Nicholas Russell on An American Werewolf in London
He tried to speak, but his voice broke into
an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;
his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed
by bloodlust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms
into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf.
John Landis claims the inspiration for 1981’s An American Werewolf in London came in 1969, when, as a production assistant on Brian G. Hutton’s World War II caper Kelly’s Heroes, he witnessed a Roma ritual. “It was an elaborate gypsy funeral rite which the film’s crew witnessed from the back of a truck as they passed by,” The Telegraph recounted in a retrospective piece on the film in 2016. “The corpse was being buried feet-first, wrapped in garlic, in a deep grave right in the middle of a crossroads.” Later, the piece mentions Landis’s love of the 1941 Universal classic The Wolf Man, which, coincidentally, features a Roma caravan harboring a werewolf that goes on to infect Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Talbot. The similarity seems a little too involved to be true. At the very least, even if Landis’s story checks out, it is the necessity of the Roma element that, in some way, concretizes and emboldens the cinematic character of the werewolf: an ethnic outsider, perceived as a monstrous abomination. In his film, Landis trades overt exoticism of the creature’s origins for a narrative about exoticism itself.
An American Werewolf in London can be read multiple ways: as an innovative horror-comedy anticipating the contemporary, subsequent talents of Sam Raimi and Tim Burton while also nodding to predecessors like James Whale and Mel Brooks; as a meditation on the awkward and painful transition to adulthood; or, as Joshua Rothkopf convincingly argues, an allegory for exoticized Jewishness. A five-pointed star hangs in the English pub where the inciting action of the film takes place. “I think he’s a Jew,” a nurse says when David Kessler (David Naughton), an American backpacker recently bitten by a werewolf, ends up in hospital. Then there’s David’s nightmare, of a group of goblins in Nazi uniform murdering his family.
Any way one chooses to see it, An American Werewolf in London marks a watershed moment for horror cinema. Released in August of 1981, Landis’s film would be a turning point for special effects and for creature narratives in the coming decades, where the grotesque and profane meld together into something a little snide and ironic.
There is no prologue to An American Werewolf in London; the film begins on the moors, with a pub full of spooked patrons and an ominous warning to stay on the roads at night. The first attack happens in the first 15 minutes of the film. The briskness and momentum of the plot is perhaps the most consistently refreshing aspect of Landis’s film, but its graphic violence sets it apart from the films it pays homage to. David and his friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) walk under the moonlight, in the rain, nervously cracking jokes about their surroundings and where they wished they had traveled to instead, their anxiousness reaching an almost irritating pitch right up until they hear a wolf howl in the distance. They’ve already been warned by the locals at the Slaughtered Lamb pub not to stray from the path and to beware the full moon.
Tonally, it’s difficult to predict where the movie is trying to take us, the standoffishness of the patrons at the Slaughtered Lamb appearing comically stiff in comparison to the haplessness of David and Jack. It recalls another, earlier entry in the werewolf canon, where the acting and plot mechanics are similarly wooden. In Stuart Walker’s 1935 film Werewolf of London, one of Landis’s cinematic inspirations, botanist Wilford Glendon travels to Tibet with his colleague Hugh Renwick in search of a rare flower. The interplay between Wilford and Hugh as they trek through the wilderness is not necessarily identical to David and Jack, but the same flavor is there, a camaraderie amidst confusion, two men lost in a foreign land, walking unwittingly into danger. Whether or not you’ve seen Werewolf of London is irrelevant; this setting is familiar and, in the context of 1981, the action is tame. The attack on Wilford in 1935 is typically vague for fight scenes of its time, dark shadows, bodies clashing, music swelling, with key glimpses of makeup artist Jack Pierce’s minimal creature design. An American Werewolf in London sets itself apart, and by extension, sets up every future werewolf movie, with gore and horror, with a credible threat of harm. David stumbles and falls on the ground and, just as he’s about to help him up, Jack is mauled by some sort of beast, clearly something shaped like a wolf, but bigger, more vicious. Meanwhile, David runs away as his friend screams for his help. Jack’s throat is ripped out, his face slashed to shreds, the frenzied growls and yelps of the wolf acting as accents to every bite and rending of flesh. The sequence is quick, and abruptly ends when the creature is shot, but Landis shows you everything, the blood, the gristle, and the flaps of skin.
The first key scene in any werewolf story, the attack is the critical juncture: it signals the coming transformation, sets the standard for the special effects (whether they end up being any good is often beside the point), and indicates the requisite level of emotional and/or physical agony. It marks the survivor irrevocably and, depending on the film, imbues the rest of the narrative with dramatic irony, auxiliary characters making jokes about dealing with issues no one will understand, inner beasts, checkered pasts. It also either cleaves the protagonist from normal society or serves to exacerbate their abnormality. The death-obsessed weirdo sisters of 2000’s Ginger Snaps are, with broad but effective brushstrokes, shown to be social outcasts in their high school, dour girls who shun the desired femininity of the popular ones, dress in black or dark clothes, morbid where their classmates are comparatively carefree and happy. When one of the sisters, Ginger, is attacked, her resulting transformation is behavioral as well as metaphysical. She becomes more violent, more sexually aggressive. She also menstruates a lot.
Ginger Snaps, like Teen Wolf (the movie and the show) and Wes Craven’s Cursed, links lycanthropy to puberty, a normal phase of life that nevertheless feels alienating to those experiencing it. Angela Carter’s short story “The Company of Wolves” and its 1984 film adaptation of the same name by Neil Jordan link more mythological aspects of lycanthropy with the female gaze, with morality, with sexual and romantic aberration. The Twilight films and the series Penny Dreadful, borrowing from but never fully committing to the nuances and spiritual complexities of indigenous mythology, connect werewolves to disenfranchisement, genocide, and racism. The Underworld franchise, one of few to feature black werewolves, links it to slavery. Even 1994’s Wolf makes a gesture towards the idea that the transformation brings a kind of liberation, a return to nature and instinct, though at the expense of a cushy publishing job.
As an allegory, the figure of the werewolf has always been defined by an element of unease, an unsettling made literal, a creature that can never stay in one place, never be comforted by a community, never be at peace with itself. Ancient myths, particularly Greek, identified the werewolf with immoral behavior, a manifestation of a person’s wickedness or punishment from a disgruntled deity. In modern times, it has become a way of talking about the scourge of wrongful ethnicity, an outsider of the highest order, the fears of every populace come to life: a human being with animalistic urges, a “savage” murderer who must be hunted down and killed. In cinematic history, the exotic figure of the gypsy hovers over the werewolf myth, a played-out stereotype at best and a racist caricature at worst, of a roving band of people who are as knowledgeable about the beast as they are cursed by it. That curse invariably infects the more civilized reaches of society, wreaking havoc, spilling blood, perpetuating itself.
The various ways one can allegorize the beast contributes to the elusiveness and appeal of werewolves in cinema. They are provocative as symbols, but also effective meditations on the body, perhaps because the transformation itself has historically been so extensively imagined on camera. In American Werewolf in London, Rick Baker’s practical effects, which set a high—some might argue unreachable—standard in Hollywood and won him an Oscar, emphasize a slow, excruciating process of regression from man to beast, elongating limbs, hair-like barbs poking through skin, gums bleeding. (Landis would later go on to lament the length of this famous sequence, reasoning that he was too enamored of Baker’s work at the time to cut it down.) That same year, Joe Dante’s moderately successful The Howling utilized effects artist Rob Bottin’s vision, which focused on bubbling skin, quivering limbs, and no shortage of Foley effects to slightly more cartoonish, yet ultimately more disturbing effect. With the addition of computer-generated imagery and more nimble editing, these transformations have only gotten faster on screen. In 2003’s Underworld, the lycans seem to almost pop out from their human vessels, snouts and foreheads jittering forth like stop-motion, fangs and claws elegantly elongating, the entire transition taking place in a manner of seconds. Van Helsing (2004) features its werewolves tearing their paper-like skin off to reveal the furred and ripped body beneath. Each design seems to try and distance itself from the other, whether by making the result even more extreme and animalistic or subtle and anthropomorphic, but the unifying quality is tactility as the audience witnesses the appearance of the creature at the often grisly demise of the human.
It’s this seemingly irreconcilable divide between man and beast that defines the werewolf genre, no matter the thematic or philosophical underpinnings grafted onto it. The ability of the human element for discipline and self-control butts up against the primal, fight-or-flight disposition of the animal, and it’s ultimately this struggle that sows the seeds of destruction, first on civilization and, usually, on the werewolf itself. Like King Kong, the werewolf is haunted by fantasies of peace and plagued by the recognition of its loved ones in its most feral states, without being able to save them. This makes tragedy the werewolf’s only logical conclusion, torn bodily as well as psychologically, unable to contain itself, a problem that has a built-in solution: extermination.
An American Werewolf in London remains the least sentimental about this inevitability. Much of this seems to come from Landis himself, who found humor in futility and also seemed to pity the werewolf’s very existence rather than see its survival as a worthy cause. By the end, David—in love with a nurse named Alex (Jenny Agutter) from the hospital where he was taken and haunted by Jack’s decomposing ghost—has killed dozens of people. Cornered by police in an alleyway at Piccadilly Circus, a transformed David is approached by Alex, who appeals to the human being inside him. “Please let me help you,” she says. “I love you, David.” Barely a moment passes before he lunges at Alex and the police open fire. David’s body reverts back to its human form, gunshot wounds and blood all over his naked body followed by a shockingly immediate cut to credits. Feral dogs must be put down, so the story goes. And even when the hunters of werewolves are portrayed as sneering jocks, colonial oppressors, or simply opportunistic mercenaries, their motivation is intentionally made difficult to question by the filmmakers. The same as the werewolf’s undeniably tortured predicament.
The decades since An American Werewolf in London have bred films and television shows with more sympathy and pathos for the beast. Whereas Landis treated the werewolf as a monster, later iterations view it more akin to a pet gone rabid, something cute, scared, but ultimately redeemable. An American Werewolf in London doesn’t linger on sentiment, even as the viewer sympathizes with Jack. It’s monstrously cold of Landis, and shrewd.