Calling An American Werewolf in London a hidden gem might seem like a reach – it’s easily one of the most popular horror-comedies of all time, and one of a shamefully small selection of top-quality mainstream werewolf stories to grace the silver screen. Its special effects at the masterful hands of Rick Baker are the stuff of horror legend, influencing Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video two years later, and a countless score of horror directors for years to come. And yet, even with the 21st-century’s long overdue re-appraisal of marginalised identities in film, American Werewolf seems oddly neglected. Under Landis’ darkly comedic direction, the film has become a werewolf in sheep’s clothing. Far from being just a run-of-the-mill horror-comedy, American Werewolf brings us the first (and perhaps only) Jewish werewolf.
As a staple of the horror genre, the werewolf is not exactly a typical representative of the Jewish community. Before the turn to werewolves as a metaphor for adolescence, it wasn’t uncommon in American cinema to liken Nazis and other assorted fascists to werewolves, with stories such as The Wolf Man (1941), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and The Werewolf (1956) all making use of lycanthropy as a blood-red flag. Underneath a civil facade, a predator could await – just like fascists. In the cinema of the 1940s, the werewolf became one of horror’s most potent symbols of the repressed, the hidden, the Other inside…
In an unforgettable and, in some ways, painfully bittersweet opening sequence, we bear witness to the trauma that will haunt our Jewish werewolf: on a backpacking trip across Europe, David’s companion Jack is slaughtered by a werewolf, which is itself then killed. David narrowly survives. Unlike some horror movies, in which the instantly forgotten opening kill is merely a set-piece to hook an audience of restless teenagers, Jack’s grisly death haunts the narrative in a truly meaningful way. While Landis manages to do this without sacrificing the film’s sense of humour (particularly in the iconic cinema scene in which Jack and David’s recent victims recommend methods of suicide), Jack’s death triggers a survivor’s guilt in David that permeates the narrative. While David fears the werewolf he becomes, it is this haunting that gives voice to those fears, providing a psychological counterpart to Baker’s stunning visual effects, telling David (often quite cheerily) that he is in fact the very predator he is afraid of.
In his wonderfully insightful essay, ‘A Terrifyingly Fragile Border: Jewish Assimilation in An American Werewolf in London’, Daniel Anderson writes, ’Upon his attack by the werewolf, [David] remembers that though he has been assimilated into the larger American identity, he is still Jewish’. Anderson points out numerous places where Landis nudges David’s Jewishness into the spotlight – from David’s bright, blood-red jacket, the insistence of the woman barkeep that there is no food, and even the name of the pub (The Slaughtered Lamb) coalesce into an extended Passover metaphor in which David and Jack are the sacrificial lambs. It’s important to note that the film’s Jewish themes and imagery aren’t exactly hidden. Not every reference to Jewishness and Judaism is as subtle as the opening ‘Passover’ scenes.
Rather, every other time Jewishness is referenced, it’s almost entirely sub-textual or obscured: a menorah hidden in the background, Nazi werewolves in a dream sequence, a throwaway reference to circumcision. American Werewolf is one of a growing trend of films in the 1970s and 80s which sought to de-exoticize Jewish identity by depicting Jewish protagonists as everyman characters, assimilating them into generic white/Christian/North American backgrounds, and thus the audience relies almost entirely on the sensibility of the film to inform its Jewishness. And, as Landis shows us in great, gory detail, that normalisation can come at a sometimes deadly price: assimilation. The process of assimilation in American Werewolf is a bloody one. In his subconscious, David is made to watch his family’s throats be slit by werewolves in Nazi uniforms, suggesting perhaps that he is the very predator destroying his own culture. The film’s title insists that the outsider element is that David is an American in London, but the subtext of the film suggests otherwise, implying that the real trauma is of being an assimilated Jew in Europe and suffering from the repressed cultural memories of anti-Semitic violence.
For more on John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, read Joshua Rothkopf’s ‘How ‘American Werewolf in London’ Transformed Horror-Comedy’ and Daniel Anderson’s essay ‘A Terrifyingly Fragile Border: Jewish Assimilation in An American Werewolf in London’, available in the collection ‘Monsters of Film, Fiction, and Fable: The Cultural Links between the Human and Inhuman’.