An American Werewolf in London

I may have to change these to “movies of the week,” since Sundays are shaping up to be busier than expected. I got this one out of the way early just in case.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like it quite as much as I’d hoped to. Like The Wolf Man, which this film explicitly referenced, it seemed only half baked, presenting us a rich metaphor that was only allowed to work at one level. Not that every movie has to have a subtext, particularly a horror movie, but with one so close at hand it seemed a waste.

Here, as there, the movie teases us with the possibility that the transformations are all in the victim’s mind; that he is not in fact a werewolf but a man who has psychotic breaks he can’t remember afterward. True, we witness the transformation, and we see the wolf (in momentary flashes which are still not brief enough to make the monster convincing), but then we also see several dreams of David’s which seem unambiguously unreal, so seeing isn’t meant to be believing. Twice witnesses to the killing claim to be seeing a “lunatic” or a “hooligan,” and while people are reduced to abject terror by seeing David later on, one could just imagine a blood-spattered naked grinning psychopath eliciting nearly the same reaction. No one who has examined David’s wounds or those of his victims see any evidence that suggests an animal might have caused them, and the verdict of a human murderer goes unquestioned. Dr. Hirsch’s account of events, positioned as the reasonable but incorrect “scientific” hypothesis, might then be the one we’re supposed to believe: it’s a contagious “neurosis,” passed from the credulous patrons of the Slaughtered Lamb to the impressionable American tourist, such that, perhaps wracked by survivor’s guilt (exacerbated by the fact that he runs in terror rather than helping his friend when they are attacked), he comes to believe that he is truly a monster, and becomes one.

And yet the story does so effective a job of splitting David into good and evil that this theme never grows any teeth. Like his predecessor Larry Talbot, David is a positive lamb anytime he isn’t an apparent wolf: funny, charming, innocent, kind, even-tempered. Like Talbot, he has his eye on a girl, but like Talbot, he wins her honestly, and suffers no unrequited desire that might be thought to bring out the monster in him. The werewolf is a potent symbol of repressed ferocity and brutalism, but what has David repressed? He has frightening nightmares, but only after he’s bitten (infecting him with brutalism, not inflaming something inherent), and his friend Jack never accuses David of cowardice, only acquired lycanthropy. So we’re left with a movie that seems to be exactly what it appears to be: a story of an unfortunate boy, driven by some sudden mysterious compulsion to commit brutal murders, and eventually killed by the police. Not tragedy, but simple pathos.

Still, though the acting and direction are a little stiff, and though it’s not as funny as it’s trying to be, the film is good-natured enough, and there are a few really memorable scenes. One is, of course, the famous transformation, where David snaps from reading calmly into instant and immediate agony, clutching his head, screaming, and ripping his clothes off. We’ve been waiting an hour for it, and just when we think it’s not coming, it blindsides us and David, and it’s hard not to feel as much sympathy for him as for his victims. Another is the Muppet Show dream, where David sees an idyllic evening at home ripped to shreds by monsters in fascist uniforms. It’s one of the few effectively rendered nightmares I’ve ever seen in a movie, and it’s probably this one’s scariest moment.

The ending is surprisingly abrupt. We’re set up to expect that the werewolf must be killed by someone he loves, but I wasn’t sure if Alex had actually baited him out of the shadows by calling to him, or if she’d just failed to reach the man inside the monster. That’s because the version I saw on Amazon Instant Video (the only one I had access to) was so murky that all the movie’s darker scenes were almost completely illegible.

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