now-human-again David awakens – naked and understandably discombobulated – in the wolf pen at London Zoo, then later freaks out while in Trafalgar Square with Alex.

As you can see, this section of American Werewolf ticks off many hugely famous picture-postcard landmarks. Interestingly, though, in earlier drafts of the script some of them aren’t specified. Tottenham Court Road is just ‘a subway station’, while others were changed during the filming process. A scene of David using a public phone box, for example, was written as Leicester Square but then moved to Piccadilly Circus. As that location features so heavily in the movie’s final third, I feel I must take a pilgrimage…

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Piccadilly Circus, one of central London’s most recognisable areas, is busy as I arrive on a rainy October evening. Because I’ve lived in London since 2002, I’ve been here many times before, so it’s not a surprise that it’s full of tourists and traffic. It always is. (It’s not for nothing that ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus’ is a British cliché used to denote a busy place.) But tonight my plan is to attempt to see the area through fresh eyes. Can I place it within the context of An American Werewolf in London? Can I ignore the smartphone-obsessed crowds and the horn-honking cars, and see if I can visualise where the film crew worked and how John Landis staged his remarkable and chaotic sequence here?

In truth, the Circus – the word has its roots in the Greek for circle or ring – is simply a crossroads. But it’s taken on a cultural significance over the years, not least because of two major features: the massive advertising hoardings first installed in the 1890s, which tonight glitter and flash and pulse with digital persistence, and the central fountain often called Eros but which actually includes a statue of the Greek god Anteros. When the nearby Regent Street was laid down by the architect John Nash in 1819, its meeting point with the venerable thoroughfare Piccadilly was shaped into what we now recognise as Piccadilly Circus. Shaftesbury Avenue, built in 1886, also connects to the junction and it’s on that road – famed throughout the world as the spine of London’s theatre district – where I first turn my attention.

In the movie, David is on Piccadilly Circus when he spots his undead friend, Jack, standing outside the ticket office of a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. He races across the street and follows Jack inside, only pausing to buy a £2.80 ticket to the porno See You Next Wednesday. (Landis buffs will know that the title See You Next Wednesday is an in-joke; a motif the director adds to most of his movies.) I don’t race across the street now, however, because that would mean risking my life with the traffic. I also don’t go inside the cinema, because sadly it’s no longer there.

ErosCinema

The Art Deco-styled cinema the Eros News Theatre first opened its doors at 7 Shaftesbury Avenue, along the northern edge of Piccadilly Circus, on 20 August 1934. It was a real success for several years, but by the time John Landis and his crew came here it had developed a reputation for being a rent boys’ hangout and for showing soft-core pornography. It had also been renamed the Eros Cinema. The cinema later closed down in February 1985; the final screening was of the Bo Derek flop Bolero. After a period as a jewellers’, the space was then converted into a branch of clothing store Gap in June 1997. The shop is still there now and is open as I walk over. I wonder how many people inside tonight realise that the entrance they used was, in a 1981 horror film, the ticket office of a porno cinema.

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It’s inside the Eros Cinema where David Kessler is forced to face his zombiefied victims – the posh couple, the tramps, the commuter from Tottenham Court Road. He then metamorphoses again into his werewolf form. Bursting out of the cinema, past the assembled crowds and the police called by the cinema’s ticket attendant, he rampages across Piccadilly Circus. It’s the movie’s huge action set-piece. Cars crash, buses skid, pedestrians are run over, policemen’s throats are ripped out. In the kind of director’s cameo that Alfred Hitchcock would have balked at, John Landis – who’d worked as a Spaghetti Western stuntman earlier in his career – is flung through a shop window.

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When planning all this stuff, Landis had sweet-talked the Metropolitan Police into letting him take over Piccadilly Circus for two nights. No movie had been allowed to shoot there in 15 years because of the disruption caused to central London traffic, but Landis got the permission after screening his recent comedy film The Blues Brothers to 300 police officers. It went down a storm, apparently. Thankfully, there’s none of that chaos here tonight. I look around, mentally replaying the American Werewolf scene over what I can see. I’m far from the only person taking photos as Piccadilly Circus is something of a tourist mecca. The nearby Criterion Theatre is preparing for a performance of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. A street artist is painted silver and impressing the crowds by standing very still. A busker starts to plink away on his electronic keyboard and is soon belting out Bohemian Rhapsody. Before leaving I also look for the red phone box where, earlier in the film, David makes a call home to America. It’s not here any more.

That’s mercifully not true of everything in this city. In certain areas it’s all but impossible to avoid London’s rich and cherished heritage, and I’m reminded of this as I make my way to the site of Amercan Werewolf’s final sequence: the rabbit-warren of streets to the south of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster. Leaving London Bridge underground station, for example, I walk past the vibrant Borough Market, which dates back around a thousand years. I admire the gorgeously Gothic architecture of Southwark Cathedral, a building begun in 1220. I see tourists flocking around a sprightly modern replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th-century galleon ship the Golden Hind. And I stumble across the sole surviving fragment of the 12th-century Winchester Palace. All of this in just a five-minute stroll.

ClinkStreet

I then arrive at my final destination – and David Kessler’s too. Clink Street, which these days is a very smart, pedestrianised alleyway, has changed greatly from when John Landis and his crew came to this area to film their final scene. An upmarket eatery sits opposite a shop selling Union Jack-branded tourist tat, while many of the buildings have changed beyond recognition in the last 38 years. The street’s name comes from the nearby Clink Prison, a notorious institution that opened (and then presumably swiftly locked) its doors in the 12th century and served as a penal institution until it burned down in 1780. (It’s now a museum.)

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As I wander around, it’s early evening – earlier in the day and significantly lighter than when the werewolf David was chased here by the police after his Piccadilly Circus rampage. The street is busy with tourists, commuters, people on nights out, and at least one fool taking photographs for a blog. I assume I’m the only person here who realises that he’s walking on hallowed ground. No one else seems to be aware that this is where David was cornered by the cops. Where Dr Hirsch and Alex looked on in horror. Where Alex broke through the barriers to comfort the werewolf. And where a police gunshot rang out fatally…

Finale

The legacy of An American Werewolf in London and its director have, sadly, been quite haphazard. John Landis made at least one more classic – the riotously enjoyable comedy Trading Places in 1983 – but his output has had its share of duds too. At least neither he nor anyone else from my favourite horror film had anything to do with a truly ghastly sequel called An American Werewolf in Paris. In the same year as that turkey (1997) there was also a better-received BBC radio adaptation of the 1981 film that reunited some of the cast, while a remake of the original movie is currently in development and is set to be directed by John Landis’s son Max.

But whatever has happened since 1981, and whatever may happen in the future, we’ll always have An American Werewolf in London.

Ten bathroom mirrors out of 10

Notes and acknowledgments

As well as providing lots of encouragement, my friend Lizzie Hopley helped enormously by giving this blog a read before I published it and pointing out some errors. (Any that remain are entirely my fault.) Andy at the Gap UK press office gave me the information about their Piccadilly Circus branch.

My trips to the filming locations were carried out in a slightly different order from how I’ve presented them above. I visited Clink Street on Tuesday 20 August 2019; the Black Swan pub on Saturday 24 August; the old Princess Beatrice Hospital and Redcliffe Square on Monday 2 September; East Heath Road on Monday 16 September; and Piccadilly Circus on Monday 14 October. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019

There is some dubiety about exactly where the final scene of An American Werewolf in London was filmed. Some online sources claim it was a short distance from Clink Street, in the nearby Winchester Walk, but the Bankside area has been so massively redeveloped over the last four decades that it’s difficult to be sure. The scenes of police converging in the area were certainly shot on Clink Street, so I chose to focus on that location.

Incidentally, Clink Street can also be seen in the 1940s film Oliver Twist, a 1977 Doctor Who serial set in Victorian times, and the 2001 movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Black Swan pub also features in Deadly Slumber, an episode of ITV crime drama Inspector Morse originally broadcast on 6 January 1993.

I used a wide variety of sources, both print and online, for the factual information in this article. There’s little point listing them all, but these websites and books were especially helpful:

You can watch Alex Cox’s Moviedrome introduction to American Werewolf in London here, while this website helped with Moviedrome generally.

These sites were good starting points when it came to identifying American Werewolf filming locations:

https://www.timeout.com/london/blog/15-places-that-appear-in-an-american-werewolf-in-london-061617

https://www.reelstreets.com/films/american-werewolf-in-london-an/

Information about Princess Beatrice Hospital was gleaned from this National Archives site.

Background details about East Heath Road were found in Streets of Hampstead by Christopher Wade (Camden History Society, third edition, 2000), a locally published guide to the area. This private residents’ website was also useful.

Some details about the Eros Cinema were found on this site about cinemas around the world.