An American Werewolf In London (1981)


I have to give you fair warning up front, this will be a ridiculously favorable review. I adore this movie and I adore wolfmen. Sadly, the wolfman tale, while being poignant and complex, a story of the human condition in many ways, is often fraught with bad effects, a character who looks more like a dog or a bear and an overly sentimental romance. But AWL avoids all that, and creates possibly the best depiction of the Werewolf in films.

The story, written and directed by John Landis, begins with two backpackers, David and Jack, played by David Naughton and Griffin Dunn respectively, journeying through a gray and rainy Northern England. They are likable, funny, good friends. As the day grows long and they are on foot they find themselves at a pub for reprieve. But the denizens at the Slaughtered Lamb are far from happy to see them and the pub is full of strange features, notably a bloody pentacle with candles on the wall. The boys manage to break the ice, but then Jack asks about the pentagram and a hush, equal to the hush and stares that first greeted them, returns.

Note: A brief cameo by the wonderful Rik Mayall, as a younger chess player.

Having been met with hostility and mystery the guys are driven off with just a warning to stay off the moors and beware the moon. Yeah, that’s normal advice. Anyway, it is only after they leave that the local folk start debating the ethics of sending them to their death, thereby revealing the possible horrors that lay hidden.

And then we are back with David and Jack, hiking in the rain but still managing to keep their good spirits…until they realize they have left the path and are on the moors. Then the moon reveals itself and they begin to hear the howls. Spooked, they continue. But the situation escalates and they know it is real, something is stalking them. And suddenly from nowhere and with great fury they are attacked by a terrible beast (man? bear? pig? you know…) Jack is killed and David critically hurt, but before the beast does away with him, the townspeople shoot it. David, in his stupor looks over at the now dead monster, but actually sees an older, balding man.

Flash forward a bit to a hospital in England, after weeks of recovery, David awakens and learns of his friend’s death and has to discuss what happened to the doctors and police.

As usual, the police suspect David, but it is clear he is innocent, and since he has included the transformation of beast to man that he witnessed, they think he is addled too. So they accept the villagers’ story of animal attack, shush David, and he proceeds with his recovery.

This is when the monster romance emerges, a staple of the werewolf story, for after all, this is a man. And this romance is so sweet, believable and genuine. A very refreshing romance in the face of the constant overwrought sentiment that is usually shoved down our throats.

The nurse, Alex, played by Jenny Agutter, is kind, skilled, and clearly falling for David. There is a lovely scene where David rests in bed and she is reading to him out loud, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a reminder that the werewolf story is also a fish out of water story and a tale of someone in a world that he sees quite differently now.

David stays in London with Alex after he is discharged, still trying to sort everything out and where he goes from this point. He also has to deal with a nagging and increasingly emerging problem: Jack is visiting him. And not sweet, I am a ghost metaphor for something in your life Jack, but a bloodied, mauled rotting corpse of Jack telling him in no uncertain terms that it was a monster who attacked them and now David is the monster. The only solution is suicide. David is all, But I just found this cute nurse and I’m hanging in London and I’m so young and life is kind of cool despite recent events and, and, but, and …. David’s not buying it, he wants this new life.

Seriously, dude, kill yourself.

So David continues on, enjoying his new love and resting, but then it’s full moon time and Landis delivers what is probably one of the best special effects transformations ever, it seriously still holds up to modern CGI. And David, now the wolfman, goes on a rampage, wakes up naked and forgetful in a zoo, comically finds clothing and a way home and then hears the news reports of the brutal attacks.

Shit be getting real now. Jack’s visits and warnings escalate and David’s realizations increase too. He knows he is likely responsible for those murders and he is starting to believe it can only happen again. And so he also begins to understand the painful, poignant reality that his true humanity and redemption lie in his death.

And this is why this movie is a masterpiece of modern horror and a superior depiction of the monster tale. While monsters may be human, it is the human who knows he is a monster, a monster which must be stopped, which resonates in our souls. He is murderous, he is powerful, yet he is the most vulnerable and fragile, with no chance for love or life. To be human is to know the darkness within and to face it too.



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