An American Werewolf in Retrospect
by Joel Van Valin
“Beware the moon, David.”
This past August was the 30th anniversary of John Landis’s cult classic An American Werewolf in London. The story of two young Americans attacked by a werewolf while backpacking across the English moors has something of the feel of an urban legend about it, but nothing else that would prophecy cult status. Or why its lunar shadow seems only to lengthen with the passing years.
It’s wickedly funny of course, and, at times, wickedly frightening. It’s also sexy, and romantic, and a little sad. David Naughton gives a spot-on performance as the young American (David) who wakes up in a hospital bed to learn that his best friend Jack has been killed, and he himself will become a werewolf at the next full moon. Jack (played by a splendidly sarcastic Griffin Dunne) soon appears as an undead corpse, warning David that he must kill himself before he devours others. And then there is David’s nurse, Alex (a prim but lovely Jenny Agutter), who invites him to her flat once he’s discharged. Throw in a quaint English pub and a finale with screaming mayhem in Piccadilly, and you have a heady concoction.
But when the film was released in 1981, all anyone wanted to talk about was Rick Baker’s makeup effects. In an era before CGI animation, he used plaster casts of body parts to create the extended scene in which David transforms into a werewolf, and make Jack a gruesomely realistic walking corpse. Hollywood was so impressed that they created a new award category for Best Makeup, of which Baker was the first recipient. All in all the film did pretty well at the box office, costing about 10 million and grossing around 30, and Landis went on to direct Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. When the hype about the makeup died down, the movie went into a limbo similar to Jack’s; it was kept alive by viewers like me, high school and junior high students who never quite forgot that wolf monster, or the vivid, irrational dreams David has in the hospital.
Thirty years down the road, the special effects seem mundane. Yet An American Werewolf in London still allures, for other reasons. It’s a neat little time capsule of London in the ‘80s, with most scenes shot on location. Along with Leaving Las Vegas, it is one of the very few American films that could be called a tragedy in the Greek sense of the word, complete with a doomed hero and sobbing heroine. It is also one of only a handful of horror films that has a compelling storyline; as in The Exorcist, the scariness seems only a natural by-product of the narrative.
There are two narratives, really. In the first, David, the hero, can only save Jack from limbo by dying himself. Jack appears unexpectedly from time to time to remind him of this, most famously in a hilarious porn theater scene where he introduces several people that David has recently killed and mutilated. They all suggest different ways for David to off himself. “A knife.” “An electric shock.” “A car crash!” “You could throw yourself in front of a tube.” “Drowning.”
The other storyline involves nurse Alex and David’s doctor, as they try to help the traumatized young American recover from what they think are hallucinations. While Dr. Hirsch deals with bumbling Scotland Yard investigators and visits the site of the attack, Alex invites David to her bed. This romantic interlude, beautifully acted by Agutter, has all the freshness and charm of young lovers at the beginning of something wonderful. Naughton effortlessly shifts personalities between his old friendship and new-found passion, one moment sarcastic and annoyed, the next tender and exuberant.
Landis underpinned these performances with a witty screenplay and adept direction. The pub scene early on could have easily gone off track into a Monty Pythonesque spoof, but he keeps the film just serious enough to sustain credibility. The dream sequences may appear gratuitously violent and bloody —until you recognize the subtext of the film and the entire werewolf tradition: the conflict in young men between tenderness and violence, affection and bloodlust. There are many subtle touches to be discovered, as well. In one dream vision the viewer can see an episode of the Muppet Show playing on television, where Kermit and Miss Piggy are watching a Punch and Judy show. Puppets watching less realistic puppets—alluding, perhaps, to the schlocky wolfman movies that were An American Werewolf’s predecessors? And then there is the soundtrack, filled with songs involving the moon in some way: “Blue Moon”, “Moondance”, “Bad Moon Rising”.
Most films—like most other works of art—don’t quite realize the lofty aims of their creators. A few do. And some, like An American Werewolf in London, go far beyond the simple plans laid out for them and become something extraordinary. In this case, perhaps the magic happened because the popcorn audience and special effects were front and center, leaving the more serious aspects of the story to be handled with lightness and simplicity and restraint. David and Alex are falling in love, but they don’t waste time with trivial relationship issues. Naughton plays a tragic hero, but he doesn’t spend the whole film trying to drink himself to death like Nicholas Cage.
Many viewers (and reviewers) felt the film ended too abruptly, not understanding the nature of tragedy, that there is no aftermath, no mitigation, no coming back. Americans dislike real tragedy; we always hope that there is some alibi, some way we can control the outcome through guts or cunning. But sometimes Fate steps in. Sometimes you are doomed and there is simply nothing else to do but jump out of a cab, kiss your girl, and go to one of those iconic red London phone booths to call your family and tell them you love them.
And beware the moon.