Beware the moon, lads.
It’s not hard to believe John Landis wrote his first draft of An American Werewolf in London at eighteen. The male gaze throughout is right in line with the comedies he would bring to life (The Kentucky Fried Movie and National Lampoon’s Animal House) to achieve the success necessary to secure a ten million dollar budget more than a decade later. By focusing on two co-eds crossing the Atlantic to backpack through the moors around his age while writing, he’d of course end up injecting a similarly puerile attitude as the one he’d have doing the same. This trip is about drinking alcohol and having sex thousands of miles from home. And if he’s going to kill them for their trouble, why not let them have some fun?
Regardless, it is a pretty strict horror with violent ends, supernatural monsters, and disturbingly nightmarish imagery travelling beyond the full moon antics foreshadowed by the title. (I can’t think of any contextual narrative relevance for allowing a group of demon soldiers mow down the lead’s unsuspecting family at home and yet it’s one of the most effective scenes within.) The studio was therefore correct in wanting to distance the finished film from Landis’ previous work in the hopes they didn’t alienate audiences hoping to see John Belushi “human zit” gags. Putting “A different type of animal” on the posters might not have accomplished the job since that could mean a different spin on the same comedic template, but at least ticket-holders got some laughs to offset the scares.
The movie is actually a lot funnier than I assumed thanks to a couple of game actors in David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. Their respective David Kessler and Jack Goodman are the perfect embodiment of American boorishness with a healthy side of charm. How they act amongst strangers would probably earn them a punch in the face back home, but here in England they’re merely met with looks of disgust. We don’t know it at first, but this tamer dismissal by the Brits at The Slaughtered Lamb pub doesn’t have to escalate further since they know what awaits those boys upon returning outside and inevitably ignoring their warnings. Unfortunately for the locals, however, a change of heart about letting those tourists die by werewolf threatens exposing their secret.
Why? Because David survives to become evidence of that small town’s terror. Those townies (a who’s who of West End performers including David Schofield, Brian Glover, Lila Kaye, and Rik Mayall) knew he’d transform the next full moon, but they let him go anyway. Maybe they thought him murdering city folk would take the spotlight off of their violent history or perhaps they hoped the police would stop him as soon as the first body dropped. I personally don’t buy either considering the amount of guilt and remorse they show when willfully letting David and Jack leave that first fateful night (it’s a great scene of subdued emotion). Landis simply needed to get his monster out of the country to serve his desire for an increased body count.
David will eventually go after victims of all economic backgrounds (homeless and aristocrats alike) with cheery dispositions, surly frustrations, and pornographic vices. Since he’s the hero, however, Landis does well to ensure we empathize with the futility of his mostly self-inflicted plight. I don’t mean letting him find a girlfriend and thus someone to protect from his impending bloodlust either. That his nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter) falls in love with him is nothing but an eighteen-year old boy’s sex fantasy brought to life. No, I mean the arrival of a sliced-up, decomposing, and purgatory-bound Jack to warn his friend about what’s happening soon. Only upon David’s death—and thus the werewolf bloodline of which he’s now apart—can the many victims of it be released to the afterlife.
This is the stuff that sets An American Werewolf in London apart from many other gore-fests using mythological creatures to run amok. That Landis goes deeper into the psychology of what it means to be caught helpless in this ordeal means we can better appreciate the unavoidable shame involved. He makes it so David is as much a victim to the chaos as those he’ll never remember ripping apart. Jack becomes his goofball of a conscience, Alex his last hurrah in human pleasure, and himself a creature that must be put down if only those who could do so believed his insane tale. So while a scene with David desperately trying to get a London police officer to arrest him is inherently funny, it’s also very, very sad.
That duplicity allows for a wildly entertaining ride despite convenient plotting better suited for a bona fide comedy than this hybrid marked by its authentic character drama. How can you not enjoy yourself when Landis is willing to cast Frank Oz as a representative of the US embassy complete with his Fozzy Bear voice? How can you not when he also shoots a porn spoof entitled “See You Next Wednesday” wherein its sexual partners are constantly stopped mid-thrust to deal with phone calls and unexpected guests? Even the soundtrack is composed of tonally ironic “Moon”-based tracks to wink at us with subtext too. Landis is having fun so that we can also benefit, but give him credit for letting the poignant moments of introspection play in earnest anyway.
With Rick Baker‘s Oscar-winning creature effects (highlighted by Naughton’s transformation) comes a grittiness that keeps our heads on a swivel knowing the laughter is only present to fill the silence between screams. David’s trajectory is always going to end tragically and Landis refuses to pretend otherwise. Just because certain scenarios would go over huge in a comedic retelling doesn’t mean they can’t also prove extremely affecting in reminding us that a werewolf’s life isn’t actually sexy. This is the brutal reality of what it means to live amongst monsters and want to protect them for who they were before their luck ran dry. Granting the beast self-awareness of his treachery only renders matters worse because sometimes the cost of love and survival is sadly too high.
Watched in conjunction with Season Six of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo by Josh Flanigan.