- Monthly Theme: Genre Classics
- The Film: An American Werewolf in London
- Country of origin: U.S.A.
- Date of U.S. release: August 21, 1981
- Studio: PolyGram, et al.
- Distributer: Universal Pictures
- Domestic Gross: $20.4 million
- Budget: $10 million (estimated)
- Directors: John Landis
- Producers: Peter Guber, et al.
- Screenwriter: John Landis
- Adaptation? No.
- Cinematography: Robert Paynter
- Make-Up/FX: Rick Baker, et al.
- Music: Elmer Bernstein
- Part of a series? There was one theatrical sequel, 1997’s An American Werewolf in Paris.
- Remakes? No.
- Genre Icons in the cast? No.
- Other notables?: Yes. British actress Jenny Agutter. Character actor Griffin Dunne.
- Awards?: Oscar for Best Makeup at the 1982 Academy Awards. Best Makeup and Best Horror Film at the 1982 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
- Tagline: “Beware the moon”
- The Lowdown: Two Americans backpacking in England run afoul of a werewolf on the moors. One of them is killed, but the other survives and soon realizes he has been infected with lycanthropy. Can he control his animal side in time to avoid causing mass murder and mayhem?
If you haven’t seen An American Werewolf in London our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.
Full disclosure: I’ve considered An American Werewolf in London a classic staple of the genre and one of my favorite horror movies ever since I watched it obsessively as a teenager (probably 20 or so times), but I had not watched the movie in probably 10 years and so my memories of it had faded. The most iconic scenes have always been ingrained in my consciousness: that (still fantastic) opening sequence on the moors, the transformation sequence, David’s naked jaunt through the zoo, Griffin Dunne’s movie-stealing appearances as a half-devoured corpse, and the (wonderfully abrupt) ending. But I had completely forgotten about those insane dream sequences, namely the Nazi mutant home invasion, and also this image. The contemporary wisdom on the classic werewolf story is that it’s a basic metaphor for the schism between the “civilized” man and the animal within. The basic notion that men contain this inherent duality is, I think, commonly considered to be the idea at the heart of the werewolf story, as well as the idea that when their feral, hypermasculine sides rage out of control it causes social, cultural and sexual crises. It’s also often a gendered narrative; she-wolves are uncommon in these stories, which makes a film like Ginger Snaps really sparkle (by turning the werewolf story into one of female pubescent sexual crisis that cleverly utilizes the link between lunar and menstrual cycles) while a film like The Howling 2: Your Sister Is a Werewolf – which only wants to objectify and fetishize the image of the “wild woman” – lands with a thud (though a hilarious and campy one).
But that Nazi dream sequence really stood out to me this time as being perhaps the film’s ideological centerpiece. It’s the best distillation of the incipient threat that David’s werewolf-ism poses, where we see some deep, dark id inside David’s brain fantasizing about destroying the building blocks of domestication. The staging of it is brilliant; it’s so sudden, so unexpected, and just so fucking gonzo that you can’t believe what you’re watching. That is the moment of primal shock that any great horror movie must achieve.
But it’s also very funny – I love how the kids are watching an episode of The Muppet Show where Piggy is complaining to Kermit about the violence of the Punch and Judy puppet show that Beauregard, the show’s janitor, is putting on for them. “They’ve always been violent,” Kermit explains to Piggy about the act. “It’s good, it’s good. It’s aggressive behavior.” He’s the authority on this particular cultural heritage. Piggy’s concern: “But is it better than my act?” What’s wonderful and edgy is how Kermit’s explanation sets us up for the dream sequence we’re about to watch; the idea being that these transgressive explosions of staged violence are okay, they’re necessary, they’re permissible. But then the Nazi pig-and-wolfmen bust in and literally destroy the structures – the family unit, the media, the home-as-hearth – that limit and contain violent impulses. The Nazi mutants transgress our ideas of “permissible” violence by slaughtering the children (an established movie no-no; even Hitchcock bemoaned his decision to blow up the little boy with the bomb in 1936’s Sabotage), the old couple (also usually a taboo) and our protagonist. If Kermit’s giving permission for this kind of dramatized mayhem, doesn’t the ensuing sequence also try to shock and terrify us into rescinding that permission? This is the sequence that separates the wheat from the chaff – you either revel in its excess or you turn away in disgust.
It’s also fascinating how David is externalizing his own violent nature in this sequence, and it’s much more effective and radical, I think, than the comparably silly sequence where he pads, naked, through the forest and devours a deer. The deer-stalking is the most obvious way into the psychology of the werewolf-as-protagonist. The Nazi mutant sequence is inventive and deranged. It shows us just how much he doesn’t want to (and can’t) face his own destructive impulses and violent fantasies, which he imagines as historical but perverted, organized but anarchic, mechanized yet primal. It’s the only moment in the film where David is an even mildly compelling character.
Which brings us to the film’s biggest “problem:” its two lead characters are total assholes! It’s only watching this film now, from the perspective of an adult, that I realize how David is a complete douchebag. He abandons his friend during the opening wolf attack. He lays in his hospital bed, smirking and rocking out to what sounds like pop-lite-jazz (!!??) on his headphones, and then later he openly mocks the punk rockers on the subway! How dare he! Those punks, I might add, are great signifiers of the cultural revolt David will go on to struggle with, and they freely externalize their violent, anti-social impulses by driving safety pins through their flesh, publicizing their sexuality and aestheticizing their own “wildness” – note how they’re prominently marked with patterns from animal hides – cheetah spots, tiger stripes. Then there’s David impotently trying to get himself arrested (seriously, how hard is it do that?) and throwing a tantrum and blaming the crowd for his own lack of agency when it doesn’t work. Let’s also not forget that his method of trying to get arrested involves calling Prince Charles “a faggot” and the Queen “a man” – Oh, David, you homophobic, venomous little minx, you!
Then there’s Nurse – seriously, does she even have a name? – whose literal sole purpose is to be a disgrace to her profession and to say “I am so attracted to you, David!” so many times you can actually hear the screenwriter desperately screaming “No really! This guy is attractive to women!” at the audience. The film sets their attraction up as (not-even-subtextually) Oedipal – she’s Mommy; he’s baby. There’s a scene where she has to trick him into eating his dinner by clamping her hand over his nose until his mouth pops open. The film wants us to believe that she is delighted and titillated by this. The film also wants us to believe that she has no other desire in life than to care for and
worship David. Their relationship begins by him continually sexually harassing her while she tries to perform her duties and of course this totally makes her wet, right?! Ladies? Because isn’t that just such a turn-on?! In case you’re not convinced, there’s a robotic and deeply unsexy scene of copulation later in the movie to drive it all home for you. And though David appears to be a shitty, unimaginative lover overall, I’ll give him this: the man instigates cunnilingus. Honestly, the only rudimentary bit of un-sexism in the movie is that fact that it can imagine Nurse’s sexual pleasure as something that’s important, even if it’s only as another opportunity to objectify her and lay claim to her body. The movie’s weird, sexist lack-of-imagination culminates when Nurse breaks hysterically through the assembled police sharpshooters at the end of the movie, selflessly putting herself in danger in order to beg the vicious dog cornered in the alley to please, please just love her, all right? The message, ladies: You are a vessel for the worship of the Davids of the world. She really makes Miss Piggy’s narcissism seem like feminist revolution – at least Piggy’s self-interested! The police do Nurse the biggest favor in the world when they slaughter the monster. I’ll add that, from my perspective, Jenny Agutter is just doing almost nothing with a completely crap role, while David Naughton is actively responsible for how awful the movie’s David comes across. He is a black hole of charisma, so when the world of the story reacts to him with revulsion it is completely glorious! My favorite: the two fantastic, violently cackling little girls walking their shrill, barking terrier down the street. When they stop to shriek their disapproval at David I literally cheered. They are the avenging angels of this movie. Do you agree, Kristine?
But, miraculously, David and Nurse do not manage to ruin An American Werewolf in London for me. There’s so much wit and intelligence to the film that they just can’t, a lot of it coming from Griffin Dunne’s repeat appearances as the walking undead. The scene where he introduces David to his victims is a highlight of the film, I think. I especially adore the chipper young couple there. But there’s also the weird disruption in the porno that’s playing in the theater at the end of the movie, when a strange man thinks he’s interrupting his cheating girlfriend, only to politely excuse himself when the topless woman tells him “I’ve never seen you before in my life!” And where do I even start with Naughty Nina? That’s maybe my favorite moment in the film.
There’s so much to discuss! What did you make of the movie overall? I think we should at least touch on the film’s revolutionary makeup effects – which won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup and also inspired Michael Jackson’s Thriller video (which borrowed both American Werewolf‘s director, John Landis, and makeup guy, Rick Baker). Did the effects hold up? I think the wolf itself sort of sucks, which is why it is so smartly deployed just coming into the edge of the frame towards the end of that very cool chase through the subway. And what about the sheer lunacy of the mayhem caused by David’s rampage through London? Landis is really fearless about crushing and mowing down innocents there. I love how black-hearted this movie is, when all’s said and done. And also, I guess, I’m curious if you also found David totally repulsive…..
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I was particularly looking forward to seeing this film since, even as a horror movie naif, I know AWiL is a cult classic and widely heralded as a legitimately “good” movie in and outside of the genre. I was also a bit nervous, since I know it holds a special place to you, and heads tend to roll when I don’t find your faves engaging. Thankfully, that is not a concern since I loved the movie.
To address, and no doubt digress from, your points in reverse order…the special effects demonstrated during David’s transformation sequences and the makeup used for Jack’s decay were great. Alas, the fully realized Weredavid was so disappointing, definitely diluting the impact of the final scenes for me. This seems to be a fairly common issue with horror movies, right? The fleeting glimpses you catch of monsters are so much scarier than the full reveal. Psychologically, that makes sense, since viewers project their visions of what is scary onto the partially unseen, whereas once the freak is fully revealed the film has to commit one aesthete (a recent example of this: the red-faced demon in Insidious was totally scary in shadows on a child’s bedroom wall; totally laughable when clopping about as a satanic seamstress, or whatever…). I felt particularly betrayed by this all too common trip-up in AWiLsince the transformation scenes showed David becoming something totally menacing and badass…and then the “complete” Weredavid just looked like a mangy, possibly rabid, black dog. Big deal.
Like you, my favorite scenes were: the subway kill, the group intervention in the porno theatre, and the transformation scenes. For me, even though the mass mayhem at the end was pretty great, the subway kill was the tour de force. It’s the only scene that I can recall that is from Weredavid’s POV, so we are stalking the suited business man through the tube and up the ascending escalator along with him. [When we embark on our world-wide tour of iconic horror movie locales, we must visit the Tottenham Court Road subway stop in London and reenact this scene!!] The camera work and the sound really enhance the terror. I also thought the choice to make the victim an uptight bourgeois underscores the conflict between wild, destructive Weredavid and the civilized, but not particularly sympathetic, society folk– his victims are all productive members of society, right? Not, for example, the semi-wild punks you mentioned?
I think sex is a huge part of this movie, which brings me to my next favorite scene –the dead men’s party/final transformation. It’s no accident that the venue where David’s final change takes place is a porno theatre, and there are larger-than-life scenes of fornication illuminating the background when he weres out for the final time. Like you said, his sexualized animal nature quite literally starts to destroy society. I am learning that a consistent trope of horror movies – ones that feature transformation, anyway – is that humans are repressed sexually and the only way to truly act on one’s sexual nature is to become an animal or monster (I am thinking of Cronenberg’s The Fly, Jennifer’s Body, the vampires on True Blood, and even Black Swan).
Which leads to the David/Nurse relationship. I have a theory that Nurse’s repeated insistence of “I am so attracted to you David” is the film making a point that Nurse is drawn to David because of his werewolf side, and this attraction mystifies her as well as us. Regular David has no animal magnetism. He is childish, cowardly, and goofy, so Nurse must keep confessing her primal attraction over and over just because it is so unlikely and she is trying to understand it herself. I do think the film intended the sex scene to be hot (and I think the inclusion of cunnilingus is suppose to show what an uninhibited uncivilized ANIMAL David is, barf), and it just falls flat.
The transformation! So awesome. Again, this reminded me a lot of the transformation in Cronenberg’s The Fly because it is gruesome and painful (David’s finger nails splitting as claws emerge had me huddled on the couch, hands protectively in fists, shaking uncontrollably), not just, “Oh, cool, I am a werewolf now” like the shifters in True Blood.
I am with you on the ending… I love that Hot Nurse’s naïve belief that she could reachthe human part of David and save him was blown to bits in a hail of gunfire. I think the belief that when people “transform” – whether it is into fictional monsters in horror movies or real life “monsters” like psychopaths – that the “real” person is still “in there” somewhere, is capable of reasoning and empathy, and it is the role of the nurturer (in this case, the love of a good woman) to find the “real person” hidden within. It’s interesting to me that while this movie is comic and ultimately left me feeling light-spirited and invigorated, it has a dark message similar to something soul destroying like Wolf Creek – random evil exists; society is powerless to stop it; and we’re certainly not going to stop it by “loving” it out of existence!
Question for you – is there an alternate reading of this movie that, as originally believed by his doctors, David has gone mental from trauma and the grief/guilt that Jack is dead? That his visions of Jack telling him to commit suicide are just that? That it is human David, not Weredavid, that rampages in Piccadilly Circus and is killed by the fuzz?
In closing – one of my favorite lines in the film was spoken by the subway tube victim, Gerald Bringsley: “He (Jack) is your good friend, whereas I am a victim of your carnivorous lunar activities.” I like the turn of phrase so I googled it – lo and behold, there is a band called Lupine Howl and their first full-length album is titled…The Carnivorous Lunar Activities of Lupine Howl. Herewith, an appropriately titled track from the album…”This Condition.”
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God that band is terrible! Former members of Spiritualized? Is there any more self-indulgent and masturbatory subgenre of ’90s alt than “space rock”? I guess that whole Tortoise and The Sea and Cake thing was worse.
I’ve never heard anyone espouse the “alternate reading” you asked about. There have been horror movies that tackle the idea that the protagonist’s monstrousness is psychological and not supernatural (George Romero’s Martin comes to mind). Remember that when David wakes up in the hospital, the police inform him that he and Jack were attacked by an “escaped lunatic” even though David insists it was a wolf. So right there the movie conflates the criminal and the animal. But I’m not sure that means we’re meant to read David’s transformations as metaphorical. That would mean the movie is just such a big liar, showing us the wolf when it really isn’t a wolf. And isn’t it the image of the wolf that causes so much mayhem in the final rampage? The emergence of the uncanny? If it was just David covered in blood running around, people would be laughing and pointing, not fleeing in horror right?
I think the urge to debate the authenticity of David-as-monster has to do with how completely the werewolf story pivots on psychology. In fact, I’ve been thinking about the werewolf as a metaphor for contagion, especially in comparison to the vampire or the zombie, which I think are both more overt expressions of anxiety about becoming “infected” by an invading virus that pollutes and degrades the body. While vampires and zombies work well as metaphors for phobias about AIDS and other infectious diseases that are essentially alien, the werewolf story – even though it’s predicated upon being “infected” by the bite – doesn’t seem to quite carry the same undertones. Maybe that’s because there’s some sense that the bite of the wolf unlocks or calls forth something that already lies dormant, that is intrinsic and primal. The werewolf isn’t an alien bacteria that perverts the body into something abject; it’s more like a catalyst for some kind of reversion or regression to a more feral, but still somehow “natural,” state. There’s already a deep psychological schism that only needs to be awoken and brought to the surface. Mostly this is gendered male, but let’s not forget Naughty Nina, whose “News of the World” promo is all about the perils of her unchecked appetites for sex, booze and glamour. “The men have been a lot, but I don’t regret one of them,” she says, before adding that “In the end it nearly destroyed me.” But she’s still vamping it up, strutting around her apartment and plopping herself insouciantly in front of her vanity to contemplate her own bangs. Nina’s appearance signals David’s transformation, right? What do you think about the werewolf story as a narrative of “infection,” especially in contrast to zombies/vampires?
One thing is that the vampire story has always been deeply embedded with queerness – a fine contemporary iteration of this is True Blood, but the tradition of vampires as agents of queer desire goes all the way back to the beginning with Sheridan Le Fanu’s lesbian vampire story “Carmilla.” That novella was published in 1872, twenty-five years before Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. The vampire as always been an erotic and transgressive figure, used to exemplify, punish and destroy desires that are “wrong” according to traditional values. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of horror cinema is deeply conservative, and that though these movies allow flamboyant, violent explosions of queerness to occur, it is only in order to confront and extinguish them. So the very cultural space where deep, dark desire finds expression is that same one where these desires are rejected, expunged or re-repressed.
Of all the monsters, the werewolf may be the most conservative and the most deeply heterosexual. As you point out, An American Werewolf in London is obsessed with male sexual desire and its inherent dangerousness. It makes me think of the earliest versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where Red actually undresses and climbs into bed with the wolf-as-Grandmother and is then devoured – a metaphor for rape, for sexual violence, and for the male “consumption” of female bodies. You’re absolutely right that it’s no accident that the final transformation takes place
at a porno theater and, in fact, the very first scenes of the movie involve a dialectic on male heterosexuality. Jack tells the driver who drops them off at the side of the road, “You have lovely sheep” and says goodbye to the sheep flirtatiously as the truck pulls away, calling them “girls.” Moments later, Jack and David are discussing Debbie Klein, the girl Jack is hoping will meet up with him in Rome. David insists that she’s “a mediocre person with a good body” and is arguing for Jack to suppress and/or ignore his desires. Jack insists he loves Debbie, but David reminds him that he just wants to “fuck” her. David doesn’t seem disapproving, but he is dismissive, as if the desire to fuck as a central motive for anything shows poor character or, at least, a lack of common sense. Jack counters, “I have to make love to her. She has no choice.” Right away the film is identifying its monster: the hypersexual, the aggressively masculine. Jack sexualizes the sheep, he claims ownership of Debbie’s body, regardless of her consent. This is the “problem” the movie sets out to solve. It does it first by destroying Jack, and then later David who has become “infected” by craven, base impulses that can’t be controlled. In some sense, the werewolf is conjured by the young men out there on the moors, with their fervent, frustrated expressions of desire. College-aged homosocial bonding leads to the emersion of dangerous, threatening sexual perversion. Don’t forget, David’s in his NYU t-shirt when he later transforms for the first time. It’s interesting, too, that the wolf who attacks them is some iteration of an older, almost medieval, communal repression: the denizens of The Slaughtered Lamb are a premodern community, and live in denial about the “animal” out there on the loose. It’s the American boys that call it forth and don’t understand that such things need to be avoided, hidden from.
I think its interesting that the movie ultimately “solves” the problem of wild, collegiate perversity with a huge barricade of police sharpshooters. This is where the movie’s fundamental conservatism is most apparent, no? The power of the authorities works, they do their job, they contain the violent sexual impulses of the werewolf. There’s got to be some connection back to that Nazi mutant dream David has: they were in uniform with guns as well. But the movie seems content to trust in the authorities to do their job and regulate, which also involves the conspiracy that David’s doctor, Hirsch, uncovers when he visits The Slaughtered Lamb and interviews the locals. Dr. Hirsch is the movie’s clearest representative of the rational, scientific mode, peppering Nurse with questions and generally being paternalistic. “Dr. Hirsch will know what to do!” Nurse says after David shows up in a woman’s coat (possibly the only moment of queerness the movie allows, for laughs). Hirsch reminds me of the doctor at the end of Psycho who explains Norman Bates’ psychiatric disorder to the police as the camera slowly pans around the police station until it finds Norman. AWiL holds that calm, rational, paternal voice, I think, quite dearly. That’s a disappointment. Remember what happens at the very end of Psycho? Mother’s internal monologue in Norman’s head comes in and replaces the sound of the explanatory doctor….. The movie ends by delving back into the volatile, the subconscious, the repressed. I love how you put it, that we always want to believe that the “real” person is still “in there” somewhere. The ending of Psycho is so creepy because Norman seems to be gone, and only the voice of Mother remains, a voice that is even stronger and more persistant even than the rationalizing, clinical voice of the psychiatrist. In AWiL, the clinical, the militaristic, and the authoritarian win out. You drew some great parallels to Cronenberg’s version of The Fly and, if you remember, after Brundlefly falls out of the telepod, it takes the barrel of Geena Davis’ shotgun in one hand and puts it to its own head. So, in the end, Seth is “still in there somewhere.” Who knew Cronenberg would emerge as the romantic, and Landis the harsh realist?
Also, in reference to your point about the subway victim being an “uptight bourgeois” – I thought that was noteworthy also. And the young couple he slaughters were on their way to a fancy dinner party (the couple whose house they were headed to are amazing, by the way – “Sean, those hooligans are in the park again” to which Sean, who is busy lighting a candelabra, replies “Aren’t you ready yet?”). And your almost right that David’s victims are productive members of society, except three of them were winos, remember? Not sure what to do with that.
Final thoughts? Do you agree that AWiL is a deeply conservative film? And that most horror is? How does this compare to Dog Soldiers, the only other werewolf movie we’ve watched together?
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I think AWiL is a far more successful film than Dog Soldiers. Though there are highly comic moments in AWiL, it doesn’t have the forced, mean-spirited, goofy attempts at humor (can goofiness be mean-spirited? I think yes) prevalent in DS. My main issues with DS: The obvious,
course, sexist dialogue (Megan, the female werewolf, calling the full moon “that time of the month”; the soldiers saying of the pack: “Dogs, More like pussies.”; “You may think all women are bitches…but I’m the real thing” – the loathsome Megan again), and I didn’t respond to the werewolf family/pack. It seems like a given that werewolf mythology would involve a pack, but I think the werewolf character is more effective as a (sorry) lone wolf type. I think this is because, unlike most vampire characters (revealing in their new state) or zombies (no self-awareness or self-reflection), werewolves seem to be self-loathing and want to carry out their carnivorous lunar activities (hee!) in darkness and secrecy. Remember, the original werewolf in AWiL was out in the moors, and was basically tolerated, if feared, don’t you think? The harm the werewolf can cause in a rural setting can be controlled and contained. It’s only because David survived the attack and instead of being left in the moor to die (which would have solved the problem right there), modern society intervenes and he is taken to the city of London, where the shit really hits the fan. So, in that respect, AWiL explores the tension because country vs. city culture, a common theme in horror (see Wolf Creek, Them [Ils]).
The only other werewolf reference I have is True Blood, where the pack dynamics are a source of conflict. The main werewolf, Alcide, is clearly of the self-reliant and self-loathing variety of werewolf, which causes tension with his lady Debbie Pelt (awesome character with an awesome name), who completely embraces her wolf side. Alcide is the more traditional, tortured soul were-archetype, whereas Debbie is the new breed (sorry, again) of self-embracing, unapologetic werewolf.
So, anyway, the whole lone wolf thing – this leads to your question of whether a werewolf story works as a vehicle for a narrative of “infection,” as opposed to vampires/zombies. This is basically psychology versus sociology, right? Zombies and vampires (or, modern day vampire stories anyway – Can you confirm that the older representations of vampires show them as solitary, reclusive creatures?) are both presented as existing in groups, so they work better at presenting metaphors for social ills or societal trends like consumerism, desensitization towards violence, homosexuality, etc. Whereas the solitary werewolf represents, like you say, a “reversion or regression to a more feral, but still somehow “natural,” state. The idea is that there’s some deep psychological schism that only needs to be awoken and brought to the surface.”
I do agree it is a conservative movie that ultimately places trust in (always male) authority figures. Hirsch’s condescending attitude towards Nurse seems insulting and misguided at first – she seems to be more in-tune with what is going on with patient David than Hirsch is. But then it turns out he is right all along, and his initial warning to her that David was “none of her concern” (paraphrasing here) was all too accurate. Right until the end she naively, and dangerously, believes she has some capacity to save David, and she does not, let alone to save his victims.
I have to abandon my alternate ending theory because I think you’re right – that AWiL has too much integrity to outright lie to the viewer. Not that it is unheard of to do exactly that in horror movies – remember the SO-CALLED twist in High Tension? Finally, yes, you are correct – if a naked David was running about London, fancying himself a ferocious werewolf, everyone would die…laughing.
Until next time!