An American Werewolf in London

An American Werewolf in London

1981

 

I have always liked this movie and I can’t really explain that because it isn’t all that scary, is it? Some of it is in fact down right cliché and silly. Maybe because I was so young when I first saw it and because I have a thing for quirky, witty guys. I sort of had a crush on both actors (Jack, played by Griffin Dunne, being my pick though. Even when he was rotting, he was funny) So, I watch it when it comes on TV but this is the first time I sat down to view it critically and I found that as a “monster movie” I have just as much bad to say about it as good.

Let me also add that I don’t know directors and actors and special effects people, I’m not a movie buff like that. I did look some stuff up and found that John Landis is the director of classic comedies like Blues Brothers and Animal House so the comedic atmosphere of the film makes more sense to me now. That is always something I was never sure about and too embarrassed to ask: Is this a comedy movie poking fun at horror or is this a horror movie with a little too much comedy to be scary? The strange mix reminds me of the Scream films which I didn’t hate either but when the comedy is laid on that thick, it’s hard for me to be frightened or even too grossed out by the gore (and the gore in this film is excellent).

We begin the movie meeting two American college-aged guys backpacking across Europe. They are currently in England in the middle of nowhere. They wander into The Slaughtered Lamb where the “us vs them” cliché collides with the “villagers keeping a deadly secret” cliché. There are awkward silences, close-ups of eyes as they look sideways, and then there is the pentangle on the wall with the melted candles on either side which our American boys recognize as the mark of the werewolf and then have the gall to just flat out ask about it. This causes another tense silence and basically gets them kicked out. This feels like it is trying to be comedic, but honestly, I don’t know if it is for sure. But off the guys go, still laughing and joking in the cold rain. In fact, they are having such a fine time of it, they veer off the road and right into the moors where they were warned a number of times to avoid.

Now everything they were specifically warned about comes to fruition and Jack is attacked and killed. David is attacked but before he could be killed, the townsfolk come to his rescue and shoot the monster which immediately turns into a naked man. I found this strange that they used the pentangle from The Wolfman but never made a point of silver bullets. Seems that any gun will do. It is interesting—the mythos about werewolves that Landis chose to include and those he ignored.

So now, here is where the story gets really good but also falls a little short if that makes sense. While David is coalescing and having terrible nightmares in the hospital we learn that his friend Jack is dead and then we meet him when he comes back in some wicked good special effects make-up to talk to David about becoming a werewolf. It turns out that victims who die from a werewolf attack are forced to wander the earth in a state of limbo until the last of that werewolf’s line is dead. (That would be David). So Jack is asking (with his clever sense of humor and wit) David to kill himself before he makes more victims and so that Jack can rest in peace.

This could be such a great character study with David and Jack. It’s a unique and interesting dilemma on top of the classic werewolf tale. The problem is, Landis doesn’t seem to focus too much on David as a person, as a character. Yes, he has some dreams, the most telling one was the Nazi-wolf-demon things that break into his home and kill him and his family. Otherwise we don’t see much about him and the emotional instability of his current state. His friend is dead, he is in a foreign country alone (where is his family, by the way? Why haven’t they come running to check on him?) and he thinks he is losing his mind. We do get to see Jack again in a state of advanced decay. Like Jacob Marley, he appears to warn his friend of the fate that awaits him (David’s coming in just twenty-four hours) and again implores him to kill himself before it is too late. David is still not convinced (and Jack is still wicked cool but we don’t get to know any more about him as a person).

Instead all we get to see is David’s nurse putting the moves on him pretty hard and ultimately taking him back to her place. I guess this was a necessary plot point or else he wouldn’t be an American werewolf in London, he would just be an American werewolf. But I have learned some things in my short semester of grad school and one thing that is stressed is to let your characters tell the story, don’t force your story on the characters. I think Landis wanted to incorporate two very specific scenes in this movie: 1. The transformation scene and 2. The Piccadilly crash scene and I think he molded his tale to get to those scenes. So David had to move in with the nurse so he could transform in the middle of her apartment. We do get to see Jack again in a state of advanced decay. Like Jacob Marley, he appears to warn his friend of the fate that awaits him (David’s coming in just twenty-four hours). And again implores him to kill himself before it is too late. David is still not convinced (and Jack is still wicked cool).

The transformation scene was pretty awesome. For the time period the movie was made, Rick Baker (the special effects guru on the set) worked some magic without the aid of CGI. This scene is certainly the climax of the horror portion of the movie. I love the sounds of bones crunching and snapping as his body morphs from man to wolf. The whole thing is quite impressive and makes you cringe. Then, though, David as a wolf is off with all the tropes that go along with being a werewolf and ending up naked and amnestic in a zoo. And so the story rolls along.

The thing here is that there is so much to learn about David’s state of mind or hell, even Alex as she waivers between thinking he is “sad” or crazy and believing that perhaps there is something paranormal going on. We just don’t get to know these people the way we should, or get to watch them as they come to fully realize the true horror of their situation. When David calls home to say goodbye, I wished I could be sadder for him, I wanted to cry for him, but I just didn’t care as much. It was a story that I was interested in seeing how it would end, but I wasn’t emotionally invested.

By the traffic scene and the end of the film, I was just ready to see if David would kill himself or be killed—or would saying “I love you, David” would save him from his curse. The Piccadilly traffic scene was choreographed beautifully and was the most action we see in the entire film (and the fakest wolf unfortunately). The end itself was quite abrupt and it only confirmed my thought that this film was a vehicle for Landis to do two really cool things: a gory crash with heads flying and the transformation of man to wolf. When he’d accomplished those things, he was done. Movie over.

Landis made some great choices, no doubt. I still like this movie. I like its quick wit and humor, I love Jack’s ever-worsening physical condition, hell, I love Jack. I enjoyed the scene where David got to meet all his victims in the porno-theater and they were helpfully offering suggestions on how to kill himself. The soundtrack (which I usually don’t notice in a movie) is perfect and tongue in cheek—all moon-related songs.

So does it work as a horror movie or a monster tale? No. Is it a dark comedy? Probably. It could have been done better for sure, but still, I like it, I’ll watch it every time it comes on Sunday cable TV and I’ll always think Debbie Klein is an idiot for not sleeping with Jack Goodman when she had the chance.

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4 thoughts on “An American Werewolf in London

  1. Yes, the character development in this movie should have been A LOT better, but, like you say — Landis probably had two iconic images in his head for the film and everything else was built around them.
    I also got the impression (one that permeated The Blues Brothers, and Animal House, too) that OF COURSE we were going to like these characters — they were young, healthy, virile, good-looking guys who were nice to their mothers. What’s not to like?
    And yes, Jack was my favorite too! Despite his leading-man status, David Naughton was kind of a clunky actor. Plus, his character was more “acted upon” than “acted” — everything seemed to just “happen” to him. Jack had more personality and wit.
    And Debbie Klein WAS an idiot.

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  2. Aaron Dalzell says:

    The main thing I found wrong, and you pointed this out in a few places, was that the film felt unbalanced. It should have either went all-out, over the top in one direction or the other. Since Landis is a comedy guy, more goofy, over the top would have meshed more than with the additions of serious horror scenes to a comedy.

    But yeah, it’s still not a bad movie.
    And I had a thing for Debbie Klein…maybe it was the accent.

    Though I don’t know if I believe nurse taking a stranger home that quick…or maybe she sensed the lustful wolf within him?

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  3. kmmoreno1 says:

    I have mixed feelings on the film, which is why I gave it a 3.75 out of 5. I had never seen the movie, so I hoped it would have been more true to werewolf folklore. I’d have to agree with you on the comparison to scream, a movie I didn’t see, and have no intention, unless Scott somehow pops that in the syllabus.

    Some of the things that worked, I felt were the special affects. The bone cracking during the transition was amazing, which is probably the reason it won an Oscar. In the end, I liked the story, but as you mentioned, Landis left out several things that were true to the story of werewolves.

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  4. lisettegallows says:

    I actually really liked the wolf form at the end. It reminded me a little of the wolf in Neverending Story, which was pants-shittingly-terrifying for me. And I liked how it moved on all fours and was vaguely snake-like. I think they lit it too well and the puppetness of it came through which was a shame because it was perfect in the alley.

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