The Love of a Good Woman Won’t Save You: Queer Narratives in An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Content warning: Transphobia is discussed and homophobic language is referred to.
“Now, I’m no longer alone,” croons Bobby Vinton. “Without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.” Slow and desirous, the love ballad opens John Landis’s 1981 An American Werewolf in London. It cascades over the yawning Yorkshire moors and, for a moment, all is placid.
Enter a pair of young friends, David Kessler and Jack Goodman. Backpackers. Americans. Out of their element. They jump from a truck full of sheep. Vinton’s ballad followed by CCR’s “Bad Moon Rising” suddenly renders the gloomy, romantic landscape sinister. The choice of music impeccably frames the film. As the friends jostle and joke on the path, it settles the audience into a discordant sensation. We are never mollified. Anxiety trims our laughter from these early scenes of the friends’ cheerful banter on the dark moor until David’s unflinching death at the end of the film. An American Werewolf in London invites the macabre inside with a grin, even as it wipes it muddy feet on the carpet. We’re barreling towards doom, says the film, but, hey, who gives a shit?
One of horror’s peculiar phenomena is its cyclical investment in a handful of monster staples. It’s a deluge of vampires, until, one day, someone gets into their head we haven’t heard from ghosts for a while and then we’re in specter city for a few years. Cycles of the werewolf tend to be fewer and far-between. After a lengthy dry spell, a wave of werewolf movies came crashing down on the 1980s. In 1981 alone, An American Werewolf shared the silver screen with both The Howling and Wolfen. The decade saw not only sequels, but everything from lycanthropic teen comedies to a made-for-television Scooby-Doo movie, The Reluctant Werewolf. Not to be outdone, Stephen King tossed his hat in the ring with Silver Bullet, a 1985 film based on his earlier novel. An American Werewolf in London, however, has managed to stand apart—perhaps due to its appeal as a comedy more than a horror film or its Academy Award-winning makeup. It has since remained one of the most beloved and famous werewolf films. But overtly queer it is not.
An American Werewolf in London is an unusual candidate for queer analysis, I’ll grant. Its comedic sensibility verges on frat. This is unsurprising, given that, prior to its release, director John Landis produced the hit comedies National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). Landis’s take on the werewolf is not unlike his previous work, relaying tiresome notions about women in particular (“She has no choice,” Jack airily says of a woman he hopes to sleep with. This is certainly not a film that offers much depth to its few female characters.). Nevertheless, because our protagonist David finds himself so at odds with his romantic relationship and his position in society, his transformation merits further investigation.
Unlike this series’s first installation on The Devourers by Indra Das, the queerness in An American Werewolf in London quietly hides within the guise of an “ordinary man” until it bursts forth. Through its engagement with the trope of hidden queerness, the film subverts the construction of a cishetero “average joe,” at once undermining his power and mocking heterosexual narratives in horror.
The plot of An American Werewolf in London is graciously simple. After being bitten by a male werewolf, David wakes in a London hospital to realize Jack is dead and he’s a werewolf—the last one, in fact. An undead Jack explains that he remains in limbo until the curse of the werewolf is wiped from the earth; hence, David must die. The film culminates as a transformed David goes on a chaotic spree in Piccadilly Circus. Surrounded by police, nurse Alex Price confesses her love to the canine thing cowered in an alley. A gunshot rings out. David—human—lies dead on the pavement. Alex sobs. Cut to black.
On paper, An American Werewolf in London does not read like a comedy, nor does it initially appear complex in its depiction of gender and sexuality. Yet, amid the hijinks that typify 1980s comedies, queerness frames the narrative. A light bigotry pervades the film. After his first transformation, David wakes naked in a zoo and, to cover himself, steals a fur-trimmed red coat. In a line of plainly dressed men waiting for a bus, David tries to laugh off their stares. The joke here is not simply David’s nudity, but rather the feminine article of clothing he’s forced to wear. Later, in a desperate attempt to be arrested, David shouts, “Queen Elizabeth is a man! Prince Charles is a faggot! Winston Churchill was full of shit! Shakespeare’s French!”—a litany of assertions designed to offend the hallmarks of Great Britain. This brand of casual trans- and homophobia characterizes many films of the period. On their own, they only reinforce that which we already know: queerness is funny because it isn’t “normal.” The narrative framework of David’s lycanthropy, however, demonstrates a fuller relationship with queerness, one that is in tune with the film’s wonderfully discordant tone.
All werewolves are, inherently, outcasts. As I noted in my introduction to this series, lycanthropic monstrosity is rooted in the werewolf’s disruption of the moral and social fabric of a normative society. An American Werewolf in London takes pains to immediately illustrate David (and Jack’s) outsider position as Americans travelling in England. Before Jack’s death, the pair enters a pub where the locals are inhospitable, all too willing to let the friends go to their deaths on the moor. David is not just a werewolf in London, he’s a Jewish American werewolf, imminently out of place and struggling to find his footing, a position further entrenched in an anti-Semitic culture that codes Jewish men as insufficiently masculine.
Harry M. Benshoff’s examination of homosexuality in horror cinema, Monsters in the Closet (1997) reveals the werewolf as a specifically queer monster, distinct from society. Because An American Werewolf in London buys into the traditional portrayal of lycanthropy—a cursed man who transforms into a wolf when the full moon rises— Benshoff’s argument about the film’s namesake, the 1935 film Werewolf of London, cohesively applies. A remnant of the Victorian occupation with public versus the private, the werewolf figures as a hidden self: he is a seemingly normal man who walks among us, but bears a dark and deadly secret. In literature as well as in psychological and political discourse at the turn of the century, discussion of the “hidden self” was conflated with “deviant” sexuality and relayed fears of degeneration and of the sly infiltration of nonnormative beings into normative (read: cisheterosexual, Protestant) society.
An American Werewolf in London consciously alludes its queer cinematic predecessor, Werewolf of London, also the first Hollywood werewolf film. Landis’s film is indeed incredibly self-aware; Jack references Universal Studios’s “mark of the wolf man” and, later, David considers the films of Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., stating, “I think a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him.” In An American Werewolf in London, Alex seemingly fits this bill: the woman whose love could excise the male werewolf. It is the trick of the successful horror film to subvert a familiar trope, so that, for example, the love of a good woman (Alex) saves the man (David). This reversal of the trope also happens to be a reinforcement of heterosexual norms, an anti-gay conviction that emphasizes heterosexual pairing as the solution to the queer nightmare of the monster (even if the trope renders a decidely unmasculine twist in which a woman saves a man).
After mourning Jack, David’s flirtation with his nurse appears to set his life back on the track of normalcy (despite his lycanthropy). Until, of course, Jack ghoulishly reappears and requests he kill himself. In a particularly strange moment, Jack returns to demand David commit suicide—“It’s boring,” he says of limbo. “I’m lonely.”—after which David wakes, kisses Alex, and declares, “I’m a werewolf.” Throughout David’s budding romance with Alex, Jack continuously haunts David’s periphery. Each interaction is increasingly sexualized: in Alex’s flat Jack wryly comments, “A nurse, huh?”; Jack appears to David in a porno theater in Piccadilly Circus, idly chatting about David’s slaughter of six people as a humorously impersonal sex scene plays in the background. It is in this theater that David transforms for the last time. The friends’ relationship indicates a queer homosociality even as it supports a misogynistic masculinity prevalent in 1980s frat life: Jack—a man representative of David’s hidden self—consistently disrupts David’s attempt at a conventional life, resurfacing to ensure the narrative privileges their bond over the heterosexual romance.
David’s lycanthropy itself also figures as sexual. The day after his first transformation, he exclaims, pawing Alex, “I haven’t felt this good in a long time.” The delight doesn’t last; soon comes the news of the six people mutilated by moonlight. Lycanthropy, like Jack, always returns to impede David’s relationship with Alex. The film’s conflation of werewolves with love stories thus demonstrates the unviability of the male werewolf’s successful relationship with women in anything like a long-term monogamous pairing, the quintessence of cishetero Protestant life. The hidden curse emerges to shatter the everyday man, figuratively and literally. It manifests in the grotesque elasticity of his body; he writhes, yowling, on the floor of a London flat until, fully transformed, he runs from the safety of his girlfriend’s home. Most problematically, though, being a werewolf feels good.
When the curse finally runs the lycanthropic David down into an alley at the end of the film, armed police swarm. The eminently feminine nurse Alex appears, presumably a saving grace. She pleads, “Please let me help you. I love you, David.” Her declaration of love, she hopes, will declaw him.
Then, there are the gunshots.
If the history of cinema suggests a good woman’s love will save a wayward man, An American Werewolf in London adamantly denies the power of heterosexuality to fix the beast’s queerness. Read through a queer lens, we might anticipate David’s end. For everyone else, David’s death is abrupt, shocking. That can’t be it, can it? A peppy doo-wop rendition of “Blue Moon” carries the audience through the credits even as image of his bleeding body imprints the eyelids. The film finally rests on an uncomfortable duality: queer audiences are at once vindicated by David’s death for its condemnation of the heterosexual fallacy, while also mired in another instance of queer tragedy. From the beginning, An American Werewolf in London is fast-tracked toward doom. All the while, we see it coming. What else can you do but laugh?
Comedy’s timing is impeccable. But then, so is tragedy’s.
Join me in the New Year as we take a ride in the wayback machine to revisit the nineteenth century’s most famous female werewolf in the novella The Were-Wolf (1896) by artist and activist Clemence Housman.
Marisa Mercurio (she/her or they/them) is a Michigan-based writer and scholar. As a PhD student, she studies intersections of gender, sexuality, and empire in nineteenth century British literature; female detective fiction; horror and the Gothic. Marisa is also the co-creator and co-host of the However Improbable podcast, a Sherlock Holmes book club that narrates and discusses the great detective. Her writing has recently appeared in Sublime Horror. You can find her on Twitter @marmercurio and on WordPress.
This series was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 from a pitch emailed to the editor following a brief discussion on Twitter. The author and editor are mutual acquaintances through shared scholarly and genre fiction review networks, and the author has written for the editor and ARB previously. No review copy was arranged by ARB.