Thirty Five Years* of Lycanthrope Love – An American Werewolf in London

“A naked American man stole my balloons”

Backpacking and travelling around the world with nothing but the clothes on your back and the stuff in your rucksack used to be all the rage. This is almost certainly why Jack and David, two clean cut all American youths and the main players in John Landis’ tale of hirsute supernatural monstrosities find themselves rambling through the wind-blasted moors of the North of England in the middle of winter. I don’t know which tourist guide told them that this was the hip and happening pace to be in the early eighties, but whichever one it was should be ripped into pieces, set on fire and buried in a deep hole.  Anyway, it starts to rain so they seek shelter in a local pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, which is a proper local watering hole for locals only and Landis makes this abundantly clear when the strangers walk in by ensuring that everyone in the crowded establishment shuts the fuck up as soon as they walk in and then stare at the poor innocents abroad as though they were a posh red wine from somewhere like Tuscany. Which, anywhere north of Watford in the early eighties, was a big no-no and in some places was enough to get you run out of town.

Soon enough though, it’s all laughs and banter as the teacher from Kes, Rick from The Young Ones and a whole host of other bit players accept their new comrades into their drinking club and all is going swimmingly until our clueless heroes start asking questions about the Pentagram on the wall, at which point they’re kicked to the curb, thrown out in the rain and warned in no uncertain terms to stay off the moors. As they walk out of the pub and the locals’ lives, there’s a lot of hand wringing and chatter in the pub about how they shouldn’t have let the lads leave while in the background there’s a Lon Chaney style howl, which despite being louder than an old lady’s telly, isn’t heard by that bloke from Kes who obviously needs a hearing aid. Cut back to the young Americans chatting about girls and what not, who being young and out in the world for the first time, venture off the path and onto the moors. The opposite of they were told to do by the more local than local locals in the Slaughtered Lamb.

So, they’re larking around when they hear something stalking them. Something big and growly, so they do what any semi-sensible folks would do in their place, put some speed in their feet and start to leg it. David falls over, Jack laughs about being scared and the whatever it is that was snarling at them (obviously a werewolf, because you know, the title of the film) leaps at Jack and starts ripping him to bits in the same way a ten pint drunk devours a kebab. Cue David who’s pissed off pretty sharpish because he doesn’t want to end up like his chum but after a sudden attack of conscience turns around and heads back to help his friend, who, as David discovers, is now split from knackers to breakfast time and is all kinds of fucked up.  Wolfie then turns his attention to David and gives him a bit of a kicking which he’s only saved from by the reticent yokels turning up and blasting the crap out of hairy monster attacking him.  David, lying on his back in the middle of a doubtless sheep shit filled field looks around at his assailant, who has returned to human form, then up at his saviours and promptly passes out.

Ten minutes. All of that happens in the first ten minutes of the film. There’s no fannying around in An American Werewolf in London, no pointless exposition and not a single second wasted on chin stroking backstory or legend. It’s all systems go from the off, which is probably why when I first saw it with my great grandad, who hated everyone and was always half cut on whiskey and used to let his great-grandkids watch horror flicks with him just to wind our parents and his grandkids up, in 1982, it immediately struck a chord with me. Because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be watching it, it got straight to the point without waffling on about any pointless crap, it’s still the best Werewolf film ever made and it had Jenny Agutter in it. Oh wait, I haven’t mentioned her yet have I? Okay, so David ends up in hospital, is interviewed by the police, is fed a line of bullshit about what happened to him and we meet the square jawed Doctor Hirsch, who obviously is going to play a major part in whole scenario. But more importantly, there’s Jenny Agutter. In a Nurse’s uniform. And she force feeds David. I know, right? It’s like the best fantasy ever and every single time, without fail that I think about that bit in the film, I get a warm fuzzy feeling in my gut and I can’t help smiling. Too much information? Like I care. It’s Jenny Agutter.

Anyways, David is visited by Jack who tells him about the whole curse of the Werewolf thing and how he’s in Limbo until the wolf’s bloodline is ended and that can only happen when David is dead, so suggests the suicide route to stop his mate becoming all big, hairy and bitey.  Even though David doesn’t believe him, it’s nice touch, using the undead to castigate the living and give them spooky warnings and prophecies from beyond the grave, but the best thing about Jack is the seriously awesome, carved up zombie style make-up that Griffin Dunne (the dude playing him) is smothered in. I mean, that shit looks seriously good now, and back in the eighties it was just the best. Seriously it was. Build yourself a time machine and go back and ask anyone who saw the film and they’ll tell you exactly the same thing.

Even though David thinks he’s going crazy and that “Jack” is full of shit, his dreams about hunting in the forest and Nazi demons (‘Warmongers’) stabbing Jenny Agutter after turning up at a family dinner to slay everyone in hail of machine gun fire before slitting his throat convince David that maybe something is amiss.  The idea that David’s subconscious is preparing his body and his conscious mind for what’s about to happen to him via the medium of lucid dreaming is an interesting development in the film’s narrative and adds depth to the character, but I maintain that the reason the dream scenes live long in the memories of everyone who ever seen the film is because as well as being incredibly inventive and original they’re cooler than Tom Jones, cocktail in hand, posing in his skimpiest briefs, surrounded by a bevy of naked ladies on the deck of a super yacht in nineteen seventy three.  Which is why merchandise companies have sold the crap out of Warmonger figures for the last two and some spare change decades.

Oh, and while David’s in the hospital, we’re properly introduced to Jenny Agutter’s character, Nurse Alex, via her rounds as she tends to sick children, emphasising the point that she’s as nice as nice can be. While she’s on her rounds, she stops off to talk to a boy who taught me a valuable life lesson, as every question she asks him, he answers by saying “No”.  That’s life done properly, right there. Anytime that someone in a uniform asks you a question, you just say ‘No”. Trust me, it’ll serve you well all the way down the line.

David then ends up back at Alex’s flat because he’s an American and obviously has nowhere else to stay (has nobody heard of Youth Hostels?) and before you can say “Ding Dong” they’re both in the nip and going for it like there’s no tomorrow. I mean, I don’t blame David, because it’s Jenny Agutter and you would wouldn’t you? Thing is, and this is the only bit of the film that gets on my tits, during the whole how’s your father scene, Van Morrison’s Moon Dance is playing in the background, when the song that they should have used is Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London, because Warren was infinitely more refined and swish than Van and I’ve always thought that Morrison is a little creepy. In an investigated by Operation Yewtree, should be driving an Ice Cream van and hangs out in the blackest recesses of the dark web kind of way.

Jack reappears, he looks more wonderfully horrible than ever, warns David again, David tells him he looks like the kind of thing that the typical American family would eat for dinner and Alex struts around the place look magnificent before heading back to work and leaving David in her flat alone to root through her underwear drawer and eat everything in the fridge. Okay, so I made that last bit up, because he just watches one of the three telly channels that we had when this film was made. Mind you, I’d almost certainly have eaten everything in the fridge. And given the chance, I’d probably have had a rummage through Jenny Agutter’s underwear drawer too.

Remember the square jawed Doctor? Well, while Alex was working her way through the Karma Sutra with David and Jack was probably perving on them from inside the cupboard, the Doctor decided to visit East Proctor (where the Slaughtered Lamb was) in order to find out more about the decidedly fishy circumstances under which David arrived in his care. Having been told that his patient was assaulted by a lunatic, but unable to find any witnesses or corroborative evidence and being able to smell horseshit a mile away, he sets off to have a bit of a poke around and investigate for himself.  He also drives an MG. And drinks Guinness. Of course he does.  I’ll bet he smoked a pipe and had a velvet robe that he liked to wear when entertaining his special ladies as well. So he does the questioning thing, and his hackles are put out of joint and one of the locals ends up confessing to him in a moment of supplication in which the hard drinking Northern bloke who isn’t afraid of werewolves, goes all trembly at the knees when the chap from the South turns up and starts asking a few questions.  It’s probably an allegory for the class struggle and the social and economic divide that still separates England into two distinctively different countries, but before the point can really be hammered home and the Northern bloke can doff his cap, the chap from Kes shows up and put a halt to proceedings by shouting a lot and no doubt silently communicating to his drinking comrade that if he talked anymore, he’d spend the rest of the day in a figure four leg lock. Because the bloke from Kes, more commonly known as Brian Glover, used to wrestle on World of Sport and was dead good at it. Honest, he really did, have a look on YouTube and the like and watch him handing out some serious seventies style smackdown.

So, now the Doctor is speeding back to London to see what Alex, who’s in work, knows about David. Meanwhile, David’s in the flat and the fact that Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising I playing while Dave reads his book means that something serious is about to happen, and boy oh boy, soon as that tune finishes it kicks off like a Roider on a Friday night coke binge.  We were promised a werewolf and I’ll be damned if we don’t get the finest lunar dependent monster to have ever been committed to film that appears following a transformation sequence that made effects guru Rick Baker famous the world over. It’s a bone stretching and snapping scene that immediately conveys how painful it is for one creature to morph into another, while projecting the shock, terror and fear that overwhelms David as the curse takes hold. It still looks incredible and is, for me at least, one of the defining moments of onscreen horror. And yes, it’s still funny watching him nearly burst into werewolf tears as he watches his ding-a-ling disappear.

While Doctor Hirsch and Alex ham it up in a frantic attempt to enforce just how worried they are about David after failing to contact him, he sets out on his first night of murder and mayhem, chowing down on a couple off to a fondue and goodness knows what else dinner party, a trio of tramps and an uptight, middle management type whose train arrived a few minutes too late to save his life. The latter is the reason that the tube still freaks me out as I can’t venture underground to ride the rails in London without imagining that I’m going to be stalked by some slavering beast who’ll then consume me on a rickety, past its prime escalator.  Bloody Landis, it’s all his fault that the Victoria Line still gives me the chills. Oh, and in the background? There’s the first reference in An American Werewolf to John Landis’ favourite cinematic joke, one that he reuses in a number of his films, this time appearing as a film poster on the wall of the station as the hapless victim is chased to his death.  That’s right kids; it’s See You Next Wednesday.

After eating his fill of Londoners, David wakes up in the zoo’s Lupine enclosure, which just goes to show that the old adage about lying down with dogs is probably true. Except this time it’s wolves. In the buff and alone, David steals a coat and some private school kid’s balloons, which is still one of my favourite gags of all time and despite having been to the US of A on a number of occasions and having spent a lot of time around its citizens, I’m yet to stumble across a situation where I’ve been able to use it, but one day, oh yes one day when the stars align and the time is right, I’ll find myself in some impossibly fucked up situation where I can exclaim to everyone and no one in particular “A naked American man stole my balloons”

Without a clue about what he’d done, David meets up with Alex and on her insistence accompanies her to see Doctor Hirsch. They don’t reach their destination as while riding in a Taxi driven by Bricktop from Snatch, their hapless cabbie tells them all about the previous night’s grizzly murders and David, realising the truth, flees the cab and Alex and after failing to get himself arrested, holes up in a porno cinema with Jack and the departed spirits of his victims. All of whom insist on admonishing him and suggesting ways in which he can do away with himself.  Thing is though, his victims are awfully “British” about being used as chew toys and are insufferably polite despite having been murdered in a most gruesome fashion, which I know is all about finding humour is the most awful of situations, but not one of them questions their killer’s parentage or accuses him of dallying with his mother, which I’m pretty sure most would do.  But then I suppose seeing Linzi Drew half naked in See You Next Wednesday, which is the feature playing in the filth palace that David has chosen to hide out in, and the second and last use in the film of Landis’ favourite gag, is enough to calm anyone’s nerves and ensure goodwill to all men and monsters. Even the ones who’ve just eaten all of your best bits in an orgy of explicitly brutal violence.

Like all good things though, and in homage to all of the best Universal Horror films of the thirties and forties which were all about the build-up before crashing to a brief, but gloriously detailed finale, the end is nigh as the Werewolf’s second outing sees him eating the other perverts in the fleapit before wreaking havoc in Leicester Square. Heads roll, buses crash and lots of people meet their makers in many dreadful and frightfully imaginative ways. Following a rather impressive body-count, and having been cornered by the heavily armed Fuzz, Alex and Doctor Hirsch rush to the scene to try and “talk” to David, who after Alex tells him she loves him and showing her his best gummy smile, is gunned down in a volley of police fire and all that’s left as  The Marcels launch into Blue Moon and the credits begin to roll, is a naked American man with no balloons lying in a filthy London alleyway, surrounded by strangers and a wailing Jenny Agutter. What a way to go.  Beware the moon… Tim Cundle

*I know that Werewolf was released in 1981, which means it’s thirty six years old, but I didn’t see it until 1982.  So, there you go. Thirty five years.