Friday, October 30, 2020

What Do Werewolves Dream of? On An American Werewolf in London



Of the three werewolf films that were released in 1981 An American Werewolf in London is that one that I have the strongest memory of even though it has had the least impact on me. Wolfen is a cult classic, and I am definitely in the cult, The Howling is a solid film, but An American Werewolf in London scared the hell out of me as a kid. This was in part because I saw it at far too young of an age. I do not know what my parents were thinking when they took me to it at ten, perhaps that it would be more comedy than horror, which makes sense given Blues Brothers and Animal House. All I really remember was asking to leave the theater after first werewolf attack scene on the moors, my parents tried to get me to stay, knowing that I loved monsters, but by the time Jack showed up as an ambulatory corpse I was done. We left the theater.  

The film terrified me for days afterwards. It wasn't helped by the fact that we saw it around the same time that a group of squirrels moved into our attack. I would hear scratching and clawing at night and be terrified of what was in the attic. I am fairly sure that I had a string of nightmare inspired by the film. Its immediate impact, did not last much longer than the squirrels' residency in the attic, however, and I have not returned to this film as much as I have the other two from that year of the werewolf. 


I am a completist, however, and I decided to dedicate this year's Halloween blogpost to An American Werewolf in London. Although, I must admit that my attempts here will probably fall far short of Andrew Strombeck's take on all three films.  Of the three films, London is the most conventional. It mirrors in many ways the original Wolf Man in that it is a story of a man being bit by a werewolf and the horrors of becoming a monster. This is something that the characters are aware of as well, as the original movie is referenced at least twice. The movie underscores its existence as a werewolf movie, even as it dispenses with some of the cliches, keeping pentagrams, or as they are called pentangles, and throwing out silver. Following the question I asked of the first two films, it is possible to ask what is the werewolf in this film? 

Given the film's title it is possible to suggest that the monster has something to do with the old world, with Europe as the locus of superstition and old beliefs. That is partially true. Europe divides in two, as it were, we get London filled with punks, bobbies, double decker buses and other icons, and East Proctor, a small town out on the moor. One of the advantages of relying on cliches, is that it does not take much for the film to sketch its picture of a small village with a dark secret, as the residents of the town huddle in its one lone pub on the night of the full moon for protection, wary of monsters but also wary of strangers that could disclose their "business" to the outside world. This is where the two main characters, David and Jack encounter a werewolf. One is bitten and the other is killed. David is then taken to London where the rest of the film takes place. Technically the film should be called "An American turned into a rural English Werewolf in London," to illustrate that the encounter of nations and cultures is divided by the split between town and country. As Giorgio Agamben writes about the werewolf, "What had to remain in the collective unconscious as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city--the werewolf--is, therefore, in its origin the man who has been banned from the city."

In this case the werewolf returns to the city. Once David becomes a werewolf he stalks the alleys, junkyard, and tube stations of London. Like Wolfen the film uses the city as a kind of urban jungle, as a place that is as empty and dark as any moor, and like The Howling the darkest heart of the city is to be found in its seedier places. It really is truly odd when you realize that two films made in the same year both had a werewolf in a porno theater. If 1981 was the year of the werewolf it was perhaps because it was also during a time in which desolate urban space became its own untamed wilderness in the collective unconscious. 

The two most striking things about the movie have to do with its slight deviations from the focus on the werewolf, if not werewolf lore. The first is that the werewolf's victims roam the earth as undead, doomed to be in limbo, neither living nor dead, until the werewolf's bloodline is severed, and the last werewolf is killed. David's friend Jack repeatedly appears to him as a decaying corpse, extolling him to kill himself. The visuals of Jack's corpse are stunning and a reminder that as much this is a film that  John Landis dreamed of making for years the film really belongs to Rick Baker who designed the creature effects. The werewolf transformation at the center of the film defines the genre (and earned Baker the first Oscar for Makeup). 

Baker's effects also feature in the film's other striking scene. Before becoming a werewolf under the next full moon, David has a series of dreams that reveal his monstrous nature. The first dreams are clearly understandable as dreams of being a wolf. In the first David is running through the woods naked chasing deer, and in the second he sees himself turning into a monster in a hospital bed in the woods. It is the final dream that almost stands alone as a terrifying sequence. It begins with a close up on a television set showing The Muppets. It is not clear that this is a dream. The scene then opens on domestic bliss, David doing homework at the dining room table, mom doing dishes, dad reading the paper, and the kids watching television. There is a knock on the door, and when the father goes to answer it monsters dressed as soldiers begin shooting, stabbing, and setting fire to the house. 


The scene is itself a dream within the logic of the film, in that it cannot be easily understood which is perhaps why it has been interpreted in so many different ways. For some the monsters are clearly nazi's while for others they are more like the punks seen on the streets of London. It is hard not to read this scene back into the werewolf, to wonder what kind of monstrosity is being represented in the film especially since the scenes underscores the domestic normalcy of American life, this is the America that is being threatened by both Europes, by the Europe of East Proctor, with its old superstitions, and the Europe of London, with its punks and pornographic movie theaters. Of course this threat, which knocks on the door before slaughtering everyone is already brought inside the house by David. Who is drawn to Europe with the promise of something more than another night watching television. It is no accident that the few days that David spends as a monster are also days that he spends shacking up with a nurse from the hospital in no hurry to get home. As Strombeck argues, the film is almost a warning about those trips backpacking through Europe about the excesses of adolescent self-indulgence. The dream sequence is in some sense ambiguous, and its ambiguity is tied to the oddly incomplete nature of the film. After causing chaos in Piccadilly Square the werewolf is shot and killed, and the film just ends. That a werewolf causes so much chaos in the middle of a city only to be gunned down by an entire rifle squad and turn back into a man could suggest some fundamental change of the relation between superstition and civilization (the point that both The Howling and Wolfen end on), but American Werewolf in London is not interested in going there on.


Rewatching the film today it is hard not to focus on the dream sequence and not just because of its striking violence (it even opens with Kermit and Miss Piggy debating violence in art) but because it images of monsters toting machine guns is in some sense the truth of the werewolf film. As much as the films of the the year of the wolf like to play with the incongruity of a werewolf in a tube station or attacking a high rise, this combination of the ancient and the modern is integral to the werewolf. The werewolf is a reflection of the fact that as much as the old superstitions and old wildernesses are banished and destroyed they are reinvented as fears of the city and of what goes on in pornographic movie theaters. The jungle that is clear cut is remade into the urban jungle.They are byproducts of the negative dialectic of civilization which finds itself constantly needing to remake a new image of the wilderness, of mankind's bestial nature, with every step forward of civilization. As Adorno writes, "Horror, consists in its always remaining the same--the persistence of 'pre-history'--but is realized as constantly different, unforeseen, exceeding all expectations, the faithful shadow of developing productive forces." Werewolves are less the outside of the city, of civilization, than an effect of a need to believe in a division between and civilization. 

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