Benjamin Wollmuth is an avid reader and writer who loves to explore movies and what makes them appealing or unappealing.
An American Werewolf in London
A while back, I reviewed a werewolf film by the name of Dog Soldiers, which I enjoyed (feel free to check it out if you feel so inclined). The film made me reflect on my love for werewolves and how well they can be done (if done correctly). The other night, I decided to rewatch An American Werewolf in London, a film that––if you couldn't tell from the title––happens to be my favorite horror film about a werewolf. And it still stands.
Released two decades prior to Dog Soldiers, An American Werewolf in London follows David Kessler, a man who, after suffering an attack by a werewolf, becomes one himself. Yet the film is so much more than that. It explores the mind of this man who can't control a beast that resides within him and only comes out during full moons. It slightly touches on movies and how they can alter the public's ability to believe. It also makes me realize how boring werewolves have become, to the point where they are no longer scary.
But why does An American Werewolf in London stand out as one of the best werewolf movies of all time, and why is it my personal favorite?
Werewolf Horror Today
Many of the modern-day horror movies featuring werewolves are quite low-budget and only receive a direct-to-VOD release. This is a problem in and of itself, and it means that either people aren't writing strong enough scripts to warrant a big-budget film to be made or that distributors find making a werewolf movie too risky. Both of these possibilities sadden me. What also bothers me are the werewolves which are represented in modern films. I've too often seen werewolves who can think normally in wolf form and who are no different from their human form, and those who can love.
Why does this bother me?
I see werewolves as the beast inside all of us––the beast that can't be tamed, the beast that can't love, the beast that wants to kill. Most of us can control that inner beast... but those considered werewolves cannot. That's the whole point. When the full moon rises, the beast takes over and cannot be stopped unless it is killed. I get that people want to transform the basic understanding of these creatures for the sake of writing a book or making a movie, but when that heavily romanticized idea of werewolves completely pushes the horrific one aside, I can't help but get upset.
How Does "AAWIL" Get it Right?
John Landis understood the traditional idea of werewolves, and he gets it right.
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- He makes the beast unloving––Nurse Price would have died in the end if the beast had not been shot; she wasn't actually able to talk him down.
- He––along with the effects artists and actor David Naughton––makes the transformation look and feel like a truly terrifying and painful experience (that transformation scene still stands as my favorite to this day). And it should be terrifying and painful. This is a monstrous beast breaking free––a beast the host has no control over.
- He shows the effects of what being a werewolf can have on the human mind. These beings share a body and mind, yet are two separate entities. When the wolf takes over the body, it takes over the entirety of the mind, but when the full moon falls, the human piece of the mind pushes the wolf's piece of the mind back and takes over. Both creatures don't remember much when their minds are not in full control. The only reason David is able to know who he killed is because those victims are stuck in limbo––otherwise, he has no recollection of the killing. The fight between who controls the mind is shown beautifully in David's dreams. Firstly, we see wolves dressed as Nazis––people who oppressed the Jews to suppress their voices––kill his loved ones, showing how the inner beast is trying to oppress David in order to suppress him completely. Secondly, we see David running through the woods in human form, killing and eating animals, showing the audience that sharing a body and mind makes David the beast and the beast David. They may be two separate entities who remember different things, but they are indeed pieces of the same person.
I must also say that the film is quite funny, balancing the darkness of being a werewolf and the lightheartedness of David's character masterfully. If you compare David's character to that of Larry, the main character from Universal's original The Wolf Man, you see that it creates a perfect juxtaposition. Larry and David suffer from the same problem, but Larry seems to have a stronger understanding. Larry realizes he must attempt to tie himself down to prevent the beast from killing anyone while David, when told to kill himself to stop the madness, travels to a very populated area, giving the beast more victims. Deep down David knows what he is, but it is still something he doesn't completely understand... which, while dark, is also somehow quite funny.
The Media and its Altering
While definitely not the focal point of the film, I found a pretty small but compelling commentary on the media within it. Multiple times in the film, 1941's The Wolf Man is mentioned. In that movie, Larry suffers the same fate as David, becoming a werewolf and only being stopped by being killed. In the world of An American Werewolf in London, having a werewolf wander the streets and kill innocent people is less believable because it happened in a movie. Instead, David is ultimately thought of as being crazy by his doctors, attacking people in the night and thinking he is a werewolf because it is what he was told. When his friends and doctors find out the truth... the film ends, giving the audience no time to see the characters' reflections. Those who didn't see the attacks firsthand will probably think it was just a madman wreaking havoc and not a werewolf... because werewolves only exist in movies. Right?
Perhaps I'm one of the only people to watch this film and have that thought, but I do find it interesting. If I were to release a true video of a ghost, would anyone believe me, or would the fact that ghosts are in movies and can easily be created through visual effects completely dismiss my video as a fake? Should I worry about being attacked by a serial killer while babysitting, or does that only happen in movies? How do movies truly alter our perception of what is believable and what is not? It's an interesting thought.
Needless to say, I am a huge fan of this movie and I wish more movies like this were made today. The practical effects are beautiful and make any CGI werewolf look like complete garbage, and the writing is well done and delves into the mind of someone affected by an inner beast with a lust for blood. Landis knew how werewolves should be portrayed––he knew what would make them terrifying––and the execution is flawless. I will forever love this movie for what it brought to the werewolf subgenre of horror, and I hope that future films featuring werewolves will take some inspiration from it.
While gratuitous to say, I give An American Werewolf in London a 10/10.
© 2021 Benjamin Wollmuth
Riley on April 17, 2021:
Loved your writing style and you made some great points! Awesome article!