The Genius of An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Why John Landis's wolfman classic is one of the greatest films ever made.

The Genius of An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Sometimes in cinema — if not often, once in a blue moon — masterpieces cleverly disguise themselves as lighthearted entertainment. They’re easy to consume, make you laugh, scare you, leave you completely entertained, but are also masterfully crafted stories that reach deep into human nature and explore its depths.

A lot of great art is like this. Shakespeare’s plays were considered bawdy. Don Quixote was the pulp fiction novel (or a clever satire of one) of its time. The movies of many great filmmakers, like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, have this quality in spades.

An American Werewolf in London fits the bill. It’s a masterpiece for the everyman. A blockbuster horror movie that cuts deep and is close to (if such a thing exists) perfect filmmaking. It has superb acting, amazing photography, and effects that exceed what should have been possible — relying not on CGI departments but on forceful creative vision and attention to detail. The effects don’t just hold up but are amazing, doing what they intend while leaving just enough space for the viewer to breathe their imagination into things. On top of all the above, the movie has an amazing and universal story to tell.

The film looks great. It shows the English countryside with mood and beauty. The image is slightly dull, but rich in colour. A feast for the eyes. It’s not overly dramatic, but visually hints at melancholy. London looks drab, rainy, and pretty. Shots of neon signage and urban bustle create a lively downtown feeling full of British character. The image has a beautiful grain and colour treatment. Camera movement is also really nice — understated, it adds to the sense of quality. Great photography tends to go hand in hand with great films, and AWIL ticks this box easily.

Throughout the story a message to “live carefully” echoes and repeats, like the howls of the wolfman carried over the otherwise tranquil, moonlit moors of the English countryside. These are the words Nurse Alex Price uses to explain to David how she survives in London despite living expenses being so high. And in the countryside, the alternative to London’s big city life, the message is exactly the same but for different reasons. One must take care to survive physically: stay on the roads, keep clear of the moors, beware of the moon. Keep your head down and your mouth shut. Don’t speak to outsiders.

Whether in the city or the countryside, everyone feels the need to live with great care just to survive. As if they are living under threat. Fearful, perhaps, of the monster within: the werewolf. The werewolf, or wolfman, represents violence and sexual desire — associations hammered home by sudden moments of blood and gore (wolf-like monsters dressed in Nazi-like uniforms storming into David’s dreams with submachine guns, slaughtering everything in sight) and a culture obsessed with sex (London is shown overflowing with porno advertisements and movie theatres, and you can’t turn on the TV without seeing soft porn).

The werewolf is a force of nature, tied to the lunar cycle, and this makes the threat it presents universal. Whether in the city or out in the countryside, the danger is basically the same. Everyone is, in fact, living under threat.

Cultural dislocation and confusion is a big theme. It is an American werewolf, dislocated in London. The barkeep saw “The Alamo but in London, in the cinema. David and Jack seek respite in an alien culture they don’t understand past a superficial appreciation. David believes he will be arrested for publicly disrespecting the Queen, for example, which he (hilariously) attempts to make use of in an attempt to be confined to the safety of a jail cell.