The simplicity of this assessment is the strength of American Werewolf in London, because the picture is most decidedly an earnest depiction of the foreboding superstitions from a world gone by, but with the kind of self-assured skepticism of the Baby Boomer generation facing it down. Cinematic language had not quite become so intertextual that there was a need to be deconstructionist or “meta” about these intentions, albeit David and Jack repeatedly mention The Wolf Man.
Sure, these characters had a knowledge of the hokey stuff from the old Hollywood movies that their generation grew up watching on TV, but what they faced was no deconstruction of those tropes—it’s a defiant embrace of them. Hence when the supernatural folklore is unironically presented with complete conviction to two characters who wouldn’t have been out of place at the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, or as caddies for Chevy Chase and Ted Knight, it is both darkly humorous and shockingly grim. The laughing stops and the stomach-churning commences.
The tropes often associated with The Wolf Man are also given a careful and grisly update. In that earlier Universal horror, Lon Chaney’s Talbot had visions of wolves and the woman he loved, only to later see the pentagram (the Mark of the Beast) in spectrally manifest on her hand. However, American Werewolf leaves the Pentagram as a superstitious decoration for the locals at the Slaughtered Lamb. After David is bitten by Proctor’s furry boogeyman and (barely) lives to tell the tale, he is haunted by the kind of nightmares that might terrorize any Hebrew child or grandchild of the World War II generation.
David, like his writer and director, is Jewish, so at night he dreams not of wolves but of canine-esque Nazi Demons. In these hallucinations, they kill his parents and his young siblings, and even the nurse he is smitten with at the hospital, Alex (Jenny Agutter). When Curt Siodmak wrote The Wolf Man screenplay, he said he was inspired by his German neighbors who he saw overnight turn into monsters during the rise of the Nazis (Siodmak was also Jewish and was forced to flee to London and then Hollywood).
Those nightmares also prelude the return of Jack. David’s friend suffered a gruesome fate when they failed to heed the Slaughtered Lamb’s warning: beware the moon and stick to the road. As they wander off into the moors during an icy-cold rain, it begins with the laugh of “oops” as they realize there is only grass in every direction that the eye can see. But in the movie’s sudden turn from dry comedy to wet gore, they are stalked by a hideous sounding beast, whose howl was made from the recordings of baying wolves and screaming elephants played in reverse. Then come the teeth.
The sequence actually was shot in the wee small hours of the morning just outside of the Windsor Castle estate. With the damp air chilled enough that 35mm cameras could actually pick up the steam escaping exposed limbs following the massacre, actor Griffin Dunne had to scream for his life into the night air again and again.
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