An American Werewolf in London is different from the other scary movies I’ve covered so far because it’s not a slasher movie, but it does combine a lot of the tropes from post-Halloween horror pics with classic Hollywood monster movies. It’s also a good movie, so I thought it was worth a look.
It’s also different because this is a horror movie directed by John Landis, the same guy who made Animal House. No, really. Although I think the humor is a little silly in some parts, I tend to think it works the way the movie is structured. It makes it a little difficult to take seriously, but this is, after all, a monster movie. Werewolf basically lets you know right away that it knows this set-up is ridiculous.
And since this is a monster movie instead of a slasher, it’s not about a masked killer stalking victims like the other movies I’ve covered so far. Instead, it’s about an internal struggle an affable young man goes on when he becomes a werewolf and can’t control himself anymore.
Check your moon calendars and let’s get to it.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Buddies David Kessler and Jack Goodman are backpacking in Europe, which has brought them to the moors in Yorkshire. They stop at a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb in a very small town and the townspeople are not people-friendly in the slightest, finally kicking them out against the protests of the barmaid when Jack asks about a five-pointed star painted on the wall. The townspeople do give them a warning, though: stick to the roads no matter what.
Naturally, they accidentally wander off moors and Jack is killed by a wolf-like creature. David is bitten but the townspeople show up at the barmaid’s urging and shoot the wolf creature. Just before David loses consciousness, he sees that the creature lying beside him is now the naked corpse of a man.
Three weeks later, David wakes up in a London hospital. The investigating officer says that all the townspeople have sworn that David was attacked by an escaped lunatic and the body they found corroborates that, but David is sure it was a wolf. No one really seems to notice that his wounds are more consistent with a wolf attack, but hey.
He flirts with his nurse, Alex, and the two inexplicably hit it off. Jack’s ghost visits, looking extremely worse for wear (the gore effects are top notch in this movie). Ghost Jack is stuck in limbo since he was killed by a werewolf, and he’ll be stuck there until the wolf’s bloodline is extinguished–which is bad news for David, because he’s now the last wolfman standing. If David kills himself before the next full moon it will free Jack and prevent the same fate from befalling anyone else.
Dr. Hirsch, who is overseeing David’s care, drives out to The Slaughtered Lamb to ask about what happened and the townspeople are cagey as fuck, refusing to answer his questions–but one of them meets him outside to warn Hirsch that anyone around David will be in danger when he changes.
Meanwhile, David rants and raves about thinking he might be a werewolf but does not kill himself. Ignoring how crazy he looks and sounds, Alex invites him to stay at her apartment when he’s discharged from the hospital. The two have raucous sex all over her apartment, but Jack’s ghost comes back in the middle of the night to show off how much more he’s decomposed and to warn David that the next day is a full moon, so if he doesn’t kill himself it will be a disaster.
Once again, David doesn’t listen. Conveniently, Alex is working a night shift, so she leaves David alone in her apartment and when the full moon comes out he transforms into a werewolf and runs amuck all over London–killing an excessively cheerful couple, three homeless men, and a businessman just getting off the tube.
In the morning, David wakes up naked in the wolf pen at the London zoo. He pratfalls around for something to cover him, then makes his way back to Alex’s apartment. Alex was somehow completely unconcerned by David’s absence when she got home until Hirsch calls her to tell her he needs to see David immediately because six people were brutally killed last night. Alex tries to hide the news of the murders from David as she shuttles him into a cab but the driver brings it up and David runs in horror.
He ends up in Piccadilly Circus, where he calls home to tell his family he loves them, then loses his nerve when he gets ready to slit his wrists with a pocketknife. He follows Jack into an adult movie theater, where Jack introduces him to the new victims stuck in limbo. Somehow, it’s a full moon for the second day in a row, so David transforms again and goes on a killing spree in the square.
Alex and Dr. Hirsch hear about the commotion in Piccadilly and run over. Alex breaks through the police barrier and goes down the alley where they have David cornered. She begs him to let her help, but as he walks toward her in wolf form he is shot by the police, leaving Alex weeping over his now human dead body as the movie ends.
This is a really good movie with really great special effects, but here’s what I’ll say: while I appreciate the comedy and the lighter touch it brings, I think the movie is tonally off in parts because it can’t figure out which direction to go. I also think the comedy keeps us from grappling with David’s central struggle in a way that would have been meaningful. I mean, he’s a nice guy trying to come to terms with a monster inside of him and whether or not suicide is his only option. That’s heavy stuff, and the movie handles it very lightly.
I also have a lot of problems with the character of Alex, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Other than those caveats, I really like this movie. It’s a regular on my Halloween movie playlist and I would definitely recommend watching it. The makeup effects were so good that it prompted the Academy to create a new category.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the quasi-sequel from the 90s: An American Werewolf in Paris, but there’s a reason. That movie is so goddamn awful that we should all just forget it exists.
This category doesn’t really fit this movie since as we discussed, it’s not a slasher movie, but I’m leaving it in because I want to take a second to talk about Alex and how fucking weird her character is. This is perhaps where Landis’ stature as the director of college sex comedy Animal House shows through the most, because Alex is the same kind of porn-movie version of a woman a lot of lazy comedies rely on.
She’s basically doing a While You Were Sleeping thing at first, taking care of a cute dude in a coma. When he wakes up he seems mentally imbalanced and keeps saying that he thinks he might be a werewolf, but she falls for him and takes him home to her apartment anyway. Alex is the kind of lady who would write letters to Charles Manson in prison and agree to marry him. And come on, are we really supposed to believe this romance? To the point where she risks her life to try to save him at the end only to cry over his dead body?
Jenny Agutter does what she can with the part, but the character is so poorly written that there was no way Alex was ever going to emerge from this movie with her dignity intact.
Again, this category doesn’t really fit, but let’s take a moment to talk about David anyway. First, casting David Naughton was a stroke of genius. He’s handsome and has a perfectly natural all-American good dude quality that really suits the character (he was the face of Dr. Pepper’s “Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?” ad campaign, after all). He also manages to convey David’s internal struggle (if only the movie were more interested in exploring that).
This is key to making the movie work in the first place: the original Wolfman was a bit of a Debbie Downer. David is inherently likeable. You don’t actually want bad things to happen to him–a very smart move on the filmmaker’s part.
Eight people die (including David), plus the undetermined amount of people slaughtered in Piccadilly Circus that I haven’t bothered trying to count because it’s a lot and none of them figure into the movie much anyway. While most of these kills happen off camera, the gore effects are disturbing AF. But while the movie definitely delights in presenting this gore, it also uses it for dramatic effect to further the theme that these murders are awful and could have been prevented.
And because evil never really dies, we’ll be back again soon.