By Chlo Hickson
Join me in celebrating An American Werewolf in London‘s 42nd anniversary, but as we do we’d better beware of the moon and keep clear of the moors.
Right from the start I want to talk about the story. I love how its layered out and delivered. Its a condensed story, only being 1 hour 37 minutes and it doesn’t feel like there are a lot of fillers. They make every interaction meaningful and makes every minute count, I think that’s what makes these characters a little more meaningful to us which gives us an emotional compass. With the fact that this is a werewolf story it brings a new element to the werewolf genre. You watch this film and realise there’s so much more to be afraid of then being a werewolf. When we watch this movie we have a fish out of water element with these two young guys that are traveling across foreign terrain, tragedy happens one of them dies and the other one is left to the mercy of these people that don’t know him.
I think this was the first, or one of the first, werewolf movies that takes a look at the curse of the werewolf. We have the universal werewolf and then there’s the knock offs but then this puts you in the point of view of the person who has the curse. That is essentially what this movie is. Its also really cool how they’ve mixed up the lore, this movie has the victims visiting the werewolf that killed them and they are the only ones that can see them. That’s something I found to really work for the film, the psychology of it. Not just the beast but mentally. When David starts having the nightmares its like the werewolf is trying to be released from its cage and its happening in this subtle way. At first he’s just running in the woods naked, then he’s hunting a deer, in his last nightmare we get these soldier ghoul Nazis that represent that hunger for blood the wolf has.
David Naughton actually said he was scared of filming that scene as the knife that is against his throat is a real knife and they didn’t have proper eye holes in their masks. Yikes.
He has a lengthy recovery in the hospital, waking up in cold sweats and Jack first visits him here. That’s one of the best things about this movie, they put the friendship between David and Jack on the forefront and it never goes away. You can tell that they are best friends as the movie takes the time with character development. This story works in a lot of ways because it is about the characters. More so than the spectacle of a werewolf killing people. As I previously mentioned, we care about these characters which gives us an emotional compass. We care about David but know he’s going to turn into a werewolf and kill people, but we care what’s happening to him because he seems so genuinely clueless as to what’s happening to him. Visually, Jack warns him saying that the way there’s going to be least damage and not have this on your conscience is to kill yourself, understandably David doesn’t believe him, I mean who would? He’s trying to decipher reality because he’s having these dreams, then half way through the film he goes out as the wolf and can’t remember what he’s done other then having these flash backs that he’s getting.
If you put ten people in a room and asked them about this movie I can guarantee they’d talk about the transformation because it was so groundbreaking with no CGI, the inventiveness, all the effect work etc but its a lot deeper than what we see on the screen. Its the way they approached it, the way they highlighted the pain someone would go through while transforming. Even the attack, we don’t see the actual attack properly because of them using a puppet’s head but when you see Jack lying there it looks brutal. Its crazy to think what Rick Baker was able to achieve in 1981. The reason this transformation sticks out is because of the pain element, its drawn out you see it go from 0 to 100. He suddenly goes hot then his skin’s stretching and his bones are popping, there’s fur growing then you’ve got these sounds. He’s crying for help from Jack. It was never like this with werewolf movies until this movie came out.
It’s not everyday a horror movie gets an academy award and it earned it, David’s transformation is amazing! It wasn’t just a Oscar either, it was the first of its kind for best make up. With this in mind I don’t have to say how impressive the effects are but considering it’s before the age of CGI the transformation is unequalled, even with what’s come out since.
Having had six months prior to shooting to develop his effects, he used syringes pumping into small plunges within plastic pieces to cause David’s hands, feet, and face to elongate in separate shots; hair was filmed backwards as it was ripped out from underneath a fleshy-sheet, creating the image of hair growing up above the skin; and at a certain point, Naughton was buried into the floor so that his four legged ‘body’ could be built around him before his face changed. Today, the entire transformation would be computer generated, with this amazing monster only existing on the screen. How often has a horror movie changed the course of the Academy Awards? Not often, and maybe before or since. In many ways this is Rick Baker’s movie.
To me, An American Werewolf in London has the best werewolf transformation design ever made. It’s realistic, affected, beautiful in its own monstrous way. Special mention goes to how they created the unique sounds of the werewolf, using the sounds of a wolf, a lion, a panther, a train and for the opening attack the sounds of a pig farm in the distance was recorded.
And let’s talk about this werewolf for a minute. This thing is pure nightmare fuel. Everything about it, from its posture to its absolutely hateful expression to its size suggests a creature that is completely rabid and operating without a shred of sanity. Its a demon hound from hell. The design of this creatures face is animal horror at its finest. It barely resembles a wolf at all, realism isn’t what they were going for, but its an exaggeration of everything our ancestors were afraid of in predatory creatures. The fangs are impossibly large almost saber toothed, the snout wrinkled in permanent rage, the eyes golden. No body has ever beat the horror of a werewolf before or since, its a genuinely magnificent piece of horror movie effects.
I hope they make a spinoff about the people in the Slaughtered Lamb who experienced the first Werewolf. I could honesty watch a mini-series of the people who are in the Slaughtered Lamb. Its a full moon night and this town are in on what’s going on. Its interesting to think that they are all staying together as a way to keep safe instead of staying in their homes. I additionally like that they note that there’s no food in the building which is probably so they don’t attract any predators that might be roaming near by, its a subtle little detail but I love it. Also the only one who had a conscious was the woman on the bar who wanted to let the boys stay in the pub while the rest of the town wanted them out. Then you hear the howl. I think that’s another thing that builds on making this film what it is.
The BBC radio play takes the movie to a whole other level. It ramps up the body count, as well as giving Jack Goodman more to do as he transitions into becoming a phantom. It adds a lot of backstory and lore like Jack’s experience in the afterlife. If your interested in taking a look at this, its available for free on youtube.
To me the rampage scene is the best source of sequel possibilities, think how many people would’ve got bitten or scratched by David during this scene. That werewolf turned into an ankle biter at the end. If we think about it anybody could’ve been out at night in London, the storytelling possibilities are endless. Where would this world be 40 odd years later, what would happen to Dr Hirsch? Would he want to bury the memory or uncover the truth and demand answers back at East Proctor? What if Alex found out she was pregnant?
Its tough to say what my favourite scene is, but the opening attack where Jack and David first hear the howls is intense. I’m going to say it again, but It’s honestly the stuff of nightmares. Both boys joke about what this mysterious creature is before their panic sets in. John Landis keeps us guessing as to where the creature is and then throws in a brief moment of humour just to throw us off guard. That entire scene is perfect and has never been beaten. I’m honestly not sure it can be.
I also love it when he wakes up in the wolf enclosure and he has to call over this kid whose carrying some balloons, they’d never be able to get away with something like that today, but its funny. Its horror, it’s scary, but it has got so much light hearted comedy. The movie isn’t a gore factor like a lot of werewolf movies are, even when he becomes the wolf and we see these brutal killings they leave a lot to the imagination. The story focuses more on the impact on what’s happening not the visuals and that’s what really works. Its a roller coaster. You get your anticipation, your enjoyment and then its over.
Landis does this throughout the movie. The horror isn’t reduced by the comedy; the viewer is made to feel more uneasy about the unfolding events by the mixing of the two genres. The film flips from light hearted moments to gory deaths and the results are definitely unsettling. This combination might’ve swayed people who can’t decide if it’s a horror or a comedy, but it perfectly conceals the tragedy of the story: The death of David Kessler.
Like I mentioned, a lot of people don’t know whether to take An American Werewolf in London seriously or not, because other than its horrifying transformation scene it is a self aware comedy as well as being a conventional horror movie. Sure under the helm of John Landis, who at the time was best known for comedies such as The Blues Brothers it should be a dead give away but this isn’t the first time a comedy director has made a horror movie so there is something to question whether the humour part of it is the campy 80’s era or an attempt at a parody. Thinking about it, I think it falls somewhere in-between because as it does play up the tropes of the hammer horror genre that inspired it, it also seems to embrace the casualness of its premise.
After all, before the movie saw the light of day Landis shelves the project for over a decade until he had a greater reputation as a filmmaker to get the financing for the movie.
It knows exactly what it is. Two American backpackers get attacked by a werewolf, one dies and the other survives, and from the the surviving American David battles with survives guilt as he has visions of his dead friend Jack telling him that he’s going to turn into a werewolf during the next full moon. That’s what the majority of the story is focused on. David doesn’t transform until an hour into the movie and even than its edited in a way that doesn’t indulge in the violence but focuses on the aftermath of David coming to terms with the monster he’s become.
He transforms twice in the movie so if you go in thinking its going to be gory or a creature carnage movie you will be surprised how this movie focuses more on the psychological film it is. It maturely emphasises his trauma and makes him feel sympathetic and understanding with this burden he’s been left with.
During the night of the attack David runs for his life instead of helping his friend who was being attacked and so when his friend comes back to haunt him David can’t help but feel deeply regretful and responsible instead of understanding that’s what any rational person would’ve done. The entire ordeal is sudden and abrupt like a real animal attack to make you feel the disorientation he’s left with. The build up to the attack itself is very intelligently structured, instead of showing us what the characters see from their perspective framing wise the camera continuingly faces the characters directly giving us a reflection of their bewildered and terrified faces as they stare into the obsess that we nor they can see making us see and feel the vulnerability that’s literally over our shoulder. Then you can say the same when David transforms, foreshadowing David’s werewolf activities through his eyes as opposed to his victims.
Jack explains that he’s haunting David because he’s stuck in limbo until the curse has been lifted which will only happen if David dies and to do this Jack and eventually David’s victims plead David to kill himself, now if I’m going to read this movie as being symbolic as being about survivors guilt and the extremities of what comes with it, the lingering feeling of survivors guilt is hard to overlook. It turns an otherwise normal monster movie into something depressing. The only solution to any of this is for David to die.
We learn nothing about the curse. The towns people dismiss it and cover it up and so David is left in limbo himself, he’s stuck in a foreign place alone, he never got to pay his respects to his best friend, and he’s left so overwhelmed by it all that by a good portion of the film its about waiting. Waiting to see what happens. Its even re-enforced by how everytime David see’s Jack he’s further decomposed thus adding this emotional urgency where we know Jack can’t die anymore but he can continue to suffer until David puts himself out of his misery. All it does is add more pressure onto David and while the comedic elements conflict with the melancholy of it all, I think it has its place in this world. Its like an obvious dream to David, this all seems impossible and unbelievable but no its really happening and he’s struggling to comprehend it all. He’s feeling exactly what a survivor would feel after something so random.
It goes against the tradition of its genre by rejecting any sort of progression. We see David’s doctor investigate the attack only to be met with silence, then we have the two detectives who close the case pretty quickly and dismiss David’s claims on what happened so again in goes no where. Lastly we have Alex and when we think she will be able to break the violent urge within him he’s killed and we cut to the credits. It’s quite jarring but fits the dark humour.
The ending mirrors the first werewolf attack. David’s ordeal was dismissed as a lunatic attacking innocent people and while people saw a wolf, the body they see is that of David. A man who had just got out of hospital after a traumatic event and was on the verge of a breakdown. In a world that already has werewolf fiction people wouldn’t suddenly believe that these creatures exist, so what we’re left with is a story that has David as the real monster.
Overall, An American Werewolf in London is the gold standard for anyone who wants to make a werewolf movie, and it remains one of my all time favourite movies. It is a timeless cult classic.