An American Werewolf in London (1981) dir. John Landis


“Everyone’s entitled to one good scare,” says a policeman in an American horror classic somehow not screening this October around Boston. Scary movies are an integral part of American cinema, and a diverse and diabolical counter narrative running through that history. As daylight wanes and a chill creeps across the evening in the lengthening shadows of October, these tales take on renewed significance for some.  There are a great many ways to celebrate Halloween horrors. Gothic horror, fantastic horror, sci-fi horror, seductive horror, socio-political speculative horrors and abstract or absurd nightmare visions. An American Werewolf in London (1981) displays elements of all of these while also adding bracing action and winking slapstick humor. As it relates to Halloween, it’s sort of like The Misfits singing about the holiday: a pitch-perfect invention seemingly created as consumer rite of ancient pagan ritual.

The story begins with two American youths backpacking across Europe but strangely making a point to hit Northern England. This setup is mocked just as readily as the Universal Studios classic monsters the rest of the film ribs and reveres. The appreciation and amusement are pretty much the whole movie. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne act as skeptical modernity dropped into uncanny horror. They wink and giggle at the solemn warnings of the villagers but still shudder beneath the full moon on the darkened moors. The neat balance here is the genuine-laughs-to-scares ratio. Director John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers) also wrote the screenplay, which pulls off a clever trick of goofing on horror conventions to distract you till the fangs are at your throat — then resurrecting your slashed and decaying friend to warn you of your curse and bemoan your behaving like a “schmuck.”  It’s rare for a film to go so fully for both genres. Landis had been shopping the idea around since the late 1960s and was constantly denied, with it deemed ‘too scary to be funny’ or ‘too funny to be scary.’ The ultimate result seems to fully embody BOTH criticisms and by this alchemy negate them as well.

The werewolf is body-horror of disease and inner turmoil made lethal force. The monster is a mutation of self or brutish id. It morphs like a perverse, nightmare of pubescent sexuality run amok. It is the stranger within, in a new, strange land sabotaging desire and humanity. There is a more than subtle grounding in tribal mistrust and dystopia. Naughton, called David Kessler in the film, is identified as a New York Jew stranded in Anglican austerity. This could be of little consequence save for the garb of his nightmare, demon pursuers. From Landis, the culture seems more from the teachings of the Marx brothers than the Old Testament. Hard to avoid that one about never belonging to a club that would have you as a member… Horror and comedy both serve so well to project and magnify the strangest anxieties of identity.  Both too seek to force visceral reactions from any of their more cerebral musings.

Furthermore, the unchecked aggression on display is actually quite horrific.  While the film hasn’t the flesh melting spectacle of contemporaries like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) or David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), the titular wolf and its unhappy victims hold up disgustingly well.  David’s full-moon transformation remains a harrowing benchmark of practical makeup effects.  An American Werewolf in London rarely gets its due as a solid entry in the nerdy, grotesque batch of 1980s horror revisionism. It is perhaps more playfully sardonic, but holds its weight in socially suggestive reframing of classic genre tropes.

An American Werewolf in London
dir. John Landis
97 mins

Screens Friday, 10/14, midnight @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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