AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
Nobody who makes a documentary about the great blues man BB King can be without merit. The Blues Brothers celebrated great soul music performers but had a racist edge and too many car crashes and white people. John Landis atoned. He made BB King Into The Night in 1985. An American Werewolf In London appeared in cinemas in 1981. John Landis has made half a dozen decent and entertaining movies. At his best he had a talent for the comic and was irreverent. He understood how we are kept in our place by establishment baloney. Often, though, he was merely professional. As he aged, his inspiration dissipated. There were accidents that happened while he was shooting a film. The unfortunate fatalities affected his ambition and purpose.
In An American Werewolf In London the hero and troubled lycanthrope, Dave, wanders across Trafalgar Square and tries to gain the attention of a policeman. He makes insulting remarks about the Queen, Prince Charles and Winston Churchill. The insults are more like subversive allegations. Two years before An American Werewolf In London was made Margaret Thatcher had been elected Prime Minister. Nearly forty years later the UK and the USA have a neoliberal hegemony that is cracking but persists. If anything, the remarks made by David to the policeman are more shocking today than they were in the almost social democracy that was being destroyed by Thatcher. Back then we expected the establishment targets would become weaker elements in British memory and imagination. It felt like the rulers were losing their grip. Instead the grip tightened. For some time now moviemakers have kept their heads down when criticising establishment icons. Part of the appeal of watching the John Landis film today is seeing the British experience life as it existed under social democracy. Today life is harsher in the UK. An American Werewolf In London records a past Britain when empathy did not need to be filtered through individualist dogma. Back then networking was called creeping. The movie flatters the British or, at least, those that exist today.
Horror films, especially those that integrate comedy, are obliged to mix various elements. An American Werewolf In London has to cope with this challenge and as a result it is uneven. The good moments, most of which involve the deceased mate of David, are inspired. The weakest elements consist of the investigation by Dr Hirsch. His scenes are flat and mechanical but they are tolerable because they feel like a pastiche of old cheap horror movies. John Woodvine plays Dr Hirsch. His part is unforgiving but the actor does what he can and settles for being a boring professional who has clear diction. The mix of the old-fashioned and the modern, the corny and the hip, is odd. Deliberate or not it echoes the different worlds the two wandering Americans are obliged to explore.
In 1981 the comic scenes had an element of surprise. This made them appear funnier then than they do today. The transformation of David from likeable young man to savage werewolf, though, still impresses. It has enough body distortion to satisfy even David Cronenberg. And the special effects and performance by David Naughton capture the pain that can be inflicted by a rebellious physical form that has different needs from its owner.
The movie begins with two young Americans wandering the Yorkshire Dales. The scenes were filmed in Wales but somebody was sharp enough to pick a landscape that had long hills with broad plateaux. The scenery convinces and looks like enhanced Yorkshire Dales. The mist and rain add to what is already atmospheric. While they trudge through the rain the two young men talk about sex, bodies rather than people. They yearn for when they will move to Italy and sunshine. They imagine being able to seduce girls. There is no suggestion that the young men are virgins but it is obvious they are sexually inexperienced. Masculine sexuality is not the only theme explored by An American Werewolf In London but it dominates the film. The nurses in the hospital notice the circumcised penis of David. Later he watches a spiced up TV advertisement for the News Of The World. His final meeting with the living dead takes place in a cinema that shows pornographic films. Before that he consummates a brief relationship with Jenny Agutter. David is both a werewolf and a human. Infected and divided he wants both promiscuous sex and romantic love. He is both a glutinous werewolf and an empathetic human.
The final scene in the film makes many titter but the declaration of love from the nurse to the monster is important. The scene suggests that there is an emotional incompatibility between men and women. After the savage animal is destroyed the film finishes with an idealised image of David. His physical appetites have been destroyed, and David looks virtuous and spiritual. In the film the men who are opposed to the werewolf are all asexual. The drinkers in the village pub who live in fear of werewolves are men managed by a female harridan. Dr Hirsch and the investigating detectives are awkward men without passion.
The final scene between David and Alex also implies there is an unspoken secret between the genders. Jenny Agutter plays the nurse Alex Price who takes David to bed. Agutter is perfect as the polite and seductive English rose. The name Alex suggests a woman who will also have masculine sensibilities. When Alex takes David home to her one-bedroomed flat, she tells him that she has had seven lovers including three one night stands. ‘I don’t know why I said that,’ she tells David. We do. She is telling the audience that we need to know Alex may be a refined model of English reserve but, like David, she is also a sexual predator. Alex nurses a small boy in hospital. The boy only ever says no to Alex. This is a light-hearted reference to the Little Red Riding Hood myth. Both Alex and the wolf in the fairytale wear a disguise and they both need others to submit to their will. The surname of Price makes us understand that romantic love is available to men but not if they want to continue as rampaging males. There is a price to pay for kinship and domestic security. Yet the love that exists between men and women is only possible because they both have predatory natures. They just hunt different game.
We are more, though, than a complicated mix of the animal and the sentimental. The characters in the film have different nationalities, and all the social classes are represented, tramps, the affluent, those in authority, the young and the old. We all may have primal elements but we are also defined by the society that has emerged around us. Already complex we are also inconsistent. We are obliged to inhabit different worlds including those we do not understand. The werewolf alternates between raw nature and modern urban life. Others travel across countries and societies, and the victims of the werewolf live in a world inhabited by the living dead. We are all affected by place and circumstance. Men who trudge through rain soaked wilderness are testing themselves. In Italy and under the sunshine they will be relaxed and feel different. The two young Americans experience Europe but also know and remember their more comfortable American homeland. The ravenous werewolf has American freedom but he will be tamed by European restraint. Britain is more varied than the two Americans understand. Village life in Yorkshire is presented as an extreme alternative to life in London.
Memory also adds to the peculiarity of existence. Today the film feels nostalgic but in 1981 Landis was keen to remember the past and emphasise how our memories influence identity. The music on the soundtrack is nostalgic. A restrained Elmer Bernstein wrote the musical score. Bernstein produced his first film score in 1951. The award-winning composer belonged to another era. Prior to the transformations of David into the werewolf we hear Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The great American band specialised in rockabilly and vintage rock and roll. The past is as important as location. Whether we like it or not we are obliged to adapt and absorb and to accept that our identity is never intact.
The film benefits from the presence of working class actor and man of the people Brian Glover. He would have struggled as Hamlet but he was important to the work of British left wing directors like Ken Loach and screenwriters like Alan Plater. He helped them argue that the Northern working class had an articulate voice that could shape British life into something different, a voice that was ready to defy its patrician class. Well that did not last long. The Britain we see in An American Werewolf In London soon disappeared. The performance of Glover, though, can be cherished. He manages to combine bullish aggression and vulnerability and he even makes a second rate joke imported by Landis from the USA sound comical.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.