Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and share and recommend various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
John Landis’ s1981 film An American Werewolf in London is an attack on the senses. As a little kid watching it on VHS, I would cover my eyes during the werewolf’s hunts. And yet, I could not cover my ears. The monster’s roar is deafening and penetrates the comfort of closed eyes. There are moments filled with screams and guttural sounds immediately followed by pleasant English accents and jokes. This switch allows a sense of relief to wash over the viewer after those moments of high tension. That is sort of the thing with American Werewolf. It provides comfort after it terrifies. It’s human to laugh through grief, it is human to want comfort after trauma. David Kessler’s humanity is amplified throughout the film. While the wolf consumes him at night, David Kessler grows as a human by day.
We don’t see anything of David Kessler prior to his visit to the English countryside. We learn through very engaging dialogue that he and Jack Goodman are close friends blowing off steam after college. They talk about girls, classmates they find annoying, movies, and make casual references to Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles while they traverse through a damp country road. The most important thing we learn about them is that they are human beings who find themselves cast out to nature.
David (David Naughton)and Jack (Griffin Dunne) take shelter from the cold at The Slaughtered Lamb. They stand out as American tourists right away. This off the beaten path pub is for locals only. It is made clear by the cold demeanor and gruff service. The treatment feels a bit discriminatory, but the pentagram, which Jack recognizes as the mark of the Wolf Man, instantly instills a sense of foreboding, cementing that they should not be there. The locals are more than happy to see them leave, but the bartender played by Lila Kaye, begs the locals to stop them. They let them go with a few words of caution. “Stay on the road and steer clear of the moors.”
The tone is set. Danger is imminent. As the young men set out into the stormy night, the audience knows their fates are sealed. The tension mounts as David and Jack realize there is a wild animal stalking them. They run faster, clearly terrified. David trips and falls and he and Jack laugh at their foolishness. For just a moment, the audience is also in the clear. Then there’s the roar followed by a gruesome assault which leaves David severely injured and Jack killed. This switch in tone emphasizes the humanity in these victims. They are not just strange travelers who wandered into the bar. Outsiders are humans who laugh and fear. The pub patrons learn this lesson too late.
David’s feelings are unhinged during the hospital stay. He deals with the horror of what happened and the disbelief of those who interview him. At the same time he is dealing with the grief of losing Jack and that he is far from home. David’s sadness and anger are only disrupted by his attraction to Alex, a young attentive nurse played by Jenny Agutter. David’s nightmares also become progressively violent. His days are haunted by his memories of the attack and his nights are marked by dreams where he is a monster.
The most frightening dream takes place back at home with his family. The Muppets are on the television when the doorbell rings. The door is opened and David watches as his family is slaughtered by Nazi ghouls. The horror of this nightmare is compounded as we learn that David is Jewish and Nazis would serve as a justifiable concern in David’s daily life. After all, the Nazis systematically hunted people who they believed to be lesser citizens. Feeling like an outsider, David and Jack were forced to leave an establishment where they felt unwelcome. It is human to be worried about the past repeating itself. It is human to fear being the outsider. This nightmare serves to show David is aware of the grim realities of the world.
Ultimately, the biggest disruption to David’s convalescence is that Jack appears to him and begs him to commit suicide before he turns into a werewolf and murders other innocents. The manifestation of Jack could be a metaphor for survivor’s guilt, but ultimately it shows the depths of David’s grief. Pushing away Jack, means pushing away the truth of what he is to become.
American Werewolf in London has one of, if not, the very best, werewolf transformation scenes. It’s disgusting and it looks excruciating. The werewolf in its full transformation is also terrifying. It’s bloody mouth, it’s menacing gait. There is a distortion in the things that provide comfort. David is simply relaxing at home when the transformation comes on. He runs around the room in anguish until he succumbs to the monster violating his body. A night of terror ensues followed by the very funny “A naked American man stole my balloon scene.”
The werewolf continues his rampage, but David continues his trajectory as a person. In Silver Bullet, Reverend Lowe grows more monstrous in his person during his time as a werewolf. He uses what he learns in his human form to exact justice on the townspeople. Yet David grows more and more distraught with guilt and fear and begs to be locked away. David does not welcome the wolf and wants to be delivered from it. In a call to his family, we learn about his love for them. We learn that he is an annoying big brother, but that he loves his sibling. We know that he is thinking of others when he calls to tell his family good-bye and that he loves them.
As much as American Werewolf in London is about a wolf, it’s also about a young man whose road to adulthood was detoured. It’s a human story about grief and acceptance and everything that comes between. David must sacrifice himself to save others and help Jack and the other victims rest. David’s willingness to kill the wolf completes his transition from college kid to adult.
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