Tony howls at the moon.
Everyone thinks they remember An American Werewolf In London. You know, it’s that movie with the best werewolf transformation scene in film history, and the creepy scene on a London Underground escalator, and that bit where he wakes up naked in the zoo…and…and…
Exactly. The collective cultural memory of An American Werewolf In London adds up to a handful of scenes – some people remember the creepy yokels, some others remember the porn cinema (and indeed, the porn film See You Next Wednesday, which was specially filmed to be included in An American Werewolf – that must have been an interesting pitch meeting to the studio). But for the most part, the memory lingers on that transformation scene, the Underground wolf attack, and the zoo moment.
This is not the movie you remember.
For one thing, the cultural memory of An American Werewolf, composed of that handful of elements, would have you believe it’s a horror movie. Really though, it’s structured much more like a comedy, hardly surprising, coming as it does like a shiny gothic belt-buckle in the middle of John Landis’ career. That’s John Landis who directed The Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, Spies Like Us, Three Amigos and Coming To America. Yes, by all means, it’s got horror elements in it, and they absolutely work, because Landis is a director who takes things that shouldn’t work and turns them into effective gems of unforgettable screencraft, but structurally and for most of its length, An American Werewolf has its heart on the comedic end of the spectrum, rather than the ‘scare them stupid’ end.
Having said that, there’s at least a workable horror skeleton in place in An American Werewolf – there’s just no real reason, other than the fact Landis took advantage of something called the Eady Levy to shoot his movie there cheaply, why it should be set in Britain.
Two American hikers find themselves out on the Yorkshire Moors as some kind of prelude for some Italian hiking (or arguably as a preparatory penance before they take on the sun and seductions that Italy has to offer). When it reliably pisses down a lakeful of good Yorkshire rain on their frozen heads, they stumble into The Slaughtered Lamb, the British equivalent of the Transylvanian inn experienced by that tedious Harker fellow, and the regulars do the same job too as the Transylvanian peasants in the same book – conviviality curtailed by the arrival of outsiders, dire warnings about something out on the Moors, dark mutterings and strange symbols drawn on the wall. The Americans, Jack and David, retreat out into the freezing night, ignore every warning they’ve been given and – spoiler alert – Jack ends up being partially eaten by what, 35 years after the movie was released, looks very much like a wolf-head on a stick. In fact, that effect belies the wonder of what’s to come under the care of Rick ‘Seven Oscars’ Baker, one of Hollywood’s finest modern creature make-up masters. As the villagers shoot the wolf-head on a stick dead, it’s revealed to be a naked skinny man. Which is understandably enough to make David pass out. Sadly, he got bitten or scratched by the wolf-head before it became the skinny man.
That’s never good in a werewolf movie.
Spool on three weeks before David opens his eyes again and miraculously he’s in a London hospital. He just is, accept it, all right?
From that point there are two real drivers in the movie. There’s the love of Jenny Agutter’s Nurse Alex Price, evolving from an awkward attempt on Agutter’s part to show kindness and caring through an upper-class British accent, to a slightly cringy (and probably massively against the law, even in the eighties!) scene where Nurse Price takes her patient home with her once he’s discharged, shows him her bed and explains that she’s only had six lovers – even on the Hugh Grant Scale of Awkward English Foreplay, this takes some beating – and from there to a fast fall into bed and love, Alex representing goodness, a reason to get well and stay alive and, if at all possible, not turn into a people-eating werewolf come the full moon.
And then there’s the reason the whole ‘turning into a werewolf come the full moon’ thing even occurs to anyone – there’s Jack, undead and really not loving it, with his throat torn out but otherwise perky as you like and twice as smartass. He’s a sledgehammer to force the story along, telling David everything he needs to know – yadda yadda werewolf, yadda yadda dead victims condemned to walk the earth, yadda yadda bloodline of the wolf – the upshot of which is that David needs to kill himself, or be killed, so that all the victims of the wolf can get on with being actually dead, and so that he himself won’t create many more of their number.
So, within the remit of the horror movie, you have a classic struggle – love and life versus darkness and death. David is beset with bad – and, in case these bits escape your memory, utterly surreal – dreams of death consuming everyone he loves or cares about, driving him mad, while by day, there’s Alex, and her rationality, her medical training, her starched uniform and cut crystal accent and her good old British common sense to temper the impact of his ‘memories’ of his dead friend. And ultimately that drama of light and life versus darkness and death is played out, David the wolf only being stopped, only allowing himself to be stopped when Alex tracks him down and tells him she loves him. It gives the werewolf a momentary pause, a second of realisation before the predatory instinct kicks in, and in that moment, David meets his end. So yes, if you want to see An American Werewolf as a horror movie, there’s a thread you can follow that will get you there – a thread which includes those moments everyone remembers, the transformation, the Underground attack, and the zoo.
But Landis fills most of the movie with an almost permanent sense of mischief, from the really pretty idiotic villagers of East Proctor and their inherently comical reactions – they’re so serious, they drive Jack and David to mock them, and we do too as viewers, helped by having Brian Glover as the pub’s loudmouth and a young Rik Mayall among their number – to the ‘dark Benny Hill’ dreams that David has, to the aftermath of the zoo scene (an American, bollock-naked werewolf running from place to place, enticing a kid into the bushes to steal his balloons(!), stealing a woman’s coat and practicing transvestitism to get back home, David’s inability to get himself arrested by a good old British Bobby, to the increasingly decaying corpse of Jack turning up for chats and plot-advancement, particularly when it comes to sitting together in the West End porn cinema, David talking to his newest victims while all the oohing and aahing and odd formality of late seventies/early eighties porn goes on around him. The music use throughout the movie too is not only perverse, but exquisitely, almost brutally funny in juxtaposition to the action – that immortal transformation scene slams into gear from nowhere, from David being bored in Alex’s flat, to the accompaniment of one of three ludicrously incongruous versions of ‘Blue Moon’ throughout the movie (this one from Sam Cooke). Another version (by The Marcels) slams in at the end, as Alex begins to grieve for her strange American wolf-boy, with no aftermath, no resolution, no round-up. It’s just ‘Bang! Movie’s over, go home,’ undermining any horror that the film really musters, and raising laughs both with the choice and the deployment of the music. Some of David’s early attacks are pretty much committed by the same wolf-head on a stick as originally got him, but the money shots – the transformation, the Underground kill, the second transformation in the porn theatre and the subsequent snarl through Leicester Square and Piccadilly, causing an almost comic amount of chaos in the last ten minutes of the movie, are given more time and money and Rick Baker’s genius, to stop the comedy spilling over into unreality and ruining the believability and the audience’s investment in the movie.
An American Werewolf In London is a funnier, more off-beat movie than you might remember, but while it does work as a dark comedy, without Landis and Baker both pulling off some top-notch creative work to anchor the movie in a reality of horror, it would be too off-balance to succeed. Perhaps after all, that’s why people mostly remember the transformation sequences, the Underground kill and the end: while not representative of the movie as a whole, they’re the bits you wait for, the bits that satisfy your werewolf urges, and the skeleton on which hangs a light, quirky comedy that never takes itself seriously – except when the full moon rises.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk