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American Werewolf in London: Review and Summary
I haven’t been able to get this movie off my mind since I saw it a few days ago. It’s known for having innovative special effects and for really kick-starting the modern werewolf film, so I assumed it would be, well, good. By ‘good’ I mean ‘well thought out as far as characters and plot’ and in this respect the film fell somewhere short of good. While I didn’t identify with any of the characters or find any of their interactions believable (the acting and dialogue make this a very ‘campy’ film, to use a polite phrase), I found it to be like some of the other bad horror films I’ve seen—extremely amusing.
The film begins with two idiotic Americans, Jack and David, wandering across the countryside of Northern England. The two idiots walk into a bar (it’s like the beginning of a terrible joke in more ways than one) called the Slaughtered Lamb and meet some of the townspeople who thoughtfully give them the stink eye. After Jack awkwardly asks about the five-pointed star on the wall, he and David are promptly kicked out. The villagers ominously warn them to stick to the road, stay off the moors, beware the moon, etc., and of course Jack and David completely ignore them. Having nowhere to go for the night, they just so happen to walk off the road into the moors on a full moon night for no reason.
Instead of the instantaneous surprise attack we might expect in most horror films, Jack and David get some prime bumbling around time in before the werewolf actually strikes. It’s kind of like Scooby Doo except one of the characters gets viciously mauled and gored to death. While Jack is getting his face eaten off, David starts to run away, but changes his mind, does a precursor to Titanic by muttering Jack’s name, then turns around to save him. And he’s just in time—to get scratched and bit by the wolf before the villagers shoot it with a shotgun.
Jack wakes up in the hospital 3 weeks later, falls for a hot British nurse, gets haunted by bizarre nightmares, and sees Jack’s undead corpse, who tells him that he’s going to become a monster in two days and kill a lot of people unless he offs himself first. Committing suicide becomes lower on his priority list when the hot Nurse Price conveniently offers to take him home because she finds him attractive even though he is so obviously insane, or, less likely, an actual werewolf-- both of which are types of people you should not take home with you. They have some unbelievably impassionate-looking sex.
The next morning, the day of the full moon, David gets another visit from Jack, who has turned a hobgoblin shade of green from decomposition. His warning again goes unnoticed by David, and David’s craziness is again ignored by Nurse Price, who goes off to work, leaving David bored and tense as hell in her apartment.
At this point I’d like to take a moment to mention something known as the “fallacy of the imitative form”. This is a principle toward good fiction writing that states that your reader or audience should not feel the exact same way that your characters feel; they should feel for them instead of with them. The writer of American Werewolf in London was not aware of this principle, and so we are left feeling bored and tense as hell during this excruciatingly long sequence of him doing nothing in Nurse Price’s apartment.
Finally—and a friend of mine I was watching it with actually called out “Finally!”—David begins his transformation with a splitting headache and some cursing. His change is observed in a little too much detail and the in-between stages don't quite seem to fit with the end product. Another friend of mine described it as something like “the missing link having an orgasm”. Orgasm or not, David, now fully lycanthrope, goes out and kills some innocent British folk, then wakes up the next morning naked in the wolf pen at the zoo.
This was by far my favorite bit in the movie. Instead of absolutely freaking out about how the **** he got there, David just calmly and rationally climbs out of the enclosure, steals a young British boy’s balloons, and then runs around naked a bit more before finally grabbing a red woman’s coat off of a bench next to her. When he returns home to Nurse Price in nothing but this coat and tells her about waking up naked with the wolves, she laughs. Here I found myself pleading with her character: "Darling, please, get your wits about you and take the man to an asylum!"
Luckily, the doctor who cared for David has slightly more advanced mental faculties and has figured out that David is in the very least infected with the same crazy that apparently scares the bejesus out of the villagers of the Slaughtered Lamb. He calls Nurse Price and tells her to bring David in to the hospital. On the way there, the cabbie driving them unfortunately ruins the mood by telling them that there were several horrendous bloody murders the night before. Suddenly, David is convinced he did the murdering and he abandons the cab, approaching a police officer asking to be arrested. After screaming some very offensive obscenities, he still isn’t arrested. I personally would have punched the cop in the face.
David somehow loses Nurse Price in Piccadilly Circus and follows Jack’s corpse into a dirty movie theater, so that the next scenes of bloody violence can have a backdrop of topless women. (David mentions that the skin flick playing in the theater is ‘good’, which may be a sarcastic meta reference to the film he happens to be in.) Jack and his new undead friends, David’s victims from the night before, suggest some more suicide methods to David. Suddenly, it’s nightfall again. Movie magic. A poor old sod stands in the aisle and watches David change like he might get off on it. Sadly, he is killed before he gets the chance. A few others are torn apart before the cops are called to block the exits. They don’t do a very good job and wolf-David escapes, but he somehow gets cornered in an alley. Nurse Price breaks through a wall of cops to face him. An earlier scene pointed to the fact that she might be the one to kill him, but instead she just distracts him by saying she loves him, and then the cops shoot him, miraculously hitting him even though she is standing directly in their way. And that’s how David was killed, the end. No resolution, no happy ending, just Blue Moon playing again.
END OF SPOILERS
Things I liked about this movie:
1) The humor.
It was impossible to tell whether, overall, it was trying to be humorous or not. There were certain scenes that definitely were, and I laughed heartily at them, but other times I found myself cringing or doing a *facepalm* during scenes that could have been intended to be serious. I definitely laughed when that song came on again at the end.
2) The soundtrack.
It was incredibly cheesy but all the songs in the soundtrack had ‘moon’ in the title. Blue Moon, Moondance, and Bad Moon on the Rise were some of the memorable ones. The songs become especially important when absolutely nothing else of importance is going on in the scene that they’re in.
3) What was shown and not shown.
Do you ever get the feeling that a movie exists only to show off its special effects? I sort of felt that way during the transformation sequence of this film, but other than that it was very careful about how much exactly it needed to show. The subway chase sequence was particularly well done.
Things I did not like:
1) The acting/characters/dialogue/writing.
David: Panic. Some very traumatic things are happening to you. Could you please show an emotion besides goofy passivity. Thank you.
Nurse Price: You are not setting a good example for women.
Jack: Maybe if you weren’t such an idiot things would have worked out better for you.
Doctor Hirsch: It was nice of you to go out and have your own subplot. It did everyone a whole lot of good.
British cops: When someone is asking to be arrested, especially when they are confessing what they should be arrested for, you should probably arrest them. What else do you have to do, stand around fountains all day?
Citizens of the Slaughtered Lamb: Make up your minds! Do you want to end the curse or not? Sheesh.
All in all, this added up to a pretty entertaining film. If you like 80s movies, bad movie humor, werewolves or escapades of idiotic young Americans, you might be interested.