When it comes to horror films, if I must watch them, I prefer older ones. It is a complaint of all genres in the modern era, but the special effects used to create the creatures you see in movies has gotten so life like as to seem fake, if that makes any sense. I hope that anyone who sees a vampire or a werewolf on the silver screen knows that what they are seeing is not real. The only reason I say that is because I know there are those out there that believe in the existence of these legendary monsters. I do not know why, and I pray that I am living in a world free from blood sucking and shape shifting fiends. This is why we have movies, so that we can play out certain fantasies, as strange as they sometimes are, without them having to be a reality. The computer generated images (CGI) of today do much to blur the lines between what is real and what is imaginary, and much of this I can do without. Besides, it is fun to see how moviemakers of old went about the business of turning a person into a werewolf, and you can see a good example of this by watching An American Werewolf in London (1981).
David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) are dropped off at a lone crossroads in northern England, the beginning of a backpacking adventure in Europe. They are left with a stern warning: stay on the roads and do not venture out onto the moors. Being England, the weather is awful and they stop in at a local pub for a brief respite. It is not long lasting by choice. Their reception is as cold as the weather, not to mention the strange satanic symbol on the wall, and soon they are told to leave. The problem is that it is now night and there is a full moon. Given the title, I am sure you can guess what happens next. They are attacked while getting lost on the moors, of course, and Jack is killed in the process. David wakes up a few days later in a hospital in London. The police tell him that they had been accosted by an escaped patient from a nearby psychiatric ward, though his wounds are inconsistent with this story. He remains adamant that it is a wolf that had done this to him. While recuperating, David begins having awful, bloody nightmares. Sometimes he is running naked through the woods, killing deer and eating them raw. In others he witnesses the violent murder of his family at the hands of monstrous looking humanoids in Nazi uniforms. In another, which turns out not to be a dream, he is visited by a mauled and mutilated Jack who explains that it had been a werewolf they had encountered, and that David will turn into one at the next full moon. Jack also claims that because of the nature of the perpetrator, he is now cursed to wander this world between life and death, and will haunt David until it is lifted. Jack’s solution: David must kill himself. Through these harrowing experiences, David is comforted by a nurse at the hospital, Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). Being alone in London, she offers to let him stay with her until he can get home, a result of the bond they developed while under her care. They also sleep with each other, which I frankly did not understand. The next day is a full moon, and Alex must go to work. When the appointed hour comes, David turns into a werewolf and begins stalking the streets of London. During the night, he kills a half dozen people, and awakens in London Zoo in the wolf enclosure. He cannot remember any of what he did in wolf form. Meanwhile, his doctor from his hospital stay, Dr. J. S. Hirsch (John Woodvine), travels to the town where David had been found to do some investigations of his own. Dr. Hirsch receives the same frigid greeting, though it also becomes evident that they are hiding the existence of a werewolf. Between these semi-solid clues and David’s story, Dr. Hirsch is convinced that something awful is going on with his former patient. He tells Alex to bring David in so that they can help the American. On the way in, the taxi driver (Alan Ford) begins chatting about the gruesome murders to David and Alex, and suddenly it all becomes very real for David. Telling Alex to stay away, he takes refuge in an unfortunate theater (more about this later), where he is once more confronted by Jack’s increasingly decomposed form. Joining Jack are David’s more recent victims, who are all just as eager to have David commit suicide and thus allow them to move on in the afterlife. Because full moons seemingly go on for more than one night, David soon transforms once more into the creature of the night. This time, though, he is in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, and it is not long before he is cornered in a dark alley by the police. With Alex looking on, the police open fire and kill David, who changes back into human form in death. Such a sad ending.
An American Werewolf in London is a film that I think newer and more experienced horror fans appreciate. I am not one of them. The special effects I mentioned at the beginning are applied to David’s transformation. While neat, they also made me feel uneasy and slightly sick to my stomach. Still, these are not the only difficult to watch parts of the film. I described earlier the satanic symbols on the wall of the pub where David and Jack sought refuge from the cold. The Catholic Church does not recommend even looking at such symbols. If you think that is me being paranoid, then ask yourself this: do images have power? True, like anything else, much of the effect they do have involves our active participation with them. If we do not engage with them, they lose a great deal of their punch. At the same time, if they lack any sway over the material world, why have them at all? Clearly, there is a purpose for that symbol appearing where it did, whether it is a warning or the whole town are satan worshippers. Let us hope that none of that is true. Either way, you should be careful about the images you do consume and the effect they can have on your soul. This also applies to the copious amounts of nudity in the film. While David’s scenes are mostly non-sexual in nature, I cannot help but wonder why we need to see the full body at all. If that is too obtuse for you, then there is also the sex scene with Alex and David. Lately, I have been discussing such cinematic moments with friends who claim they are important to the plot of films. Maybe (and I cannot emphasize that word enough) that is true for some films, but search me if you find a reason for why it is in this one. There is a throw-away line about love and it being the weakness of werewolves. Yet, while Alex and David confess these feelings for one another, they did not have to include their explicit love making. Then again, Hollywood does seem to conflate sex and love. The final piece of the images I could do without puzzle is the theater that David escapes to when he learns of the deaths he caused while a werewolf. It is a pornographic cinema, and nothing is left to the imagination while David argues with an army of ghosts. Again, the filmmakers could have had this confrontation take place anywhere, but they chose smut. Yes, I say these things as a Catholic. However, our society has grown far too lax with showing these things in film, and I find that to be a problem in general. At one time it was done for shock value, and a poor argument can be made for that being the reason you see it in this one. Nowadays, though, it has become so commonplace as to be boring. This is a problem not simply from a moral or Faith perspective, but from a creative one as well.
I believe there are those out there that count An American Werewolf in London among the classics of horror. You can keep it. If you must watch anything from this film, you could probably look up just the scenes of David’s transformation into a werewolf on YouTube. I can do without the rest. Needless to say, I am not recommending it to any audience.