Monster Mixtape: An American Werewolf in London

It’s that time of the year again. There’s a slight chill to the late summer evenings. Leaves are starting to bring out their fall colors. Each day is just a bit shorter than the last. We can all feel what these changes signify. No, not going back to school, but that it’s the season for monster movies! Between now and Halloween I’ll be highlighting ten of the best toothy, sharp-clawed, and mutated aberrations to shred the silver screen. Some are old classics, others are newcomers, but all are awesome.

“Beware the moon, lads.” Let’s talk about David from An American Werewolf in London.

When I started this series, I promised myself that I would focus on unique monsters and try to stay away from monster archetypes as much as possible. No vampires. No mummies. No zombies. Ok, trolls sort of break the rule, but Trollhunter was just too charming to leave out. But, as much as I wanted to pick the Grabbers or Brundlefly for the fifth entry in this series, a particular werewolf stuck its fangs into my brain and refused to let go.

The classic cinema werewolf is a cookie-cutter creature. Joe Schmo survives an attack by some… thing and the next full moon they look like they’ve jumped into a vat of rogaine and can’t deny the urge to chase cars. John Landis’ classic dark comedy can take all that lore as a given when backpacking students David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) get torn up by one of the mythical canids when they wander onto the moors one moonlit night. (Except for the silver bullet. “Be serious, would you?”) And Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning makeup effects are still unmatched in showing us the painful process in how a man becomes a beast.

wolf-1

But David’s the real monster, and a different sort than I’ve featured on this list up until now. My favorite monsters aren’t evil. They’re animals. You can’t blame trolls for wanting to bash Christians or silicates from wanting to drink bones. That’s just their nature. While certainly vicious, wolfed-out David is the same. A werewolf has no morality to judge. But David, as his day-to-day self, does. That’s what makes him – David Kessler the human – more tragically monstrous than the wolf inside.

You can’t blame David at first. His best friend was ripped to shreds in front of him before getting badly scratched up himself, finding himself alone in a foreign city. It’s easy to pass off the nightmares as the stress and trauma trying to work themselves out. (I had terrible nightmares when I was worried about descending to an excavation in an Ice Age death trap, but, so far as I know, those weren’t a sign I was about to become a monster.) And even when his buddy Jack, looking every bit like the dog’s breakfast, shows up to warn David of what he will become, the natural response is to of course write the omen off as hallucination.

wolf-2

So the first run of six slaughters are a mistake. A horrible mistake, to be sure, but we can give David a mulligan on his first night as a werewolf. The second night, however, is a different story. True, maybe some college student sometime drank themselves into such a state that waking up into a wolf cage wouldn’t be totally unexpected, but for David it’s just the first line of quickly-mounting evidence that his canid self went on a killing spree the night before. He makes a token effort to get locked up by the cops and contemplates suicide, but he mostly ends up running from the truth for so long that a second rampage is inevitable. Even when his victims show up to confront him, all pleading him to let them rest and offering any number of suggestions on how to sacrifice himself, David sits paralyzed in the back of a porn theater until the wolf takes him again.

That’s why David’s the monster. The werewolf is terrible, but it has no choice. David does and, through a belief that a werewolf has to be killed by someone they love, leaves a blood-spattered heap of destruction in his wake. The monster inside was not so bad as the person who left the cage open.

Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the National Geographic blog Laelaps.

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