Monsters! An American Werewolf in London

WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Hey, good question. "To not become a monster" seems to be the best bet, with "to bed the pretty nurse" coming in adistant second.

WHO IS THE MONSTER? Gaaah! Run for your lives, the monster is the protagonist! The calls are coming from inside the house!

WHAT IS THE WARNING? "To beware" seems to be the dominant warning — beware foreign customs, or rather, observe foreign customs, beware your own nature. Stop being such a lovable, happy-go-lucky idiot — it can only lead to mass murder and your own destruction. Your goofball exterior masks a raging, homicidal beast and the world will kill you for it. I am glad to report that America has taken the warning of Werewolf to heart and the world is now a safer, better place for stats

So, check this out: the structure of American Werewolf has a wisp-thin first act which, at 16 minutes, barely qualifies as a prologue, a punishingly long 53-minute second act, during which the protagonist (a) sits in a bed, and then (b) sits in an apartment, and a fleet, propulsive 24-minute third act that screeches to an abrupt halt. Barely a short story, padded everywhere to cover up its skimpiness, wildly uneven in quality and even more wildly uneven in tone, it is a script that could only have been shot by a director coming of two gigantic hits.

ACT I: David, an affable, college-aged American, is on a hiking tour of Europe with his pal Jack. In northern England they stop in at The Straw Dogs Inn Slaughtered Lamb, where the locals don’t take kindly to foreigners. To make the act break the 10-minute mark, one of the locals tells a long joke involving a UN delegation. Given dire warnings about proper behavior, David and Jack proceed directly to leave the pub and ignore everything they’ve just been told. Their jokey naivety is rewarded with a werewolf attack. Jack is killed and David is wounded.

ACT II: David wakes up in a hospital. He will stay there, in his bed, for a long, long time. To provide a semblance of plot and enough scares for American Werewolf to qualify as a horror movie, David is given some frightening dreams, is visited by the ghost of his friend Jack, who appears as a rotting corpse, and begins a hesitant, improbable affair with pretty nurse Alex.

After spending twenty minutes of screen time sitting in bed (padded out with long, "bitty" scenes involving clumsy detectives and a sour embassy official) David gets up off his ass and performs a thorough investigation of the history of werewolf folklore and theory goes to Alex’s house and has sex. Meanwhile, David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch, the most dedicated doctor in the history of medicine, takes on the role of detective and investigates David’s claims of werewolves and the undead, driving hundreds of miles out of his way and questioning the locals at the Slaughtered Lamb in order to better serve his barely-injured patient. Gregory House was never this thorough.

After having sex with Alex, David is visited by his friend Jack again, who warns him again about becoming a werewolf. David, chastened, goes to the library consults with experts of the paranormal sits around the house waiting to change. Surprise! He does, and, at the one-hour mark, the movie starts and David, now transformed into a ravenous mythological creature of the id, goes on a homicidal rampage through 20th-century London, a demonstration of American independence Thomas Jefferson would not have dreamed of.

ACT III: David wakes up naked in the wolf-cage of the London Zoo (one can only imagine what happened in there!) and carefully makes his way home to Alex. In spite of his ordeal, he feels great and wants to have sex again, but Dr. Hirsch, who now thinks David is a psychopathic killer, calls and summons them both to the hospital. They go, but on the way David learns about his rampage from a gabby cabbie (played by Alan Ford, who later was unforgettable as the very evil ganglord in Snatch). Overcome with guilt, David tries to get himself arrested, and fails. He runs away from Alex, calls home and attempts suicide-by-pocket knife (remember David, it’s down-the-road, not across-the-street). Unable to work up the courage, he sees his undead pal Jack outside a porn theater. They go inside and Jack, now in the company of the six other people David has attacked, demands that David kill himself. David willingly obliges does nothing, changes again, kills a detective and causes a massive multi-car pileup in Piccadilly Circus. Alex, who is off fretting with Dr. Hirsch, rushes to the scene. She goes to David, who is cornered in an alley by the police. She tries to talk him out of his state by declaring her love, and David responds by attacking her. The police gun him down and he transforms back into his human form and dies.

Presented with a central narrative problem — a month must pass between Act I and Act II — Writer-director John Landis comes up with almost nothing. He puts his protagonist in a hospital bed, twiddling his thumbs between scary dreams — forced scares of the lamest kind, which do nothing to advance the nonexistent plot. He fills up the empty space with wacky cops and hospital orderlies, an unconvincing love story and an slightly more convincing detective story.

Somehow, it all works. One of the things that remains surprising and innovative about American Werewolf is its wild unpredictability, the way it veers uncontrollably from game, knockabout humor to shocking, go-for-the-jugular violence. Audiences in 1981 were on edge through the whole movie in spite of its dead-in-the-water, marking-time second act — Werewolf‘s take on an old idea was fresh, exciting and transgressive. I myself probably saw it four or five times in theaters that were packed, the first few times to enjoy the movie, the other times to watch the audience’s reaction. The special-effects sequences at the end of Act II were still very special indeed back then, and when an audience could see a man’s hand stretch and grow before their very eyes (werewolf transformations up until then were accomplished through clumsy lap-dissolves) that was worth the $3.50. The long, slow buildup to David’s transformation filled the theater with electricity, the audience had been waiting a long time, and when "Bad Moon Rising" kicked in you could feel the anticipation — audiences went crazy during the last half-hour of this movie, and its abrupt, hyper-violent ending sent them out into the street in a state of giddy shock.

What’s David’s problem? David doesn’t listen. The villagers tell him to stay on the road and he goes off the road. His dead friend (and numerous bad dreams) tell him he must act or calamity will ensue and he goes pouncing off after a pretty nurse. Not quite the Ugly American, more like the Incurious, Self-Involved American, David stumbles about England without the slightest idea what’s going on. Waking up naked in a cage full of wolves, his only thought is how to get back to the nurse’s flat with his genitals covered. ("A naked American man stole my balloons" was one of the big laugh lines.) An ancient curse is upon him and David sits watching pornography — bad pornography. There is a metaphor in here somewhere about American stupidity and shallowness but I — Oh my God, Harry Potter is going to be nude on Broadway!!


52 Responses to “Monsters! An American Werewolf in London”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Not sure if you’re aware of this, but Landis actually wrote the first draft of this script in 1969 when he was just getting starting in the movie business. And from all accounts, he didn’t change it much when he got the green light to make it a reality.

    As far as I’m concerned, the script is at its weakest when Landis puts obvious Britishisms (e.g. Alex’s “I should think”) in the mouths of his English characters. It strikes me as exactly the kind of dialogue that an American writing an English character would write and he should have let the actors change it so it would be more natural and not quite so stilted.

    • Todd says:

      It looks to me like the only change he made was to put “punks” on the Underground train.

      • craigjclark says:

        Actually, there was one other change: in the original version, David went into a theater showing violent cartoons as opposed to the porno house, which would not have existed as such in 1969.

  2. curt_holman says:

    “more like the Incurious, Self-Involved American,”

    George W. Bush?

    Is the gist of the werewolf film, in general, symbolic terms, that sex is bad, and you’d better not have sex with someone lest you turn into a monster and kill them (or they’ll turn into a monster and kill you)? That seems to be the message of Werewolf. At the end there’s no “Beauty and the Beast”-type resolution, in which he looks monstrous but is really kind-hearted. He’s just a murderous brute who should be put down like Old Yeller. The ending of the film always strikes me as incredibly harsh.

    The appearance of the werewolf is pretty anticlimactic. The transformation scene is amazing, but the werewolf itself looks pretty fake. I wonder if that’s why there’s so much focus on the traffic accidents, and the ending comes so sudden — maybe Landis didn’t want to show the werewolf any more than necessary.

    It has probably my favorite sex scene of any film, though.

    • Todd says:

      The appearance of the werewolf is more than anti-climactic — it’s barely there at all.

      I don’t get much of a sex-murder connection in American Werewolf — the possibility is there but the script is so oddly developed that the link isn’t clear. Whatever David’s problem is, it doesn’t seem to be connected to sex — he enjoys sex and gets it, but it’s more of a distraction from his problem than the cause of it. Although it is telling, I guess, that his second transformation occurs in the back row of a porn theater.

      The harshness of the ending is intensified by the jocular choice of playout music — Landis kills his protagonist without a second thought and then invites us to joke about it.

      • stormwyvern says:

        A lot of the transformation monsters are – as you mentioned – the id given full control of the body. The majority of such transformation monsters tend to go for the Jekyl/Hyde, Banner/Hulk concept, where the the human character is so good, gentle, mild-mannered, or weak that his suppressed tendencies form their own personality which requires only some convenient catalyst to let it out. “American Werewolf in London” seems to almost take the opposite view. David is already leading a fairly id-driven lifestyle, doing whatever the heck he wants and ignoring any sound advice that might spoil his fun. So God/the universe/karma/whatever essentially says “Fine. You like living like you have zero self control and can just pursue your desires? Let’s see how you like really being out of control.”

        Was this “by popular demand” or were you going to cover it even if it hadn’t been so frequently mentioned in the monsters thread.

  3. chrispiers says:

    I’m still waiting for a really good werewolf movie. Werewolves are interesting but I’m not a big fan of any of the ones I’ve seen (and I go out of my way to rent horror).

    • craigjclark says:

      I love werewolves, too, and am always on the lookout for a good werewolf film. Of course, this means wading through a bunch of crappy ones to get to them, but they are out there.

      I love the hell out of An American Werewolf and am quite fond of Joe Dante’s The Howling, too. I can also put in a good word for Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, which is a werewolf film of a different shape. Movie werewolves definitely took a beating when CGI came into being, though. I can’t stand CGI transformation effects (which I’ve heard are going to be put to use in next year’s Wolf Man remake with Benicio Del Toro, which disappointed me to no end).

    • jwz says:

      I think the only really good werewolf movies have been Company of Wolves and Ginger Snaps.

      Ginger Snaps 2 was pretty good as well. I like that the first one was about puberty and the second one was about drug addiction, both roles played by lycanthropy. GS3 was terrible, though.

      • Anonymous says:

        How do you feel about “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and “Dog Soldiers?” I haven’t seen any of the GS movies, but I would love to hear how they stack up against these two.

        • jwz says:

          I did like both of those, but they seemed to be missing some kind of essential “werewolfness” to me; in both of those movies, the Big Bad could have been anything, really. So “werewolf movie” isn’t how I’d describe them first.

        • swan_tower says:

          Brotherhood isn’t really a werewolf movie at all; the beast is just a beast, and the people are just (really screwed-up) people. But I was going to suggest Dog Soldiers; its script entertains me enough to make up for any budgetary lacks it had.

          • rennameeks says:

            Brotherhood always struck me as “Jaws on land,” rather than a werewolf movie. (The opening scene is a ripoff visually with how the woman gets thrown around. That’s how it struck me, at least.)

      • curt_holman says:

        The Company of Wolves

        I’ve never seen Ginger Snaps, so I’d second Company of Wolves as the best werewolf movie.

        There seem to be better Frankenstein and Dracula movies, and more of them, than werewolf movies. I wonder if that’s because Frankenstein and Dracula derive from classic books and have richer literary/thematic underpinnings and traditions? The Company of Wolves feels almost like a retroactive means of giving the werewolf mythos a literary source.

      • craigjclark says:

        I’ve never seen Ginger Snaps, but since tomorrow is the full moon, there’s no time like the present for me to catch up with it.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This post, along with several of the replies, made me think of The Shaggy Dog. They’re very different movies, of course, but you do have the metaphor of adolescence as monstrous transformation.

  5. ndgmtlcd says:

    The “dead-in-the-water, marking-time second act” didn’t bother me too much. Hey, I can stand the kind of things Luc Besson pulled off in “La Femme Nikita”, so I can stand pretty much anything if the rest is fun.

  6. teamwak says:

    I love this film. I loved the fact that all his victims kept following him around. The scene in the Underground tunnels are absolutely terrifying too.

    I really should watch this again. Thanks lol

  7. quitwriting says:

    Is it just me or does that guy seriously look like Michael McDonald from Mad TV?

    “Stuart! You stop changing into a werewolf this instant, Stuart!”

    “No! I wanna change into a wwwwerewooolf!”

  8. johnnycrulez says:

    Someone mentioned “Danse Macabre” to you in a past topic but you seemed to sort of dismiss it saying that you don’t like King all that much.

    I figured it was worth mentioned that Danse Macabre isn’t fiction, though, it’s a nonfiction book where King just examines the horror genre in both film and literature of the past fifty years or so. A good read for someone working with horror.

    • Todd says:

      I read Danse Macabre as a young man and got quite a lot out of it. I still have a copy somewhere around here but I don’t know if I could accept King’s prose style any more — I tried to read his On Writing and found it to be one of the most poorly-written books I’d ever purchased.

      • craigjclark says:

        If you’re not fond of King’s authorial voice, how are you with Harlan Ellison? Because Harlan Ellison’s Watching is one of my favorite books of film writing (with an emphasis on fantasy and science fiction, and some horror).

  9. mikeyed says:

    I just barely get the Straw Dogs reference…

    I was actually watching a copy of Straw Dogs I rented from the library. It was scratched so badly that I could only watch up and until the point where they have the sexy Hoffman-on-girl-on-chess scene. Yeah, chess.

    Wasn’t the whole sex thing connected to him being a werewolf? Like an increased sex drive or whathaveyou…

    • stormwyvern says:

      Re: I just barely get the Straw Dogs reference…

      I haven’t seen the movie all the way through, but based on what I know, the movie doesn’t seem to draw a direct line between lycanthropy and increased sex drive. It would make sense, as the “beast” monsters generally represent pure, uncontrolled id and unrestrained animal desire, whether to hunt and kill or mate and…mate. But since we have no evidence that David didn’t already have a highly active libido prior to becoming a werewolf, there’s no way to tell if his desire for sex is werewolf enhanced or at normal levels. We also don’t seem to see much indication that the werewolf is having an effect on his personality as a human.

      • papajoemambo says:

        Re: I just barely get the Straw Dogs reference…

        At the time the movie came out the whole lycanthrope-to-sexually-aggressive-partner thing had only been mapped out once and that was in THE HOWLING that was released about a year beforehand, as AMERICAN WEREWOLF was in pre-production.

        The past 28 years have made it something of a familiar werewolf trope.

        • craigjclark says:

          Re: I just barely get the Straw Dogs reference…

          Actually, The Howling came out just four months before American Werewolf. And Rick Baker had been working with Rob Bottin on The Howling‘s werewolf transformation effects before Landis spirited him away to do his film.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Re: I just barely get the Straw Dogs reference…

      Cursed, generally a bad movie, did directly address the lycanthropy = increased sexuality. Probably a bit too blatantly.

  10. Did it really have such a thin plot?

    I didn’t mind – Jenny Agutter in the shower was a cinematic highlight of my burgeoning adolescence!!!!!

    • Todd says:

      Re: Did it really have such a thin plot?

      You and me both. And it was also the first time I’d ever heard Van Morrison, so now Jenny Agutter’s breasts and “Moondance” are forever fused in my mind.

      • Re: Did it really have such a thin plot?

        …to the point that when I saw Van Morrison at Montreux and heard Moondance, I was still thinking about Jenny Agutter’s breasts!!!!

  11. robjmiller says:

    Looong 2nd act

    If you thought this was an awkward, long period to get to the meat of the movie, then I’d love to hear your thoughts on From Dusk ’til Dawn, especially given your love of Grindhouse. Mostly because of it’s somewhat gimmicky, intentionally campy twist, it is my favorite Rodriguez movie (despite my aversion to Juliette Lewis).

    Also, in my humble opinion, the script isn’t what is important about American Werewolf, it’s all about the ground-breaking effects. It had a lot of those obvious, “I can’t believe anyone would be this stupid” moments that are so abundant in horror flicks, but the transformation scene is so great that it just doesn’t matter.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Looong 2nd act

      From Dusk ’til Dawn is my second-favorite Robert Rodriguez movie (after Sin City). Tarantino is a master of the long, slow, seemingly-pointless build-up and when Rodriguez has a decent script he is an unstoppable cinematic machine.

      • sheherazahde says:

        Re: Dusk ’til Dawn

        I love Dusk ’til Dawn. I just saw #3 it has the same sort of plot structure: criminals and travelers for the first half, bar and vampires for the second half. And Ambrose Bierce as a main character! Geeky joy! Orlando Jones dances a tango with Rebecca Gayheart in the middle of a fight scene! Who could imagine such a thing!

  12. sheherazahde says:

    Werewolf Movies

    I could never get into “Dog Solders”. A bunch of men trapped in a cabin, boooring.

    I did like “Bad Moon” (1996). I was a bit confused by the plot until I figured out that the dog, Thor, was the protagonist. The move was based on the novel “Thor” by Wayne Smith.

    • craigjclark says:

      Re: Werewolf Movies

      Bad Moon has some of the worst writing — and the worst transformation effects — I’ve ever seen in a werewolf movie. And the dog gave the best performance in the movie.

      • sheherazahde says:

        Re: Werewolf Movies

        Well, I saw it on TV and thought it was pretty good for a made for TV movie. (yeah, I know it wasn’t made for TV) I don’t remember the transformation effects. But I was interested enough in the plot to watch the whole thing, which is more than I can say for “Dog Soldiers”.