I did not have high hopes for this film. Which is saying something, because I’m generally from the George Carlin school of film criticism: if all these people are going to spend all this time and money making something for me to enjoy, I might as well not complain.
So I was pleasantly surprised by the funny dialog at the beginning. I was reminded of walking into the wrong pubs when I lived in Ireland for a year where everyone really does stop and looks at you just because you’re thirty years younger than the youngest in their group, and a woman, and wearing a color other than tweed (they came to love me at the Old Man bar). I genuinely liked Jack and Dave and I cared about their relationship.
I was devastated when we lost Jack and I did not expect him to be coming back in a meaningful way. So that was wonderful too.
About halfway through this film (right around the time the hospital is trying to feed the Jew bacon), I hit on the idea that this was a horror movie smashed into a Woody Allen film and a French film walked by and thought, “oh, look at this disgraceful tangled mess of bodies. Okay, I’ll join if you insist.”
I figured I would end up writing about inconsistencies and weird/poor special effects. Maybe if I felt very silly, I’d end up with an essay about how American Werewolves in London is confronting the European fear that Jews are going to take over the world with sex and fast food (there’s a prominence of ads for both beef ads and tastefully nude women who look like they’re being served on a platters, Nazis in goblin masks slaughtering Dave’s family, and the doctor trying to save his life fought in WW2). The movie was just weird and surreal enough that the argument was there.
Then I hit the transformation scene. Suddenly I didn’t feel like I should be so campy and make a silly argument, because suddenly American Werewolf in London wasn’t being so silly.
The transformation gave a new darkness to a film which had previously been hiding the horror with purposefully cheap effects (Frank Oz and Jim Henson were part of this production; the falseness of Nazi-goblins was intentional) and surreal dream sequences.
Now, I’ve recently become something of a connoisseur of werewolf transformations, by which I mean I’ve spent at least twenty minute watching at youTube videos, so I’m pretty much an expert in the field now (I’m quite partial to the tearing-off-the-skin that seems to have come about in the late 80’s). And even though this scene is older than I am, it still the top of my list for horrifying transformations. .
Just for some numbers, Dave’s wolf-out takes up two minutes and thirty seconds, that’s a full minute longer than the sex scene with Naughty Nurse. Compare that to the werewolf film money shots in Underworld and Twilight: New Moon (I only watched this scene, I swear). A video of all the Underworld transformations runs two minutes and fifteen seconds (all the transformations, the average turn is only a couple seconds) and these are pretty scary distortions. In Twilight: New Moon Jake shifts in about three seconds (48 seconds in slo-mo) so… he’s fast is what I’m saying.
Another scene comparable in length is in The Howling. Released the same year as American Werewolf in London, Howling tells the story of a journalist stalked by a serial killer who turns out to be a werewolf. The scene where he catches up to her and transforms before her eyes into the beast is slightly longer than American Werewolf and has some really great creepy effects. There is something undeniably frightening in watching a man who delights in turning into a monster (especially when the transformation involves the skin bubbling like a demonic hot-pocket).
But the core of the horror in American Werewolf, is Dave’s resistance to the change and his suffering. Additionally, his transformation takes place in a well-lit living room placing the horror firmly in the light and in a familiar place. There is nothing sexy or fast about this transformation; it is a forced surrender to the darkness and there is no escaping it.
It begins like a bad headache, a sudden shouted obscenity (Jesus Christ, from a Jew) and the prerequisite shirt ripping. There is howling in pain; then there is his hand crackling and elongating distorting before his eyes. Dave, who we’ve spent over an hour with and probably like, is so much in shock that he falls silent. He falls to his mutating hands and knees, showing that the room happens to be filled with all kinds of almost religious iconography (there’s a picture that looks a little like Jesus by the door, a side table with the carvings of a prayer desk, for example). Dave begs for help.
In the midst of the sizzling hair growth, crackling feet, and popping spine, Dave apologizes to his dead friend for making fun of him. I love what this says about Dave’s character, that as he’s going through this hellish ordeal, he’d still thinking about the friend he failed to save.
Dave breaks the fourth wall during his transformation when he looks directly at the audience holding out his malformed paw. He seems to beg for help as if we’ll stop the VHS and rewind to when he was happy.
His face, his humanity, is the last thing to go.
The next couple scenes are dedicated character studies of six London people. Just kidding. The monster massacres half a dozen people, but somehow this didn’t feel repetitive. Unlike in Cycle of the Werewolf, each new victim felt like they might be the one to survive and I was a little disappointed by each death.
Interestingly, we get to meet them all again when they join Jack in un-death to again try to convince Dave to kill himself. I found this literal personifying of the werewolf’s guilt fascinating. Once again, the audience was back to a kind of Woody Allen film where in a theater showing pornography extremely dead people are suggesting ways for their murderer to commit suicide. And some of them even feel sympathy for the guy.
Ultimately, poor Davie is killed by the police ending his suffering and the un-death of his victims. It’s unfortunate because his wolf-form was one of the best I’ve ever seen. I loved how it moved on four legs in a very undulating animal way. Unlike The Wolfman, this beast was all animal and no sympathy.
Ultimately the weird mash-up of genre really worked for me. American Werewolf doesn’t exactly blend the various elements of horror, travel comedy, and romance so much as place them side by side, and ask the audience to take in the picture as a whole. Metaphors are almost fulfilled, themes nearly connect, and rather than leave us feeling incomplete, the effect is a purposeful juxtaposing of contrasting elements. Rather like the rational and the horrific, the human and the monstrous in any werewolf story.
Just as an aside, I owe a lot of the thought I’ve put in to the horror of transformation to conversations with my husband who’s dedicated a lot of thought to how to do transformations like this in the theater. He shares his thoughts here.