October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Synopsis: While on a backpacking trip in England, two American students (Jack and David) are attacked by a werewolf on the moors. Jack is killed and David wakes up in hospital in London, three weeks later. He is told he and his friend were attacked by an insane man, but he clearly recalls it being some kind of animal. No one believes him and he begins to have strange symptoms and dreams. Jack begins appears to him in various states of decay warning him that he is becoming a werewolf, and that Jack (and any future victims) are doomed to wander in limbo until the werewolf bloodline is ended. Jack encourages him to kill himself for all their sakes, but David doesn’t listen and instead goes home with the pretty nurse Alex from the hospital for a dirty weekend. The full moon arrives while she’s at work, and although the doctor of the hospital has figured out what happened, it’s too late. David has already gone on a killing spree in wolfed out form. He doesn’t think the doctor can help him, so first he tries to get himself arrested and then goes to a porn theater where he is visited by a moldering Jack and his recent victims who cheerfully urge him again to kill himself. While they are talking the moon rises and Peter turns again, killing those in the theater and going on the run. The police track him down and Alex arrives on the scene and tries to help him, but he lunges at her and is shot. The moment he dies, he turns back into human form and the movie ends, abruptly.
This movie is an odd duck. It’s a black comedy horror film. Emphasis on the black. There are very few true laughs in this movie and the ending is as dark as it is inevitable. And yet there is a quirky, off-beat sense of humor to the whole thing that prevents it from being unbearable in its bleakness. Maybe it’s the inclusion in the sound track of nothing but songs with the word “moon” in the titles. Maybe it’s the fact that the emotional climax of the movie is a conversation between a werewolf and his bloody, undead victims while a pornographic movie with a plot that appears to revolves around people having sex but being interrupted by wrong numbers plays loudly over them. Maybe it’s that from the moment we hear the howl on the moor we know exactly what’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of how.
For the most part the film is clever in telling the well-worn story of a man succumbing to a werewolf bite, the unleashing of his dark nature despite his initial denial and then later attempts to prevent it. There are a couple points that are neither clever nor campy, but just dumb. For instance, the fact that the majority of the patrons of the pub Jack and David shelter in appear perfectly fine with the prospect of them being murdered and/or turning into murderous beasties because…why? They don’t care for strangers that much? Or the fact that David has a loving family that apparently cared enough to show up for Jack’s funeral but didn’t seem concerned enough that he was injured and in a coma for three weeks to come to London to check in. Nurse Alex taking David home so readily was also a stretch, but sometimes we all need to get laid, even if the only option is a werewolf. These types of things make little logical sense but are needed for events to unfold as they do, so must be forgiven to enjoy the movie.
And the movie is enjoyable. It’s worth it for the special effects alone, having won an Oscar for Best Make-up in 1982, the first year that category was awarded. It pulls punches on neither gore nor nudity, fully embracing its carnal themes. The werewolf transformation of David in the last act is possibly the most iconic on film or TV, being painstakingly filmed over a matter of days and showing us every gruesome detail in full lighting. No dark shadows or CGI effects to smooth over the transition here. Over 3o years later it still holds up to scrutiny and makes even the most jaded horror fan wince. The make-up effects on the werewolf victims, particular Jack, are equally detailed and stomach churning, although Jack is pragmatic about his deterioration and often plays it for laughs despite being dead serious about his insistence that David should kill himself.
And what about that? Should David have killed himself. He does try, a little halfheartedly, to slit his wrists after he finds out he’s killed six people and after he fails to get arrested (although it may be harder to believe that a raving man assaulting a constable in public wouldn’t be arrested than that the same man could turn into a werewolf). But did he do enough to prevent other people’s deaths? When you’ve been attacked by an unspecified person or creature, had a head injury that left you unconscious for weeks, and then woken up to find you are having hallucination of your dead friend encouraging you to commit suicide, should you do as he says? Even if you feel like something is wrong deep inside you, does it make sense to believe your werewolf nightmares and off yourself just in case? And then when you wake up in the zoo with no memory of your actions, can you be sure even then you’re the supernatural being responsible for murder?
I’m not sure. Certainly David could have done more to prevent the slaughter. I found myself thinking, “Well, if he was worried Jack was right why didn’t he warn Alex and get her to lock him up somewhere, just to be sure?” But I’m watching it from the outside, as someone who knows the narrative and knows the movie is following it to the letter. If it was me in real life, certain werewolves don’t exist and hallucinating impossible things, would I have taken those precautions or risked revealing what sounds like my deep insanity to a woman I’d just met? I don’t know. Really, the question we have to ask as we watch David putter around the flat the day before the full moon is whether he’s driven by denial or curiosity. The former can be forgiven. The latter is more of a problem – if even a part of him believes Jack’s warning that he’s going hurt people but wants to see for himself, then he’s culpable in all the deaths caused by the werewolf.
The movie doesn’t allow us any kind of certainty. Even once he knows, or at least has enough evidence to accept it, does David do enough to prevent the second attack? He runs away from Alex when she tries to take him to the doctor, although it’s unclear what the doctor would have done about him so perhaps that was the right move. He tries to get arrested, but maybe he could have tried harder. He does attempt suicide but again, fails miserably. Can we really blame him for not trying harder to kill himself when he doesn’t actually want to die? It’s not as easy as many people think to kill yourself and the urge for survival is pretty hard to override. Should he have tried to get to a place with no people? Or was he too terrified and addled to make any of those decision?
I leave the movie unsure about David’s culpability, and I think that’s the way the filmmakers want it. Certainly they offer no attempt at contextualizing the ending or providing a moral to the tale. The movie just ends once David is shot, with a brief image of the sobbing Alex and then darkness and credits. Sometimes things end in tragedy, and nothing that happens afterwards can change or even mitigate that. Sure, we can say “at least he didn’t bite anyone else” or “at least the victims got to move on” but that’s not really the point and the movie doesn’t want to give us a chance to soften the story with an epilogue or imbue it with meaning that isn’t there. There’s no noble sacrifice, no regaining of self. Just a man who never stood a chance and a woman who loved him.
Quality: 8 decomposing Jacks out of 10 for being well crafted and telling a predictable story in an unusual way.
Entertainment Value: 7 Miss Piggys out of 10 for hitting the dry humor in all the right places, even if some story elements took me out of it a little.
Bonus Treehouse of Horror Review: Treehouse of Horror II
The second entry into the Treehouse of Horror canon is framed as three nightmares experienced by our main characters as a result of too much Halloween candy. I must be doing it wrong because when I have too much sugar I just get heartburn. This episode returns to the nearly endless Twilight Zone well for inspiration with both the first and the second sketches referencing episodes (although the first sketch is based more heavily on The Monkey’s Paw).
The first sketch is also probably the strongest, as it continues with the theme that everything the Simpson family does is doomed to disaster, as all their wishes result in the enslavement of humanity, while when Flanders picks up the paw all is made right and he gets a castle to live in. The second sketch plays on our extant feelings that Bart is already a pretty messed up kid and wouldn’t take much to turn him into a monster, while the final sketch embodies the pretty much fear about your boss looking over your shoulder. Or, you know, commandeering your body.
I thought it was interesting that while Homer’s nightmare was about his boss and Lisa’s nightmare was about her dad messing things up (also not surprising, given who Homer is), Bart’s nightmare was about… Bart. He was the villain in his own story. Maybe the kid is more self aware than we give him credit for.
Kang and Kodos Watch: First sketch, enslaving humanity with a slingshot.