Beautiful Beast: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON at 40

When a nine-year-old witnesses a man torn to pieces…

By Rich Johnson · @richpieces · August 21, 2021, 6:06 AM PDT
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There is some irony to my story. Not only was I up past my bedtime, but the previous week I'd been mauled by a dog… again. To say my introduction to An American Werewolf in London (1981) was "heightened" would be an understatement. This is a formative memory relatable to most horror junkies of my generation (others will also have scars to prove it) and sums up my own experience of having seen John Landis' slice of lycanthropy for the first time. Teeth and scratch marks for added effect. Of course, there have been countless words written already over the years —and rightfully so — this horror show is not only a seminal example of the subgenre, but of cinema. To begin with, I will add some further (personal) perspective before I hope to reinforce how this modern classic remains just as "transformative" 40 years on.

A different kind of animal

As a Brit, news of the Beast of Bodmin Moor was rife during the late '70s and early '80s. The stories fed into the public consciousness — young and old — and although never proven, the Beast was far more conceivable than the likes of the Lochness Monster. Blurred photographs of big cats (or small ones, closer to the camera) prowling the countryside were often on the news, coupled with reports of mutilated livestock. Not quite as thought-provoking as frame 352 of the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film, the sightings were often thought of as animals that had escaped from the local zoo or potentially illegal imports; hardly international news to Americans living with lions and bears on their doorstep. Alas, there was little evidence to prove anything of the Beast and the stories soon fell into folklore. Raised on the fringes of suburbia, my imagination ran rampant with panthers roaming the fields at the back of the house, and the TV premiere of An American Werewolf in London, during the winter of 1985, seemed perfectly timed to instill a little more fear into Thatcher's Britain.

Despite not making it past the attack on the moors, Landis' werewolf movie has become a firm favorite. As I have learned to appreciate, the juxtaposition of imagery and music along with the perfect balance of humor was what lulled me in all those years back. Even the memorable title — downplayed in serif capitals — sets up a false sense of security as the Yorkshire Moors (actually the Black Mountains in Wales) are accompanied by Bobby Vinton's rendition of "Blue Moon." I can't recall where my dad was but clearly remember the comfort of my mother knitting; utterly unaware of what was on the TV screen. It was the familiarity that drew me in — something distinctly British — the open expanse of the moors reminding me of the countryside where I had so many adventures. Then the truck full of sheep pulls up and introduces our tragic protagonists — Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) and David Kessler (David Naughton) — these strangers in a strange land.

As a kid growing up in the green and grey of the UK, American movies were the perfect escape during the '80s. They reminded me what the sun looked like; full of life and sentiment, epic scale and escapism. Excitement. To see such larger-than-life characters muted by their new surroundings was an instant hook. Jack and David banter and amble across the fields as daylight fades — something ominous is building — so much so, I remember thumbing through the toy section of the catalog as a distraction. Then The Slaughtered Lamb sign appears and, as they enter, the locals instantly fall silent. No outsiders here. I'm on edge. My mum is still knitting and then there's the Alamo joke that releases the tension. Laughter bellows and then Jack asks his burning question about the pentagram on the wall. Everything stops and a man misses the dartboard. The Americans are less welcome than ever… yet, with some warning before they hastily leave, "Go. Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors." Says the dart player, followed by Brian Glover's classic line, "Beware the moon, lads." I should have gone to bed. Not even the voice of Tetley Tea can reassure me that these two guys are going to be okay.

It's pitch black now. Jack and David have veered off the road. There is the sound of an animal. It's the Beast of Bodmin Moor, I thought, or another bloody Alsatian! Adrenaline pumps and before I know it, Jack is attacked. Burying my head back in the toy catalog, the sound of his screams deafen my own and my mum removes me from the room just as I catch a glimpse of Jack's shredded body.

I knew for a fact some braver kids had made it to the end because these films were always the talk of the playground as soon as you arrived back at school first thing Monday morning. What was it about this one in particular that made me want to hear more? On the surface, An American Werewolf in London functions perfectly as a monster movie. Kids love monsters — no matter how much they scare the shit out of them — it's all part of the appeal; the thrill. Once bitten, forever smitten. But on returning to watch, time and time again, it is clear to see why it has stood the test of time. Not only is it a monster movie — a horror that perfectly balances comedy — it is also a tragic romance. These elements are very much on the surface and as integral as the film's groundbreaking makeup effects — Rick Baker winning the first-ever Academy Award for Makeup — however, it becomes apparent how vital the psychological aspect and "biting" satire is.

Muppets and monsters

Landis, having more than cut his teeth on a monster movie and bunch of comedies — Schlock (1973), The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) — had written his werewolf script in 1969 at the age of nineteen (think about that for a moment) while working as a go-fer on Kelly's Heroes (1970) in Yugoslavia where he was inspired by a gypsy funeral he had witnessed. By the time An American Werewolf in London was put into production, the script was over ten years old. It is clear, during those early years, that his traveling — possibly even his (lapsed) religious roots — were integral to shaping the story. Jack and David are not only Americans but also Jewish, (as highlighted by an intrusive nurse while David recuperates from his attack when she admits to taking a peek at his circumcised penis.) Here his nightmares begin and the question of whether he is not only alienated by his national identity but also his religion; his angst and trauma eventually manifesting as a monstrous beast; a transformation that begins to alienate him even further from society.

During these nightmares, Landis continues to play with juxtaposition and more familiarity. Much like the opening scene's nostalgic use of music, an episode of The Muppet Show puts us at ease before the Nazi hellhounds burst into David's home and slaughter his entire family. They slit his throat and he jolts awake. But, in true Poe fashion, he's within (a dream within a dream) another nightmare as his nurse, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), is stabbed to death by one of the demons as she pulls the curtains. David's nightmares emphasize something cultural — obvious echoes of Jewish persecution — but also that his struggle is as much a psychological one as it is physical. For every painful, bone-crunching moment of Baker's pivotal transformation scene (in daylight!), there are moments of David literally wrestling with his inner demons, whether in his mind or not; the blurring of dream and reality driving him mad and "feeding" into his inevitable change.

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As if Muppets are not enough, Landis fucks with us all the more by bringing Frank Oz into the mix as an insensitive representative of the U.S. Embassy. This is part of the genius; as he revels on the in-jokes — Oz, Baker; they're all talented puppet masters to Landis — film references even becoming part of the conversation. It is all there, from the John Wayne and Lon Chaney Jr. references at The Slaughtered Lamb to the Piccadilly Circus porno theatre projecting Landis' faux blue movie, See You Next Wednesday; the title a recurring gag in all of his work.

Landis' ability to harness the familiar seems a conscious effort of tapping into formative influences from our childhood, displayed through modernity rather than relying on folklore, fairytale and myth. These "comfort blankets" not only stroke the lip but mop up the blood as innocent imagery is torn asunder; much like David's first (naked) dream where his woodland frolic ends with Bambi torn apart. But, outside of his nightmares, he is visited by an undead Jack still freshly lacerated from the attack; his larynx exposed as shreds of skin dangle. "Can I have a piece of toast?" he asks, perfectly downplaying the horror on display.

Love and lycanthropy

As his nightmares subside, we begin to experience some unison between the "beauty" and the "beast"'. So far, nationality has been separated as much as possible to show a fish-out-of-water, highlighting cultural differences. A cultural difference exemplified all the more by Alex and her reading material — Mark Twain's 1889 novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court — of which the title and themes have more than a familiar ring to them. She ends up one of the few characters who welcomes David; into her home, her arms and her bed. Agutter's beautiful performance epitomizes everything about her role as a nurse and who she is as a woman; she cares; she flirts and "pets", "Shall I be forced to feed you, David?" and she finally agonizes during those final moments. This Anglo-American love story is the beating heart of the film and, of course, makes the inevitable outcome all the more tragic.

Comedy, tragedy; what makes David's actions so human is in his constant failure. As a tragic hero, he fails at every corner, from phoning his parents to killing himself and, most crucially, stopping himself from killing others. Not only is he caught between two states on either side of the Atlantic but several other states — psychological, cultural, physical — that he fights to overcome. To have an individual accept the change would make no sense and even when David attempts to act out of character to protect everyone, not even the police will arrest him.

There is no room for swaggering machismo or stereotypes here; less outlaw and more out with the lore as Landis ditches everything we have learned about werewolves and lycanthropy over the years. Instead, we see the emphasis on how a good man becomes a bad wolf and the epitome of a fascist slaughter machine hinted at in one of his nightmares. There is nothing aggressive about David at all. This is a crucial part of werewolf stories that usually pit passive characters wrestling with something monstrous within and distinguishes them from other creatures of the night, making them more sympathetic. Far from a typical alpha male, this contrasts David's metamorphosis, as he becomes the ultimate alpha predator. Once he is caged, he begins to pace like a dog in heat before he painfully transforms into a foreign beast, eating white England alive. As a man, he loves. As a monster, he begins to mark his territory leaving nothing but the bloody remains of his victims, devouring authority, the underclass and the elite.

In one of the most well-known scenes, Landis once again takes advantage of location and, in his attempt to avoid the gothic tropes, places his werewolf in the bowels of the London Underground. The opening scene to cannibal movie, Raw Meat (Death Line in the UK, 1972), shows another (seedy) member of the establishment frequenting the nightspots before he is approached (via POV) by an unknown presence. Seen unconscious by a commuting couple, the man has vanished by the time they have brought the police to inspect; whatever injured him returning for its "meat." Both films share a similar aesthetic in their gnarly practical effects. Albeit, Landis — never afraid to embrace the light rather than the shadows — also directs through POV shots that lead to a memorable bird's-eye view of the wolf as it edges into shot; a spine-chilling moment, of which very little is seen.

The fact that An American Werewolf in London remains such a hard act to follow all these years later is evident in its untarnished legacy. Of course, there are some inspired works such as John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps (2000) and the Blaine Brothers' Nina Forever (2015); "a fucked up fairy tale" that presents a remarkable balance of sex, grief, horror and humor. But it is arguably Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead (2004), which is perhaps the closest in tone, although it isn't a werewolf movie. As a director, Wright clearly understands how horror and comedy may complement each other — as much a detriment to his writing partnership with Simon Pegg — a crucial and often throwaway formula in retaining that cynical voice and commentary on modern (British) society.

An integral lynchpin of '80s horror, An American Werewolf in London led the pack and defined the decade, tenderly biting the skin one moment and tearing out your jugular the next. Landis didn't so much reinvent the classic tropes of lycanthropy than tear them up, delivering a film that focuses more on love and lycanthropy and the inevitable devastating end when these two transformative powers collide… halted by a hail of bullets down a dirty dead-end alley. Cue music.