Saturday 3 March 2018

On a Thousand Walls #12: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

One of the central planks of folk horror as a subgenre is a person from one world entering into another: The wealthy and metropolitan into the provincial community, the young and innocent into a world of ancestral evils, the rational and educated into the witch's circle.

But the clash can only go so far. You have to have some reference point, even if it's a point of conflict (so for example, the luckless sellouts in The Exorcism (1972) come from the same history that the ghost does, and that's why they meet their fate, because they're tied to the same history). But the conflict has to travel along a certain line, a certain path. The outside that the outsider comes from can only be so far outside. The outsider still nonetheless has to be an inhabitant of the same story, and the provincial pagan and the interloper are nonetheless inside a joint narrative. They come from different places inside the same story. But when an interloper comes from outside of the story, when it's invaded by a tourist from a different story entirely, the tension threatens to break the story, and when you have a site of tension that already exists and the interloper comes from a third, incompatible direction, narrative chaos ensues. The story dissolves.

I thought that needed a diagram.
Which is to say: you can comfortably have an American werewolf (see: Michael Landon); you can have a werewolf in London (and it's happened before); you can have an American in London (hell, if you can have an American in Paris, of course you can). Any combination of two works. But that central spot in the Venn diagram resists a comfortable synthesis of stories. And carnage results.

It's important you don't get me wrong here. I don't think smashing up genres like this is necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, and I want to reify here that even the worst ideas can work out beautifully with talented, skilled and/or lucky people working on the film. And An American Werewolf in London is a great film, which goes to unexpected places. It itself is an unexpected film, a horror film from John Landis, the director of Animal House and The Blues Brothers.
Did you hear that?
And that comic heritage impinges on the film from the beginning, as two wise-cracking young New Yorkers, David and Jack (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne), turn up on the Yorkshire Moors on a walking holiday. Right from the start, they're advised to keep to the roads. They wind up in a village pub – the Slaughtered Lamb – which has a protective pentacle drawn on the wall, and which contains a motley collection of very folk horror locals, including David Schofield, Lila Kaye, a young Rik Mayall and most prominently, Brian Glover, who tells everyone the old joke about the aeroplane that's about to crash, and where representatives of various nations sacrifice themselves for the greater good by jumping from the plane, apart from the American, who throws out the Mexican. And that joke, told by a stock character from British horror, elaborate and highlighted as it is and very much not a joke an American can tell, really says, look, here are the bloody Americans, taking over everything, and now they've come to colonise our horror films.

And of course it's an American director, directing this mostly British cast in a very British milieu; it's almost a cheeky admission of guilt. And Landis does this a couple of times. Later David will try to explain about werewolves, and he'll use film as a frame of reference.
David: Did you ever see The Wolfman?
Alex: Is that the one with Oliver Reed?
And of course it isn't, he's talking about the Lon Chaney version, the Universal one, because this is an American’s horror film.

And David and Jack aren't even characters from a horror film. They're essentially comic characters who are in this film almost by accident. The American tourist who gets lost in a hostile place is a well trodden plot lane, but Jack and David take it further: they've wandered into the wrong film. And when they're ejected from the pub and shortly afterwards attacked by a werewolf, which kills Jack and inflicts the lycanthrope curse on David, it's both shocking and weirdly right. It's as if they're being punished for blundering into a film they've no business appearing in.

David wakes up after a three week coma in London, where's he's been under the care of the principled and competent Dr Hirsch (John Woodvine, velvet-voiced and effortlessly patrician) and his staff of nurses, among them Alex (Jenny Agutter), who takes a liking to David, takes him home, and takes him to bed, and you could see that as a depiction of an independent woman being proactive about getting what she wants, or the act of a traditional central casting male fantasy figure, and I'm not sure you even have to choose between the two, because film is complicated like that.
I'm not in the habit of taking young American men home.
David is not well. He's haunted by increasingly terrible dreams, and by Jack’s spectre, who informs him that the curse of the werewolf will indeed fall on the full moon, and that the victims of the werewolf, Jack included, are doomed to roam the earth until the line of the werewolf is extirpated.

David's first transformation is both horrific and features some excellent practical effects; but even so, it's soundtracked with Sam Cooke’s version of “Blue Moon”. Classic pop music undercuts the horror more than once. Bobby Vinton’s version of the same song plays over the bleak Yorkshire moors. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” soundtracks the unease of David as he's about to change; Van Morrison’s “Moondance” at least fits the sex scene. But the cheery – I nearly wrote “sunny” but of course it's almost the exact opposite of that – soundtrack forces a dissonance with the subject matter, and that dissonance reminds us that the British horror film has been colonised, that it's undercut.

It instils nervous laughter. It's funny, and the whole film is funny, but it's also wrong. It's not quite the comedy of discomfort; rather it's the comedy of our discomfort. And Jack embodies that, neatly.

Jack’s bloodied cadaver is a horror to see, and he decomposes a bit more each time we see him, but even so, he's still a comedy New Yorker. He's still a comic character, even while he's urging David to kill himself.
Jack: The undead surround me. Ever talked to a corpse? It's boring.
Can I have a piece of toast?
Even the afterlife has been invaded, and the scene in the porn cinema just before the final denouement of the film reinforces that. Jack, now a ghastly death’s head, confronts David with the victims of his first transformation, all sitting in the cinema with him, the pompous businessman, the cheerful couple, the three tramps. And all of them helpfully volunteer suicide methods. Meanwhile, the screen shows a hilariously crap skin flick where the rutting couple get interrupted by phone calls and mistaken identities. It's all very British, and far too late, for the moon will soon rise and David must become the beast again.

The result of all this is mayhem. The werewolf rampages across Piccadilly Circus, and it's like the whole city collapses around the carnage. Cars crash, people die in horrendous and unexpected ways. The pile up of narrative conflicts explodes into a pile up of glass and metal. Everything crashes. Even so, the bleak final scene cuts hard to the credits, and the Marcels’ bright  doo-wop version of “Blue Moon” brings us back to the dissonance, the crash of genres, and it's as jarring as the cars crashing around the monster in its own way.

The American werewolf, at least one conflict too many, plays havoc with the geography of London. Or it would, if London didn’t have a spectacularly weird geography anyway, or rather it has aspects about it that make its geography weird, about which I've already written and which will no doubt write about again. The city's exceptionally accessible transport infrastructure warps the way you see distances (on my last visit to England's capitol, Londoner friends perfectly reasonably balked at the idea of a 40 minute walk across Zone 1, while here in the provinces, that's something I wouldn't think twice about doing on an average day) and turns the city into an archipelago of disconnected islands. And An American Werewolf in London has that same fragmented geography to it. It's set in a variety of places that don't quite join together. We don't get a real sense of relative space. He's in the hospital, he's in Alex’s flat. He's in the wolf enclosure of London Zoo, and then he's not in the zoo anymore. The night after he rampages across the city, killing anyone he meets, a cabbie tells David and Alex that the murders happened “across the city”. The city is a big place.

And more than that, the area outside of the city is no more or less connected, which you can see really clearly when Dr Hirsch goes on a fact-finding expedition to that same Yorkshire village and apparently gets there and back – and in any real world, that's a four- to five-hour drive before you factor in stops – in a single day.
He was talking about werewolves.
Mainstream directors are especially terrible with British geography anyway, that's a living tradition, but the Britishness of An American Werewolf in London’s milieu is somehow more meaningful than Kevin Costner making it from Dover to Nottingham in a day (on foot. Via Hadrian's Wall). Here, whether it's accidental or deliberate, it supports the narrative breakdown. Because London is weird, the weirdest city I’ve ever been to, and since the concrete geography of London is, to an outsider, exceptionally fragile anyway, its fragmentation is inevitable.

An American Werewolf in London shares in some of the tropes of folk horror, but folk horror depends upon people who appear outsiders being very much part of the story, and the repeated iteration of the “it was you they wanted all along” plot thread is a proof of that, almost, a confirmation that the outsider belongs in this story. But in An American Werewolf in London, the outsider has come from an entirely different story.
Without a dream in my heart. Without a love of my own.
And here, I think, is where the urban wyrd and folk horror diverge, since it's the urban landscape itself, a built landscape, that is much more obviously a landscape of the imagination than the countryside since it bears the physical imposition of human imagination (or, in less complicated language, it has more buildings in it), and as a landscape of the imagination, it is all the more plastic, all the more prone to be moulded by a story, and all the more at threat when that story threatens narrative carnage.

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