Horror is one of the starkest and most intense genres in all of cinema and the semiotics and general conventions are easy to dissect. First you’ll regularly have dark lighting to create fear and tension; you’ll more commonly have a very striking orchestral score with the same intention; there’ll be some sort of crisis or relocation of the characters; blood and gore is as common as butter on bread; more than often you’ll see a wonderful use of cinematography to escalate the fear and tension factor right to the very top; and most irritating and conventional as anything, the protagonists will be the cliché ‘dumb blonde’ who snaps her heels running away for a mass murderer, screams frequently, but always manages to survive somehow as the killer either takes too long. All in all, the semiotics and conventions of horror as a film genre are easily to take apart.
In regards to An American Werewolf in London and its place among slow-paced, darkly lit and atmospheric films, it largely applies as a horror film with the same sort of format, but fortunately for me and the rest of the audience; it doesn’t feature any ‘dumb blondes’ screaming frequently.
Instead it features two young American men, who are backpacking along the Yorkshire moors when suddenly they are attacked by what eventually appears to be a werewolf. Long before the pub locals arrive to save them, David’s friend Jack is ripped apart by this rabid animal and soon after David wakes up in a hospital bed weeks later.
Werewolf follows a straight forward linear narrative in the regard that David’s eventual transformation into this blood-sucking mythical beast is presented to us from one moment to the next so that we can connect with the character, feel his emotions and almost feel sympathetic for him when he’s eventually shot down and killed by the police department after a full moon night in which he kills multiple people without his own control.
The interpretations from Marxists and Feminists would largely differ I feel, but as Werewolf is unlike any other horror film, the presentation of characters and how they react to events are absolutely stunning at times. First we have David, who is decidedly presented as a somewhat vulnerable figure in comparison to other horrors where the man is shown as a strong person who would eventually ‘save the day’. Now that’s a bit strange when you think about that this vulnerable figure is also the same vulnerable figure who transforms into a werewolf which is about as masculine and powerful as I could imagine.
For the female protagonist we have Alex Price who plays David’s nurse. Her performance and symbolism to the film is of a high magnitude as she is the only person who David cares about and eventually in the final showdown she is the one who draws David (as the Werewolf) out of hiding to dramatically be murdered. When talking about cliché film characters, a nurse would normally be presented as a dumb, perpetrating character getting in the way of David’s transformation, but she is thankfully presented as a figure of dominance and power, but also on a more emotional level, she comes off a caring individual who also only has one love; David.
John Landis; the director has made a name for his self over the years for his over-the-top actioners such as Beverly Hills Cop and The Blues Brothers, among plenty of other very well recognisable comedies as Caddyshack, National Lampoon and Trading Places, but in the majority of his films, whether it’s been those comedies, action films or even his segment for Twilight Zone: The Movie, he has always had some dark undercurrent running throughout them, leaving a thought-provoking process for the audience long after the credits have rolled over, but it still comes as a surprise to me that this guy made An American Werewolf in London.
When thinking about horror as a genre, people tend to think about The Shining, Psycho, Carrie and Nightmare on Elm Street and as much love I have for all of those films, I feel An American Werewolf in London has been unfairly treated as is not deemed good enough to be listed among all those astonishing entries in the genre. It’s easily one of the more absorbing, terrifying and claustrophobic horrors of the 80’s, filled with triumphant dialogue and an intensity that only a few films can top. All in all it’s a shame about its lack of recognition and the unfortunate films that have tried to mimic it. There’s even a sequel to it set in Paris (which is awful, by the way), but just forget all that for a moment and let its power resonate over you like the blood dripping from the werewolf, the fog settling over the moors and the scratching atmosphere of it all and think to yourself why this isn’t listed as the greatest British horror there is.