Horror films can have sadness behind them. For every ax-wielding maniac, gleefully chopping his way through a sorority, there is a vampire damned to lonely immortality. I’ve always been struck by the sadness looming at the heart of the werewolf. AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON tries to keep the mood light with tongue-in-cheek music and stunning practical effects, but still cannot avoid the tragedy of the werewolf.
The film follows the saga of David (David Naughton). As he and childhood friend Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking their way through Europe—as all horny American college kids are expected to do—they take a few days to explore Northern England. After a very unfriendly welcome at the local pub, The Slaughtered Lamb, the boys set out into the darkness to find a place to settle for the night. Ignoring the locals’ warning to stay off the moors, Jack and David head off the road and are promptly attacked by a giant, wolfen beast. Jack’s face and torso are shredded to bits; he dies out in the paddock while David somehow survives and is rushed to London for treatment. While recovering in the hospital, David can tell that there is something amiss. One night, Jack walks in (as either a corpse or a ghost, it is hard to say) and warns David of his new lycanthropic curse. David assumes he is hallucinating while talking to his dead friend, though we know from the title of the film that Jack is telling the truth.
David’s life in London after recovery, aside from being a killer werewolf, is pretty great. Yes, his best friend just died, but he is taken in by the hot nurse who cared for him at the hospital. Who knows if they would ever have a future as a committed couple, but both David and nurse Alex enjoy her Florence Nightingale effect while they can. David also has a great sense of humor about his circumstances. He wanders around Alex’s apartment, avoiding snacking, reading her books, and taking naps. This fun and enjoyable European adventure lingers for him, until Jack’s warning comes true and David undergoes the painful transition into a werewolf during the full moon.
The pain of becoming a werewolf is twofold: physical and emotional.
The physical transformation of David into wolf is a thing of Hollywood legend. Rick Baker won the first Best Makeup Oscar ever awarded by the Academy—the award had only been given as an honorary title on two occasions prior, not annually. David’s transformation is at night, but putting him naked, in the middle of Alex’s living room under full lights made the entire transition impossible to escape. The camera sees every joint pop and every inch of his flesh stretch and contort to make room for his now giant wolf musculature.
The transformation is strikingly messy. David is sweating and writhing in pain through the entire length of the torture. He has completely lost control over his body. The visceral insult deepens when he is also unable to control his behavior on top of his changing limbs. David goes on a bloody rampage his first night as a werewolf, running through London and stalking each victim. These victims are the source for his emotional pain. David is by no means a bad man. He is no hero, but hates the fact that he cannot control himself or stop killing during the full moon.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON introduces an especially cutting detail into the werewolf mythology by having David’s victims revisit him. Just as Jack visited David in the hospital, and a few opportune times later, all of the people who David killed also revisit him. They claim they are unable to move on toward the afterlife until the last werewolf in the line is killed. Now, not only must David face the bloodied prey he robbed of life, he must then face the fact that his actions and insistence on living continue to cause them suffering.
Jack was killed by the werewolf who created David, which lands him in David’s deadly lineage. With each visit Jack becomes more physically decomposed. By the time David sees Jack in a movie theater, Jack has disintegrated to not much more than a skeleton with tendons and draped flesh. Seeing his best friend in that state, sitting in the cinema with the rest of his kills, knowing that he is the only one who can help them, is a terrible burden to bear.
Director John Landis did an excellent job of introducing the ancient history of werewolves into the early 1980s. He made it entertaining and was able to tell the story through David’s self-deprecating humor. However, it is David’s relatability that makes empathizing with him so agonizing. David’s physical and mental anguish far exceeds the threshold that I typically like to relate to, and exposes the truly tragic soul at the heart of the werewolf.