An American Werewolf in London: Steer Clear of the Moors
Updated: Sep 3
The nights were cold and despite the incessant rain, howls could be heard off in the distance. As the moon neared her fullness, I became all too aware of how absolutely alone I truly was: vulnerable to the wild elements. Sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away. I’m meant to be writing about An American Werewolf in London, but this classic 1981 horror flick triggered memories of my solo camping trip in the Adirondacks – an experience both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s rather fortunate that I waited to have my virgin viewing until after I returned from camping. I’d be remiss in not imploring you readers to stave off any sadistic notions of watching the film and then taking a tent out into the middle of nowhere; the forest plays tricks on the mind, and the mind plays tricks on you, much like this movie played tricks on me. So, from the safety of my toasty apartment, let’s tear into this grizzly, gory, overarchingly comical mostly raw tale of lore.
Our story opens overlooking the desolate countryside of Yorkshire while a slow version of "Blue Moon" ironically plays over long shots of the misty moors. A truck loaded with sheep comes to a halt at a crossroads where two young American men hop off the back, thank the driver, and head on their way with no real plan, other than enjoying the next three months backpacking through Europe. As night falls a chill creeps in, and the young men, David and Jack, (played by David Naughton and Griffin Dunne), become increasingly desperate for shelter, warmth and a good meal. A lonely light flickers above a worn pub sign that reads, “The Slaughtered Lamb.” Depicted is an image of a severed wolf head run through by a bloody blade. “Where’s the lamb?” Jack questions, wary of entering. As if this doesn’t seem ominous enough, when David and Jack do enter, the room hushes and the camera pans to a red pentagram slathered on the wall.
Cue the superstitious locals vs. nosey travelers scenario: lots of intense staring, plenty of blaring signals warning of a very serious danger, scores of obliviousness on the travelers’ part and an anxious audience yelling, “The guy told you to stay off the moors, you morons!” Hey, guess what? They didn’t listen. If a bar full of tight-lipped locals told me to stick to the road, I’d stick to the fucking road! Through the fog and the dark, a hungry cry sounds off across the rolling hills, growing closer and closer. The grunts and growls seemingly come from all sides when finally a wolf leaps through the shadows and tackles Jack to the ground, tearing at his chest; he cries out for David who had begun to run, only to turn back and find his friend gushing blood all over his green down-filled jacket. Suddenly, a flash of fur and David is down. Gunshots ring just in time, rendering the beast into a mere man – fade to black.
David awakens three weeks later in a London hospital, rattled with confusion, guilt, pain, and a potential loss of sanity. In between doctor’s visits, a budding romance develops between our leading man and deflective nurse, Alex Price, (played by Jenny Agutter). David is plagued by jarring nightmares and visits from his recently pronounced dead friend, Jack. (As an aside, major kudos to Rick Baker, the lead special effects creator for his awe-striking work on Jack’s gaping neck wound. His flailing skin tag was extraordinarily distracting). But, Jack’s message was heard loud and clear: David was attacked by a werewolf and would become one himself by the next full moon. Up until now, we’d been presented with a fairly typical superstitious outlook. Of course the locals were right. Of course David was attacked by a werewolf. And of course, the full moon was only two days away. With the introduction of Dr. J.S. Hirsch (played by John Woodvine), however, a psychological approach is brought into play and the viewer is left to wonder: is David truly a werewolf or is he going crazy?
Well, we find out soon enough. After David is discharged, Nurse Price takes him back to her place where pent up attraction and chemistry leads to a night of intensity. In referring back to my notes, all I wrote in regards to this particular moment was, “THAT SEX SCENE, THO.” Alas, the blissful sleep that follows a marathon as such is interrupted by yet another visit from Jack, whose body has continued to decay. Again, he begs David to end the curse before the next full moon by killing himself, leaving David in a panic-stricken, near hysterical state, (a state of being that Nurse Price seems to find outrageously attractive, by the way). Her relationship with the little boy at the hospital who can only say, “No,” speaks to her deflective take on what would normally be seen as a clear slip into insanity on David’s part; just sayin’. The following day, David is left to his own devices while Nurse Price is at work. What follows is a rather boring montage of pacing, opening the fridge, more pacing, reading, opening the fridge, repeat etc. etc. which, in retrospect, I appreciate the length and banality of the scene, as the one that follows is not only shocking, but would become one of the greatest werewolf transformations in cinema history.
Another shout out to Rick Baker who had developed the idea, mechanics, special effects, makeup etc. for a werewolf transformation over the course of several years leading up to the making of the film. The scene falls just shy of three minutes, but it felt like a lifetime as David flung himself to the floor in agony, begging for help, his bones cracking and elongating, his flesh stretching over a new form, hair sprouting from every pore. All the while, an upbeat version of "Blue Moon" plays, lending to the dry humor found throughout the movie. This is the centerpiece of the film, the moment that paves the way for what horror movies were to become in the 80’s, unparalleled, even to this day. With the werewolf fully realized, we are taken on a killing spree with a final body count of six before David wakes naked in a zoo wolf pen the following morning. Price thinks he’s endearing, Dr. Hirsch wants to bring him in for an examination, and Jack’s near skeletal remains makes one last attempt to convince David to kill himself.
Too late! David turns again and runs through the streets of London causing sheer chaos among the crowds, leading to a gnarly car crash scene: total carnage. Soon, proper enforcements are brought in and corner the creature down a darkened alley. Price breaks through the crowds, running towards the animal, exclaiming her love. For a moment, the eyes of the beast turn soft but quickly ravenous again as it lunges towards the nurse only to be shot down by the police force. David’s naked body pours blood from its side out onto the street. Nurse Price falls into hysterics. Roll credits, “Blue Moon” plays. What the fuck?
A Beacon transplant having moved to town two years ago. With a background in photography, literature, and a fondness of nature she does well in keeping busy in this bustling little community.