That Moment In An American Werewolf in London (1981): Transformation
An American Werewolf in London is a horror film about an American man bitten by a wolf in the moors of England who later transforms into the fabled werewolf. A special effects landmark, the film was critically hailed and has become a major influence in the genre. It’s also really freaking scary.
Did you hear that? A howl? David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) should have but didn’t listen to the warnings. They’d strapped on their packs and left the curious little pub a bit ago and headed into the moonlit English night, eager to put some distance between themselves and the peculiar townspeople hunched over their pints, mumbling in whispers. The two American tourists are backpacking in the countryside, and despite the pleas of the barmaid to keep the boys inside, they went looking for lodging elsewhere. Back at the pub, the weathered bunch prattle on about murder and fate and keeping the secluded town’s secrets just that. Outside, the clouds have broken and a full moon casts an eerie gloam upon two lost travelers, now deep within the very moors they were warned to avoid. They are being hunted.
There is a harrowing stretch where we wait for the inevitable, and when it comes, it is swift and ferocious. Jack is struck first and David runs in panic but the screams turn him back. He gets attacked himself but a sudden hail of gunfire saves his life. As he crumples to the wet ground, the slain beast is revealed to be a nude and contorted man, mortally wounded. When David wakes, he is in London having been in a coma for three weeks. A pretty nurse (Jenny Agutter) tends to him and the doctor is very curious about his case. And Jack . . . well Jack returns as the undead, warning David that very soon things are going to get very bad. He isn’t wrong.
Full of charm and humor, this horror film delivers the gore and scares in spades, though isn’t the classic it should be (or is often remembered as). There is no doubting the magnificent special effects and some truly hair-raising set pieces, yet just doesn’t satisfy the way we’d hoped. Still, with the lights down low and the moon shining above, there are few films that can bring the chills as easily as this one.
That Moment In: An American Werewolf in London
Scene Setup: We’re a bit into the story now. David is not feeling so well. He’s alone in pretty nurse Alex’s apartment where she has allowed him to stay. Increasingly, Jack’s been appearing to David as a slowly deteriorating undead zombie, telling him tonight is the night and if he doesn’t kill himself right away, people are going to die. Naturally, David is somewhat out of sorts.
Why it Matters: If you are not familiar with the incredibly talented Rick Baker, this one scene exemplifies why he is the master of cinema makeup effects. This Academy Award winning effort is still amazing to watch, even so many years later, setting a standard that few have been able to duplicate. In this age of CGI, where directors can create any vision they have on a computer, audiences have become immune to the “magic” of movie making, expecting everything, no matter how outlandish, to look realistic. Baker was convincing us of reality with prosthetics and practical effects 30 years ago, and we ate it up. In its time, it was astonishing for movie goers and remains a benchmark in the field. It’s a wonder to watch.
More: Writer / Director John Landis, most famous at the time for the comedies Animal House and The Blues Brothers, seemed an unlikely choice for horror, though he’d written a treatment of the story nearly a decade before it was finally filmed. The mix of comedy and horror works surprisingly well, easing the tension and scaring the heebie-jeebies out of audiences. The two leads were basically unknowns, though Naughton had some fame due to a catchy Dr. Pepper ad that was all over the TV at the time. Werewolf movies, just as now, were fairly popular. Three were released the same year as AWiL, including The Howling (where Baker worked as a consultant). But none had the backing and marketing that AWiL did, having a budget nearly ten times that of its competitors. It paid off too, and though critics were mixed, audiences loved it. They came to see that budget do things never seen before. They weren’t disappointed.
Before we sink our teeth into this one, let’s talk about horror movies. It’s the one genre with arguably the most devoted and fanatical fans (that’s definitely redundant). But what is it? How do we define it? There are numerous sub-genres in horror and there is a clear distinction between scary and gory. Most horror films have an element of supernatural to them, but all have a sense of dread and often deal in archetypes to conjure fear. Boogeymen, monsters, apparitions, witches, ghouls, aliens and more populate our nightmares in ways that often have lasting, sometimes deeply emotional effect. Yet for most of human history, traumatic storytelling has been a crucial part of how we as a species entertain. Aristotle called it catharsis, a purification that allows viewers to understand and deal with these emotions, purging the negativity out of the body. See that. We worked a dead Greek philosopher into a story about werewolves.
Anyway, the experience of fictional horror produces a positive physiological effect in the viewer, stimulating an arousal that intensifies with fright. While teens flock to the film, experimenting with the fantasy and developing emotions, adults also find horror very satisfying. And no one really cares that the monster rarely meets its end (think of the longevity of film series like Nightmare on Elms Street, Halloween, and Friday the 13th). We come for the jolts, the violence, the terror, and the release.
For us, the best horror has been that which is the most plausible–serial killers, maniacs, and such. The original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) is still the single most frightening movie experience we have had. No debate. We watch it in the daytime. With all the lights on. And the doors locked. With frequent trips to our undershorts drawer. Other good scares, like the American remake of The Ring and the highly influential “found footage” film The Blair Witch Project were effective in establishing a kind of realism, but their supernatural antagonists remove them from competing with TCM. Likewise, werewolves are far from plausible, but An American Werewolf in London does a good job of convincing audiences they might be. This has a lot to do with the supporting characters, who are not a group of daffy teens, much like those that populate slasher horror flicks. The townsfolk at The Slaughtered Lamb pub especially have a very authentic feel and the atmosphere is thick with mystery and trepidation. It gives the fantasy weight and grounds the mythos in a way we can accept. It feels real. Monsters do exist, and they are sheltered by those believing secrets are better left protected.
Let’s discuss a theory. While the movie might seem straightforward in its message, there is much going on here that deserves a closer look. We for one think Landis has hidden a genuine film about guilt (survivor guilt especially) and sadness inside a generic monster film. We start with the main character’s introduction. They arrive in a truck laden with a flock of sheep, themselves in the back among the oft-described meek followers. What does this say about the two from the start? Or more importantly, the audience watching? Is this a clue that we are not paying enough attention? The boys are obviously good friends. They banter and laugh as they make their way to the aforementioned pub. At the pub they are given clues of a terrible menace, though none of it is explicitly explained, Jack recognizes a star pattern on the wall and mentions Lon Chaney Jr. (a famous ‘monster’ actor), even using the words “wolf man”. Later, they are in the moors and an attack occurs. It is sudden and terrible and David immediately flees while his best friend screams in horror. When he finally comes back, it is too late. Jack is nearly eviscerated. Something gets David too; he goes down and as consciousness fades, he believes he sees a wolf turn into a man. Things hears and seen are settling subconsciously.
So how about those parents? They only appear in the sequence mentioned above, and we learn that David has been in the hospital, unconscious, for three weeks. Three weeks. Holy crow. Where are they? When David awakes, conveniently, the Doctor is standing above him. So too is Yoda, er, um Frank Oz playing a representative from the American Embassy (who himself seems like a caricature of what a young man might think such a person might appear–dismissive and unsympathetic). Seriously, where are David’s parents? Jack has been killed, violently. David has been attacked and is in a foreign hospital. Why have they not come to see him? Later in the film, David makes a phone call to say goodbye to them after realizing he is a killer, and only his younger sister is at home, a ten-year-old child. He even comments that he was never allowed to be home alone at that age. His parents are entirely absent. This might be why throughout the film, David is handled like a child. Many images and scenes are childish and often filled with children. Some scenes don’t even seem to fit and have no real place in the story. For example, twice we see Alex in the children’s ward of the hospital where she is tending to the young patients, one of whom only says the word “no!” to anything asked of him. First we see him immediately after another “dream” sequence where David is running naked through the woods, spots a doe and kills it with his bare hands, rending flesh from bone with his mouth. Alex is giving the boy a pill and tells him to take his medicine and compliments the boys collection of comic books (childish endeavors). Over and over, “no”. Is this David denying the dream? Or his unwillingness to take medicine and forgive himself for leaving Jack? Then later we see Alex with the boy, and quite peculiarly, she asks him if he has ever been beaten about the face and neck. We suppose she is playing so he will say, “no”, but her wording is odd and they take on new meaning when we realize it is Jack’s face and neck which have received the most damage.
There are several curious moments that support our theory that David is dying and longing to be mothered, to be taken care of and feel like a little boy again. For one, there is an extraordinary number of Disney characters seen in many parts of the movie, including the children’s ward and, more oddly, all over Alex’s apartment. At one point even, the undead Jack, while trying to convince David bad things are coming, plays with a posable Mickey Mouse doll. Alex and others speak to David often as if they are his mother, trying to feed him and comfort him. There is a scene where a young boy in a school uniform (that appears about twenty years behind the times) is robbed by David, stealing his balloons because he has no clothes. We meet two young girls, maybe twins that, when they meet David on the sidewalk, only laugh and giggle. One of them is wearing a red coat and, interestingly, we were given a glimpse of two very similar looking girls in red coats in a photo frame in the doctor’s office several scenes before. Are they the same? And why? Perhaps they are to remind David–and the audience–that it is all only childish fear.
The romance between Alex and David is never satisfying. She is constantly walking a thin line of flirting and mothering. Her apartment is also peculiar. She has decorated the wall with old movie posters and every single photograph is black and white. More strange is her wording, especially when discussing her attraction to him. She describes herself with awkward phrases sometimes is unable to find words and simply walks away. Is this because David is making the conversation up in his mind? In her apartment, after an odd dialog about her sexual history, the camera lingers on David’s face for a long uncomfortable moment as he realizes she is inviting him to her bed. His expression is twisted and perverse and he nervously whistles. Is this an innocent inexperienced boy trying to pretend he is something other than he is? They do eventually have sex, and yes, it is accompanied by Van Morrison, yet it is entirely void of emotion . . .
We see them awkwardly embrace in the shower and then seem confounded on how to get their tabs and slots aligned in bed. There are frustrating hints of but no nudity and we are left feeling cheated by the scene as it does not deliver the expected romp typified by the musical cues and genre. After having watched it several times–purely for research (research for this post, people. We know where the tabs and slots go)–it’s clear it was filmed this way purposefully.
But the most powerful symbolism and evidence of David’s guilt is in fact our pick for That Moment In. It is the moment when David transforms into the monster he fears he is, so filled with guilt and anger it literally changes him. And this transformation is not easy. It is agonizingly painful. He cries to Jack, apologizing for calling him a name in death. He screams for help (which considering the location, should have drawn a lot of attention, but does not) and then, in the most unnerving part of the process, while writhing on his back, undergoing the most horrific pain, he looks directly into the camera . . . at us . . . his wide eyes pleading for help, and forgiveness. It’s a remarkable moment and entirely unexpected. This is a comedy horror movie, and we’re watching to have a few laughs and chills and eat our popcorn and forget about it. But in those eyes, locked on ours, we are suddenly part of it. It lingers long after it’s over.
There are other moments of humor as well, some quite odd, as in the two investigating constables, one of which is clearly meant for comedy relief. There is the brief subway scene as well, where 80s hooligans in colorful hair and clothes are mocked by David. Peculiar, yet playful. Again, perhaps part of the psychosis of the David’s dying brain.
And speaking of subways . . . or rather, the Underground as the film is in London, one of the better scares comes during David’s first night as the wolf. While the transformation scene remains our favorite in the film, this particular moment had us sleeping with the lights on for the better part of a week after we saw it first. A lone figure is exiting the tunnels and hears the scuffles of something approaching. The glimpse of the wolf is as terrifying as anything else in the movie.
Despite all of this, the movie doesn’t quite make the mark it should. Many consider it a classic, and there is no denying its influence, but that influence is a lot about horror filmmaking techniques and special effects rather than story and characters. We enjoy the film and have fond memories of seeing it the first time. Landis creates some very effective moments but scatters them amid some unnecessary and stilted scenes as well. His trademark homage to Kubrick (See You Next Wednesday) is easy to spot in the Underground tunnels and is also the featured movie in the theater during the films finale.
Landis also populates the entire movie with clever tunes about the moon. They fit naturally into the theme and add a delicious sense of fun to the experience.
While there is a lot to discuss about this movie and we hope you offer up any ideas of your own, no matter what people think of it, it is the phenomenal metamorphosis scene that everyone remembers most.