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.

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 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.







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Mary Reilly has many of the ingredients that we remember from Hammer horror films.  The Victorian costumes are tight, and the rooms of gentlemen have plenty of furniture. To catch our eyes the doors inside are painted red. Everyone walks with a straight back, and the anxious hurry through London fog. The elite rest on their walking sticks, and the poor scatter. Because this is a film, the fog is white and not the yellow muck that plagued Londoners in the 19th Century. No wonder Jack The Ripper never worried about witnesses to his dreadful crimes.  The difference between the typical Hammer film and Mary Reilly is that this film has a script written by someone who does not have a tin ear for dialogue. The film retells the tale of Jekyll and Hyde but through the perspective of the maid. We do not need to worry about spoilers. Everyone knows Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde did not have a happy ending.   The fate of Mary is ambiguous but it does not require melodrama. She loses an employer and a job and becomes confused but there may or may not be hope for the quiet maid at the end of the film. This should surprise no one.

Creativity consists of talent, sensitivity, serious application and skill. It also requires the creative, when they work, to make decisions. Sometimes the talented can make wrong choices about scenes, characters and plot. Mary Reilly attempts to combine a sensitive study of a complex relationship and sensational gothic horror. Not every call made by director Stephen Frears feels right but no one should underestimate the difficulty of knowing what to do for the best.  The serious will want restraint, and genre fans will want blood. The brothel owner Mrs Farraday adds little to the film, and her slaying takes the story too close to explicit horror. The appeal of the original story was that we had the sense that the evil of Hyde was beyond not just the Victorian imagination but our own.   Robert Louis Stevenson makes it clear that Hyde has murdered but the violence in the novella may be a consequence of a reckless lifestyle and foul temper rather than a brutal compulsion to harm. In The Strange Case Of Mr Jekyll and Mr Hyde bourgeois manners and ignorance define the shock and horror. In his masterpiece Treasure Island, where he wants to reveal obsession and greed, Robert Louis Stevenson is more explicit. This novel also happens to have some of the finest exposition in English Literature albeit that Stevenson is Scottish.


The performances of John Malkovich and Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly have attracted criticism. Despite the emphasis on gothic style within the film and an interesting yet anything but realistic story some people have carped about the American accent of Malkovich and the attempts at an Irish brogue by Roberts.  Mary Reilly was made in 1996, and dialogue coaches were not as common then as they are now. Malkovich is an American actor, and there is no reason why Jekyll cannot for the purpose of the film be an American resident in London. Roberts never masters the rhythm of the Irish accent but she is good at catching the soul of an oppressed innocent.   She has clear eyes and is sympathetic and likeable. Her charisma is rooted in a mystery that has vulnerability at its core. Malkovich does not emphasise the difference between Hyde and Jekyll. The former is clean-shaven and has dark hair. His features do not become grotesque. Hyde is not monstrous, and Jekyll is not the familiar cultured gentleman who possesses impeccable manners.


The book Mary Reilly was written by Valerie Martin, and she lives in Louisiana. The book and the film have an additional American sensibility, and this is a bonus. It is possible to imagine Jekyll as the plantation owner tortured by his conscience and Hyde as the man who will not deny himself the opportunity to use slaves to indulge his desires. Malkovich creates an original interpretation of Jekyll.  The actor defines a gentleman as someone compromised and frayed by privilege, wealth, appetites and a conscience. Interesting this may be but Malkovich is perhaps a misguided choice for the role. He has an unusual and distinctive voice but it has a limited range. Malkovich is best at being weird. The two extremes between obedience and rebellion are not in his quirky nature. It is valid to keep the distinctions between Jekyll and Hyde subtle but the voice of Malkovich denies rather than enhances subtlety. If any subtlety is achieved, it is not present in the final scene. In their death throes the two bodies of Jekyll and Hyde exist as separate entities in the one body. Imagine a head struggling to leave one of your shoulders. No doubt there will be a technician who is proud of this effect but this technical work is redundant. It is neither the equal of the transformation in An American Werewolf In London nor appropriate. The distortion of the body makes Mary squirm and it provides a climatic shock for the audience but it is inconsistent with what has been suggested by Malkovich, the extremes within one nature rather than two battling individuals. The decapitation of Mrs Farraday and the dual headed monster look like ideas imposed by producers.


The film is best when it is being subtle and there are enough of these moments for Mary Reilly to qualify as superior horror. At the end of the film we understand that Mary was attracted to both Jekyll and Hyde but not certain as to why and how she was attracted. The obvious explanation is that she was attracted to the physicality of Hyde and had sympathy for the troubled Jekyll but it feels more complicated than that.   Mary has the truth explained to her on two occasions. When Hyde explains to Mary, we see the two in close-up. When Jekyll says almost the same thing, we watch from the top of a very tall staircase. Both relationships are strange and extreme but in different ways.


Jekyll has a monster within him but without Hyde as his alter ego he may not have been able to acknowledge Mary as a human being. Jekyll likes that Mary reads and is impressed by her curiosity. More than a few of their conversations take place in the library. Mary is defined by work and servitude and is grateful for modest comfort and security. She also has memories of an abusive and violent father. Her past produces not just pain but suppressed hatred. Good and evil can be explained as the consequences of love and hatred. Mary has enough hatred to feel an affinity with Hyde. She also understands the benefits of puritanism and hard work. She may lie down next to the body of Jekyll at the end of the film and seek consolation for a wounded heart but, like Jekyll, she will have to make a choice between the two aspects of her nature.

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The emphasis on the visits of Hyde to brothels implies that evil or damage are rooted in the uncontrolled sexual libido of the male. Prostitution is a high-risk occupation that exists as a safety valve for a society that requires obedience and restraint. The respectable man that Hyde murders also has selfish appetites but, unlike Hyde, he is discreet. But sex is not the only destructive force identified in the film.  There is also the conflict that exists between ignorance and curiosity. Jekyll wants to understand the nature of man, and Hyde is curious about his appetite for pleasure. Both men are expanded by knowledge but neither they nor their appetites will prevail. Hyde uses his knowledge to wield power over others. Jekyll discovers insights that reveal guilt and conflict. The servants and neighbours may lack curiosity, indeed the truth of what happened is beyond them, but they survive and remain intact. Mary has knowledge that she did not have before and she will have to at least find a job to survive. More than that, as the final shot in the film makes clear, she will remember what happened to Jekyll and Hyde and how she felt. She cannot share in the ignorance of the others.


For much of the film Mary is an obvious victim and the film can be regarded as feminist criticism of men and their hierarchy. These women were not only dependent on male strength, power or privilege but also had to endure the oppression of men who failed to achieve the self-control and honour demanded by the hierarchy. Later in the film we discover that Mary is not merely a victim. Like Jekyll, she has to keep separate the moments that provide pride and respect from those that insist upon shame.   All the characters are, to some extent, like Jekyll and have to keep at a distance the memories that generate self-hatred. Poole the head servant is the biggest snob in the Jekyll household and, when his status is threatened, he can be cruel. But he also has compassion when there is tragedy. Both rivalry and camaraderie exist amongst the servants. But all, servants, masters and the rest of us, are obliged to distance themselves from the dark aspects of our natures and those dreadful incidents in our histories. By averting our eyes from past failure and transgressions we maintain an essential gap between self-respect and shame. Knowledge has its benefits but it forces us to look. As we understand more, the distance between what we like to remember and what we need to forget becomes narrow. This is the psychological threat that we spend most of our lives attempting to sidestep.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.