An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director/Screenwriter: John Landis

By Roderick Heath

John Landis, who recently returned to cinema screens with the indifferent Burke and Hare after more than a decade’s absence, has been one of the most consistently unlucky and frustrating directors of the ‘70s generation. That’s partly his own damn fault, after the notoriety of his part in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two child extras on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1982), and partly the strange vicissitudes of the movie business. Landis had a talent which, like his close cinematic kin Joe Dante and John Carpenter, seemed to lose enthusiasm and precision of intent in the mid-‘90s, as studios became progressively less adventurous and consistent box office success proved elusive. The pain entailed by sitting through the likes of Innocent Blood (1994) and The Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) was all the more regrettable considering they were obvious, and obviously failed, attempts to recapture the distinctive blend of energy and poise he had wielded in his best films. Landis parlayed crass but witty early successes like The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) and National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) into a brief run of excellence, with the frenetic blend of satire, slapstick, and neo-musical in The Blues Brothers (1980), and the insomnia-hued comedy-thriller Into the Night (1985). Landis is chiefly a comedy director, and yet he started off with the no-budget monster movie send-up Schlock (1972), and his best work, An American Werewolf in London, was a return to such roots, one which still surprises in the confidence with which it combines unstable elements. The horror-comedy crossbreed is a notoriously difficult style to pull off, with antecedents in the likes of The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Old Dark House (1932), and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). The first thing a horror comedy has to keep in mind is that it is not a spoof, but should rather try to sustain an unease inherent in situations that spark both humor and horror. If done right, this sub-genre should make an audience giddy in violent switchbacks between laughting and cringing, and American Werewolf actually often achieves this.

As if deliberately trying to put aside the raucous excess of The Blues Brothers, whilst still invoking some that film’s sheer delight in anarchic forces upturning the status quo, American Werewolf is as tight a piece of moviemaking as any made by an ‘80s Hollywood figure, as Landis wraps the whole thing up in an hour and half. Yet he makes that running time count in evoking powerful atmosphere, jolting brutality, strong characterisation, and a dualistic sensibility that swerves between blackly comic farce and gothic tragedy, in a film that works on several levels. Part of what makes it work is the rigour with which it employs the conceit of placing his haplessly charming, glib, very contemporary young protagonists David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), into a situation that reproduces knowingly familiar clichés of the genre. David and Jack wouldn’t have been out of place in Animal House, as Jack frets over his frustrated sexual desire for an old school friend. The opening credits behold sonorous visions of the Yorkshire moors at dusk, pure genre territory, except Landis signals his bipolar approach by playing a version of the old standard “Blue Moon”, first of a motif of moon-citing pop songs throughout. David and Jack are dropped off by a sheep farmer they’ve hitched a ride from, and they head into a tiny hamlet, East Proctor, where they’re ogled with surprise and discontent by the local yokels gathered in the town pub, fetchingly named “The Slaughtered Lamb”. With the Hammer-esque collection of rubes, including eye-catching Brit character actors like Brian Glover, Rik Mayall, Lila Kaye, and David Schofield in an inn, the film seems geared for satire with the traditional bug eyes, hard glances, and mysterious intonations.

When the ice momentarily breaks as one chess-playing patron (Glover) tells a silly joke at the expense of the young Americans, Jack freezes it over again by asking about a pentagram scratched into the pub wall. Ordered out and advised not to stray off the road, David and Jack nonetheless stumble off onto the moors in their amused distraction. As they’re stalked by an unseen thing on the moor wreathed in fog, humor curdles instantly into pitch-perfect tension; it’s one of the most dynamic little scenes in any horror film, building in a manner that has been aided, not defused, by the humor. The audience, like the characters, has been made off-guard and giddy, ripe for a sudden shift in tone. The scene resolves in a tremendous rush of action, violence, and rescue. Whilst the pub denizens argue in apprehension about whether they should chase them down and bring them back, the two students become aware of their endangerment and isolation. Before they can get back to the pub, a huge, fanged beast attacks them. Jack is torn gruesomely to pieces and David bitten, saved only by the timely intervention of the gun-wielding villagers. Before he fades into unconsciousness, David sees a shot-riddled man’s corpse lying beside him.

The way Landis alternates between drollery, suspense, and finally bloodcurdling gore seems the result of a curious artistic schism of impulses. On the one hand Landis is well aware of the silliness of the classic horror movies he’s referencing, something his comic side can’t resist lampooning a little, and yet he loves them too, and seeks to recharge their power and validity. He does this by first evoking classical tropes for building atmosphere – the blasted locale, the enveloping weather, the xenophobic tension of the villagers and the exaggeration of their alienating act, the roaming unseen beast – and contrasting it with the sceptical sensibility of the young Americans for whom everything is a bewildering, absurdist trial. Then we get a dose of modern movie violence far beyond the reach of George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) and Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), both referenced in the course of Landis’ film. Humor is consistently used to anticipate and disarm our prior knowledge of the genre and the situations; to gain a deeper sympathy for the characters (their humorous reactions are ours); and to aid the anticipation of the reversion to violence. The jokey pop music alternates with an ornately swooning score by Elmer Bernstein. It’s a difficult balancing act, yet Landis sustains it for the most part. Landis wasn’t actually the first to try it: the previous year’s The Howling, made by Dante and his screenwriter John Sayles, had made a similarly dualistic hash of the werewolf mythos. Where Dante’s film jokingly undermined psychiatry and New Age philosophy with its eruptive emanations of the primal, however, Landis uses the werewolf motif rather to evoke a distress based in ethnic identity and lingering anxieties of history, as well, of course, as the traditional fear that within a good man might dwell a destructive monster.

David, having survived the werewolf’s bite, awakens in a London hospital under the care of dry-witted surgeon Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine), an unflappable WW2 veteran, and cute nurse Alex Price (the wonderful Jenny Agutter). David tries to report his version of events when it’s been officially reported he and Jack were attacked by a lunatic, but he’s patronised by police inspector Villiers (Don McKillop) and US embassy official Collins (Frank Oz). David is beset by visions of himself running naked through the woods and feeding off deer, and, most bizarrely, of Nazi-uniformed werewolves breaking into his family house and machine-gunning his house to pieces, cutting his throat and slaughtering his family. He seems to awake from this dream only for one of the uniformed monsters to break through the window and stab Alex to death: only then does David really awaken and gasp, in perfect accord with the audience, “Holy shit!” It’s here that An American Werewolf in London gains an overtone that is all the more intriguing for the way Landis doesn’t push it. David and Jack are Jewish as well as Americans, and David has latent anxiety over holidaying in old Europe with its lingering, still-pungent spectres, which he has held back from by touring in England first. This background blends with the specific terrors David encounters, based in the guilty, clannish secret of the small town that has accepted a horror and done nothing about it until the issue is forced. David’s dream seems to encapsulate a dread of the human capacity to surrender to animalistic brutality, conflated in the image of the Nazi-werewolf, returning to explode into his comfortable bourgeois existence back in the States like a ticking time-bomb. It’s an idea that doesn’t take up more than a minute of screen time, and yet the disturbing, suggestive imagery permeates the entire film: Landis would return to it more crudely in his The Twilight Zone: The Movie episode.

Fortunately for David, if not so much for the rest of London, Alex proves eager for a little cultural outreach, inviting him to shack up with her once he’s released from hospital. Naughton and Agutter make a tremendously sexy couple (What the hell happened to Naughton? And Agutter, for that matter?), caught in bedroom antics scored to Van Morrison’s “Moondance”, and the romantic undercurrent on the film achieves a genuine consequence as David fears that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him. Landis’ comic sensibility actually serves to keep the film grounded in a skewed but solid realism, as Alex and David bitch about inflation and overworked hospital orderlies bellyache, and Dr Hirsch tells his wife that if he can survive Rommel, he can survive a boring dinner party. London is a bracingly lively contrast to the moody environs of East Proctor, Landis offering tourist board tropes only to reveal the seaminess cheek by jowl with them: homeless men encamped near Tower Bridge, flocks of punks on the tube trains, porn cinemas at the Piccadilly Circus. The film’s most original spin on the werewolf myth is also the most bizarre, and central to the two-faced take on the material, with Jack appearing to David as a wraith to warn him about his inevitable transformation into a marauding beast, begging him to kill himself and end the werewolf’s bloodline. The almost Monty Python-esque joke is that Jack is still Jack, witty, deprecating, and friendly, stewing over the fact his lust-object shacked up with another guy right after attending his funeral, and complaining that talking to other corpses is boring. But he’s also beset by existential desperation, the voice of baleful warning and grim fate, and seeming to decay just like his body, so that each time he appears to David he’s in worse and worse condition.

Although carefully built up to, David’s sudden, almost off-hand lurch into transformation comes after a montage in which he uneasily prowls Alex’s flat as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” dogs him and a brief, comic cutaway to Alex at the hospital – his transformation then arrives as a jagged surprise. The special effects are still, thirty years later, stunning and infinitely preferable to any CGI we’d inevitably get today, a genuine testimony to the brilliance of make-up man Rick Baker, who had worked with Landis on Schlock and would again on their groundbreaking video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But what makes the scene more than a bit of effects team show-offing is the tangible sense of existential desperation in David’s cries for help, as his very body rebels against his true character and contorts into a grotesque engine of destruction, one of the most acute presentations of this theme ever filmed. David’s first rampage as a werewolf takes in a panoply of types and initially hits notes of sick humor: first he attacks Harry and Judith (Geoffrey Burridge and Brenda Cavendish), a delectably dim pair of giggling middle class swots, whose dismembered parts are discovered by a brandy-sipping friend, and three bums (Sydney Bromley, Frank Singuineau, and Will Leighton).

Then the tone takes a swerve towards the genuinely nightmarish, as haughty city banker Gerald Bringsley (Michael Carter) is stalked in a deserted tube station. Class tension is a common theme in Landis’ works, and here there’s initially a temptation to chuckle at Bringsley’s attitude, at first thinking the growls he’s hearing are some miscreants playing tricks, only for the smile to fade as Landis plays the sequence deadly straight as Bringsley flees through the tunnels, chased by the POV monster in brilliantly fluid camerawork, and the beast is glimpsed at the very edge of a shot down an escalator well as Bringsley, having tripped and lying injured, watches the beast approach with implacable hunger. This tremendous set-piece retains a Val Lewton-esque flavour, as it successfully correlates the well-lit, clean, yet claustrophobic modernity of the station tunnels with the foggy moor at the start, as an empty, cheerless space: both keep the menace out of immediate sight and offer no quick sanctuary or sense of aid and fellowship.

Another of Landis’ cunning ideas is to make the werewolves, glimpsed in darting, rapidly edited lunges, properly terrible in their wildness, and indeed they remain, in my experience, the most genuinely ferocious lycanthropes ever glimpsed in a movie, with the innovative idea of rejecting anthropomorphism and rendering them instead as massive beasts utterly inimical to any human presence. This edge of the genuinely implacable gives the horror a frisson that properly offsets the comedy. After Were-David’s first rampage, the film quickly reverts back to comedy with a particular inspired touch, with a jump cut to a roaring, safely caged lion, as David awakens stark naked in a zoo, and has to evade being arrested and finds some sort of clothing and make it back to Alex’s. It’s the sort of sequence that deliberately violates a nicety observed by the earlier werewolf movies, where their monsters got about wearing pants, and answers a perfectly logical question about what happens when a wolf-man reverts. When David’s attempts to get himself arrested flop, and he can’t bring himself to cut his wrists, Jack appears and ushers him into a porn theater where he introduces David to the shades of his new victims, all perfectly in character, Harry and Judith impossibly chirpy as even as they drip gore, Bringsley angry and punitive, as if David has stumbled into an infernal intervention. Occasionally Landis’ humor collides with the piece instead of aiding it, as in the mock porno See You Next Wednesday (that title being a Landis running joke) that David and Jack partake of viewing in this scene, which is hilarious but plays like an outtake from The Kentucky Fried Movie. But it does again lead into a knowing crux, as David’s pleas to be left alone as he begins to transform again mistaken at first by an usher as the slightly exaggerated moans of a desperate onanist, therefore acknowledging with a smirk another variation on the man-as-beast theme, this one sourced in shame of sexuality. There’s also a certain thematic rhyme with Taxi Driver, a different kind of marauding beast in the big city still nonetheless feeding on a diet of porn and rage.

The acidic brilliance continues in the finale, as the dark space of the porn theatre becomes a charnel house, and Piccadilly Circus becomes a bloody circus indeed of crashing cars, crushed and torn bodies, and one very large freaky mutt stalking the streets. This dizzyingly orchestrated bit of chaos invokes the similar chaos in The Blues Brothers’ final phase, a careening dissolution in everyday order. The forces of reaction swing instantly into action, except where the previous film made ruthless fun of the SWAT team coming into the fray, here they’re cool considerate men ready to do a desperately needed job of work, a rare leavening of Landis’ distaste for authority figures, although he does make sure we see the fatuous Villiers get his head torn off. But Alex, having heard David’s movie-derived theory that a werewolf can only be killed by one who loves him, realises bullets can only give a coup-de-grace when that love is invoked, so she dashes into the alleyway where Were-David has holed up, and her cries coax the werewolf out, a glimmer of recognition in its eyes, to welcome the bullets of the police, in a moment that truly catches the romantic-tragic spirit of the best werewolf movies it’s paid tribute. Only right at the very end does Landis suddenly seem unsure what note he wants to hit, crashing immediately into The Marcel’s bop version of “Blue Moon”, as if afraid of leaving the audience with a real emotion. In spite of its hesitations, however, An American Werewolf in London holds up bloody well.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 9:59 am

    Excellent review. As I’ve returned to this film twice since I saw it in its original run, the problem for me remains David Naughton who is so un-charismatic as to almost being anti-charismatic, as in when I see him on the screen, not only am I bored by him but I want him to leave the screen and yet, he’s the lead so he can’t. I think it’s a testament to how much this movie gets right that even that is overcome although I would have gladly taken Griffin Dunne in the lead instead. He would have added a lot more energy and fire to the performance.

    I wonder if Landis was influenced by Altered States from the previous year with the zoo/reverting-to-human-form scene. I remember seeing Altered States in 1980 and thinking, “Finally, they show the guy after he reverts back and he isn’t wearing clothes because they all tore off. Also, he’s in a zoo! Of course, all the different animals calls and scents would naturally draw him in! Brilliant!” Then, the next year, the same thing occurred with American Werewolf and I thought, “I bet he did that because of Altered States.” And I was so glad that attention was being paid to details like that now.

  • Robert spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 8:37 pm

    One of the first (along with John Carpenter’s The Thing) “adult” monster movies I ever saw. The Thing gave me a childhood thirst for slimy, clackety, visceral gore. And this movie may have been the first I ever paid attention to that mixed something so heavy and dark — flayed-open death, sacrifice — with something so sardonic — corpses aware of their doomed status, ironically used pop songs. But all wrapped up with what you so rightly call existential desperation. I loved this movie then for the (still) magnificent transformation sequence. But I love it now for the perfect balance of backward-looking charm, immediate carnage, and forward-looking angst. Your essay is, as always, spot on.

  • Robert spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 8:44 pm

    Upon re-reading my own comment… The backward-looking is clearly not all charming. There’s quite a bit of backward-looking anger and vengeance coursing through those wolves. Also, since reading your essay, I can’t get out of my mind the wonderful, disturbing, hollow sound of David’s bones stretching during the transformation. I had dreams as a kid, man. Bad dreams…

  • Rod spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 9:31 pm

    Thanks in turn for your substantive and passionate comments, you guys.

    Greg, I have to…er…disagree with you completely. Whilst I hardly think Naughton is the second coming of Cary Grant, I find him perfectly all right in the role and quite funny and charming, at least as good as many other ’80s leading men would have been. Dunne couldn’t have sold the romantic side of David at all. It’s been so long since I saw Altered States that I can’t even remember that similar scene, so I’ll have to take your word for that. Did it influence it? Who knows. But yes, it was good that the filmmakers were paying attention to such things. I still wince at the pages of exposition, however, in one of the Twilight books where they explain how the wolf boys keep ripping their pants so they need a constant supply of replacements – as usual with Meyer, that could have been funny and revealing but instead ends up being tedious.

    Robert, I think it was just about the first “adult” monster movie I saw too: I didn’t catch The Thing until comparatively much later, but I do seem to recall seeing the equally funny-gory Alligator and Piranha around the same time, when I was about 6 or 7, and I usually saw these things sitting in my grandparents’ living room. I was an effective self-censor back in those days – when I thought a film was going to get too much for me I skedaddled quick, but none of those films, in spite of their carnage, every really bothered me. Yes, the sense of fury in the werewolves is really visceral, and therein lies the peculiar genius of the film: they embody something genuinely wild where everything else in sight is sloppily, anxiously human. You get the feeling Landis put a lot of effort into thinking about how to capture this schism, much more than most every other werewolf movie-maker.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 10:26 pm

    Rod, I agree that Dunne might not have sold the romantic side but I don’t know, he sold After Hours a lot better than Naughton sold this, for me I mean, obviously. I don’t think, in the end, either would be the perfect choice and it’s probably the reason neither ever became a big star. Perhaps one of Landis’ Animal House stars could have done it better. Most of them certainly have more presence. So, anyway, we disagree. I just don’t see anything in Naughton that’s appealing. Jenny Agutter, on the other hand, is wonderful as always. we fully agree. Love her in Walkabout and Logan’s Run as well.

  • Robert spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 10:49 pm

    I think DN is good in the movie. Believable in that “normal guy in horrible circumstances” kind of way. But seriously, I can’t see him without thinking of the CIT dance scene in Meatballs. (“Makin’ it…. etc etc…”)

  • Robert spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 11:09 pm

    Oh, and 6 or 7, Rod? I think I had a much more sheltered childhood. I was only up to Harryhausen at that age. Then came, quickly, Universal and Hammer (pretty disturbing, that Hammer!), then, not till 12 o2 13, the likes of The Thing. You should see the overnight change in my drawing tablets — literally from being fascinated by the shape of Karloff’s head in Frankenstein, to decapitated bug-eyed heads sliding off tables! My mother was worried for about 5 minutes. Thankfully, she knew in her bones I wasn’t disturbed. Maybe cause at the same time as all that, I was soaking up Letterman and Woody Allen. (What I’d pay to see Woody Allen’s The Thing!)

  • Robert spoke:
    28th/10/2011 to 11:14 pm

    Actually, Woody Allen’s The Thing might look a lot like Shadows & Fog.

    (Sorry for hogging so many comment spots.)

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/10/2011 to 12:11 am

    Ah well Greg, at least we do agree on Agutter. Actually, I wrote this essay before catching sight of her very briefly in Burke and Hare, which also sports John Woodvine, so there’s the usual sense of Landis getting his band back together to bolster that film’s otherwise remarkably flat script. I suppose if there’s anything I find problematic with Naughton, it’s that he tends to affect the same slightly glazed, wide-eyed startled look throughout the film no matter what he’s contending with.

    I am sorry to say I’ve never seen Meatballs. Wait, is sorry the right word? Anyway, I’m constantly trying to make up for my failure to watch many ’80s movies that seem to have been rites of passage for everybody else. Yes, I think I did catch The Thing about the same age as you, Rob. It’s funny, but when I was younger I tended to find films based in that more old-fashioned, tingling sense of threat, like Night of the Big Heat and others where the monsters are hidden for much of the movie, far more frightening than overt gore, which usually struck me and still strikes me as silly. I did actually get banned by my parents from watching scary movies for a time when I was about 8 or 9, after seeing Jaws: The Revenge in the movie theater and I started getting really jumpy (I know, I know), but looking back on it now I suspect I was really getting that way because of certain circumstances in real life were making me justifiably paranoid. Anyway, I lifted the ban myself after a couple of weeks by renting Claws, a deservedly forgotten Jaws-with-a-bear movie, and I decided that movie horrors were actually an escape for me.

    Oh and comment away. I like that it provides a partial illusion that this is a mass symposium for Aristotelian dialogues on the horror cinema.

  • Robert spoke:
    29th/10/2011 to 1:00 am

    Meatballs is suspect in the quality category. But it’s comfort food, in a way that a movie of equally low quality made 10 years ago could never be.

    Case in point on the subject of hidden horrors vs outright gore. The other night, watched the opening 20 of Val Lewton’s Curse of the Demon. It was going so well, with the shadows and the music. Then they full on show the entire giant demon. I understand he was outraged when the studio put in those shots later. (Or something like that.) Side note: Lewton would have been happy with Jaws, given his aesthetic, I think.

    Also, for me, the outright gore phase lasted through my teens, then got replaced by some young adult version of what you might call “seen too much of life and death to enjoy all that”, and I became much more ensnared by the sinister charms of things like The Haunting and, more recently, Lake Mungo. (!!!) Generally speaking, I think I’d not even call myself a huge fan of horror movies. Maybe too sensitive in my not-quite-yet middle age. It’s got to be something like Mungo or — wow, was I surprised: Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Saw it recently for the first time and was truly, delightedly engaged by the smarts behind it. The meta thing might be played by now, but at the time it was made, must have been state of the art in its self-reflexivity. Loved it… but now I’m rambling.

  • Stephen Gallagher spoke:
    29th/10/2011 to 12:11 pm

    You ask whatever happened to David Naughton… alas, you can find him here…

    http://hollywoodiscalling.com/directory.php

    For $300 he’ll call and wish you Happy Birthday.

  • Greg Ferrara spoke:
    29th/10/2011 to 3:19 pm

    Stephen, I just clicked on the link you left. My god, that’s one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen.

  • Rod spoke:
    29th/10/2011 to 8:21 pm

    Wow, now that I know, Stephen, I don’t think I wanted to (but thanks nonetheless). Not even Christopher Atkins deserves that fate!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/10/2011 to 7:28 pm

    “One of Landis’ most cunning touches is to make the werewolves, glimpsed in darting, rapidly edited lunges, properly terrible in their ferocity, and indeed they remain, in my experience, the most genuinely ferocious lycanthropes ever glimpsed in a movie, with the innovative idea of rejecting anthropomorphism and rendering them instead as massive beasts utterly inimical to any human presence.”

    Brilliant passage! Certainly this is one of the greatest werewolf films. Of course not all that many on that subject outside of the Universals and a few Hammers. There was an excellent (opening) werewolf segment in Freddie Francis’s DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (1965) which I remember seeing as a young child in a nearby theatre.

    Yes this holds up remarkably well. Love that opening sequence at the inn on the moor.

  • Rod spoke:
    31st/10/2011 to 11:20 am

    Sadly Sam I haven’t seen Dr Terror’s House of Horrors yet (but I will, eventually). Some more recent werewolf movies, especially the very under-rated Ginger Snaps and Neil Marshall’s debut Dog Soldiers, do obviously take quite a bit of licence from Landis. In regards to how it holds up, I was really surprised when I first revisited it after a long time, a couple of years ago, and being walloped by the concision and efficiency of its style. Landis barely wastes a frame whilst still being able to pack so much in.

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