An American Werewolf in London Beat Sheet
An American Werewolf in London (1981), a horror comedy that’s become a beloved cult classic, and is often at the top of many The Best of Werewolf Movies lists, was a film about 12 years in the making. When writer-director John Landis was 18, with modest beginnings, he worked as a production assistant in Yugoslavia on the Clint Eastwood-starring film, Kelley’s Heroes (1970).
During a break in the shooting, Landis witnessed a gypsy burial where a corpse, wrapped in garlic wreaths, was buried feet first at some crossroads. Landis was a modern teen witnessing this old-world tradition and it sparked an idea—what if the corpse of this “bad man” climbed out of his grave as the undead? How would someone in the modern age deal with ancient superstitions resurrecting themselves? He soon penned the script. The script was turned down by producers for a decade as either being “too scary to be funny or too funny to be scary.”
However, after Landis made three successful films in a row—Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978), and The Blues Brothers (1980)—he was considered a bankable enough director to take his shot with his shelved horror comedy script. An American Werewolf in London was only a modest hit when released, becoming more popular subsequently during midnight screenings and on home video. It did, however, win a special Academy Award® for Rick Baker’s jaw-dropping make-up effects.
Though John Landis has made the aforementioned blockbuster films, as well as Trading Places (1983), Spies Like Us (1985), Three Amigos (1986), and Coming to America (1988), the writer-director considers An American Werewolf in London to be his masterpiece.
Written and Directed by: John Landis
MITH Type: Supra-Natural Monster
MITH Cousins: The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London, Ginger Snaps, Dog Soldiers, Silver Bullet, Wolfen, The Howling, Cursed, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Late Phases, Wolf, Curse of the Werewolf, The Company of Wolves, Bad Moon
Opening Image: We open with sweeping vistas of the moors of England with Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon” on the soundtrack. On a lonely stretch of muddy road, headlights appear and draw closer, revealing a paneled truck hauling sheep and something else…
Set Up: Two young men in their 20s riding with a flock of sheep (which is a non-subtle bit of foreshadowing for the fate of the two—lambs to the slaughter). Introducing David Kessler (David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne), two colorful, puffy jacket-wearing, American college students who are backpacking across Europe for three months. Immediately we know who they are and what they want. True, fate has other plans, but they start off on their journey with the best of intentions and lots of jokes and laughs. The humor and lightheartedness of the two boys makes them instantly likeable and relatable.
Theme Stated: David and Jack are strangers in a strange land—but they have no idea how strange. They’ve arrived from a modern, practical world into an old and traditional one steeped with secretive superstitions. They don’t respect those traditions and will ignore the warnings, which will be their transgression that will bring the monster, quite literally. The theme here is to take heed of the warnings no matter how odd they may seem—they’re all true.
David and Jack arrive at the Slaughtered Lamb in the hamlet of East Proctor. The pub has a sign that’s a bloody wolf’s head on a pike. Jack, taken aback, asks, “What kind of ad is that for a pub?” Well, it’s foreshadowing as well as a place that has likely held onto a dark secret for generations.
Inside the East Proctor pub, the boys find the locals standoffish, unfriendly, and suspicious. They hope for food and rest, but all they find are puzzled faces and whispers. Jack remarks that the pentagram drawn on the wall, with candles bookending either side, is a talisman to ward off supernatural evil in the form of monsters. They pass it off as tradition.
One of the locals, a chess player (Brian Glover), warms up to them with an off-color joke which gets the entire stern pub laughing.
It’s cool, Jack and David are good now… until Jack asks about “the star on the wall.” That shuts the locals in the dour little pub back down. Feeling uncomfortable, David and Jack leave. The pub’s barmaid (Lila Kaye) tries to get the boys to stay (not saying why) but it’s too late. The strangers steal away into the night. But not before the locals offer them some words of warning—Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors. Beware of the moon. These are the basic rules to navigate this strange new land. Will the rules be heeded? Well, this is a horror film after all, so you probably know the answer…
Catalyst: At 12 minutes in, the full moon slices its way through some dark clouds and shines over the desolate moors. Discussing the weirdness of the Slaughtered Lamb, the two step off the road, which they were warned by the locals to stay on at least twice. To make matters worse, they’re hit with a torrent of icy rain.
Debate: Back in the Slaughtered Lamb, the dour-faced locals debate about letting the boys go out into the dangerous night. They were afraid to share the real reason and are now feeling guilty. The bone-chilling howl of the wolf causes them to stir.
Back on the moors, the unearthly howl causes David and Jack to stop and realize they might be in trouble. They also realize that it’s a full moon, and they were to “beware of the moon” as well as “stick to the road.” They’ve done neither. They elect to return to the Slaughtered Lamb but they’re hopelessly lost out on the rainy moors. And they’re being hunted.
They stop. The growling beast circles them, waiting to pounce from the darkness. They start to flee, antagonizing the monster. David falls and Jack goes to help him up. The werewolf pounces on Jack and rips him to shreds—a lamb to the slaughter.
David, acting on pure survival instinct, runs for it. Then realizes that he can’t leave his best friend behind. He returns but it’s too late—Jack is a bloody mess. The lycanthrope pounces on David, tearing through his jacket down to the naked skin. Just as the beast is about to rip out his throat, some members of the Slaughtered Lamb, rifles in hand, shoot the monster.
As David blacks out, he sees that the “monster” is really just a naked man, having reverted back to his human form, dying on the wet grass of the moors.
Break into Two: David awakens in St. Martin’s Hospital in London at 17 minutes in. The bright light and modern setting is a sharp contrast to the rainy moors of East Proctor. This is the antithesis world to the earlier thesis realm. David learns that he’s been there for three weeks and Jack was killed. He also learns from Dr. Hirsch (John Woodvine) that the local authorities in East Proctor reported that David and Jack were attacked by a raving lunatic. David corrects them and says that his attacker was a wolf.
Fun and Games: An American embassy spokesman (Frank Oz) and two London investigators, one being the no-nonsense Inspector Villiers (Don McKillop), meet with David. The story is the same—they believe it was an escaped lunatic, not a wolf. How are modern city people going to believe such lunacy, considering Jack and David didn’t earlier?
David begins having bizarre, primal dreams about running naked through a forest and killing deer with his bare hands, eating the bloody flesh raw. These dreams, which are often like visions, have David worrying about his sanity.
B Story: Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) tends to David, forcing him to eat his dinner so she can administer some pills. There’s a spark of romance between them. Alex is David’s helper in the city, and after Jack, she’s the most important person in his life who will support him with his lycanthropic troubles. David had ignored the ancient superstitions earlier, but now he’s starting to understand them—and like before in the pub, he needs Alex, a sophisticated modern woman, to understand the truth of the lupine curse. Will she before it’s too late?
David debates with Dr. Hirsch about what he saw (this will pay off later). The good doctor believes that what the authorities told him was correct, despite viewing Jack’s corpse. David tells the doctor he doesn’t want to be by himself.
Alex sees to David, reading Mark Twain. David continues having strange hallucinatory dreams, some now involving Alex. In one of the most violent, David is at home with his family. A pack of Nazi demons armed with machine guns decimate the Jewish family, killing David’s mother, father, sister, and brother before the malicious demons slit his throat.
“Can I have a piece of toast?” As David is about to eat his morning breakfast, he’s interrupted by his friend, Jack. Jack doesn’t look so well—he looks like exactly what he is—somebody who’s been freshly ripped apart by a werewolf. He’s a literal Half Man. And like any Half Man who has faced the monster, Jack has come to warn his best friend, telling David that they were attacked by a werewolf and that Jack died an unnatural death. Now Jack must walk the Earth in limbo until the werewolf’s bloodline is severed. The last remaining werewolf—David—must be destroyed. Jack, as the false mentor, tells David to kill himself before he kills others.
Upset, David calls for help. Jack’s last words before he vanishes is what the boys were told before: “Beware of the moon.” David calls for help and Alex shows up. They kiss. She is gentle with him. David convinces himself he was only dreaming of his dead friend.
Alex takes David to her flat in downtown London. They have an animal magnetism to one another and it’s not a surprise that they’re immediately entwined in her bed as lovers.
Waking up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, David runs into undead Jack again. Jack doesn’t look as “fresh” as before, his skin is graying and he’s starting to decay.
Half Man Jack warns David that tomorrow night he’ll become a werewolf. His undead friend, in his false mentor way, reminds David again that he must kill himself to save lives. David tells Jack to go away and that he will not be threatened by a “walking meat loaf.”
The voices in the night awaken Alex. She finds David alone in the living room. After she takes him back to bed, David tells her Jack visited him again and warned he would become a monster tomorrow night. Alex says that she believes that the delusions David is having regarding Jack is survivor guilt. David asks Alex if she’s seen the 1941 film, The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (This is a callback to when Jack was also referring to the film in the pub.) Alex hasn’t seen the movie. David explains that Claude Rains, Chaney’s father in the film, kills the lycanthrope and that, perhaps, “a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves him.”
In East Proctor, Dr. Hirsch visits the Slaughtered Lamb. He finds the same standoffishness that Jack and David experienced when he starts inquiring about what really happened the night the boys were attacked. The city doctor learns from a frightened local that David will become a werewolf at the next full moon, but the brutish chess player prevents him from revealing any more details.
Midpoint: Back in London, Alex leaves David in her flat to go to work. David is restless and alone, like a caged beast, all to the montage of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” which lends a warning of the inevitable.
The clock is ticking as the day progresses, and the stakes will raise as the full moon will unavoidably rise.
Of course, the full moon peeks through the clouds and David starts to change in one of the most incredible—and painful—transformations ever put on film (which won a special Oscar® for Rick Baker for the make-up).
David turns into a quadruped werewolf, similar to the one that attacked him and Jack on the moors.
Bad Guys Close In: Lycanthrope David, the bad guy, closes in on his victims all across London—his way of going public shortly after the Midpoint. He kills a fun-loving couple in a park, three bums in a wrecking yard, and a lone, stern-faced business commuter down in the tube (subway).
Back at the hospital, Dr. Hirsch sits Nurse Alex Price down and tells her what happened at East Proctor. In contrast to how he was originally when David persisted in his “werewolf fantasies,” the doctor is convinced that there’s something strange afoot in the village and that the residents are hiding something. Of course, being a sophisticated man of science, he believes it’s some kind of “mass hypnosis” and that they have convinced David that he will turn into a werewolf at the next full moon.
David, of course, couldn’t turn into an actual beast as that’s too much supernatural for a rational, scientific mind. However, the doctor does believe that David could be experiencing the same delusional effects that the East Proctor villagers do and the victim could harm other people, like a lunatic, believing the full moon has some kind of power over him.
The next morning, David finds himself lying naked in a wolf’s pen at the London Zoo.
In one of the most comic elements of the film, the naked David must navigate the well-populated city in order to return to Alex’s flat—this involves him stealing some balloons from a pragmatic young boy and a woman’s overcoat.
Soon, David returns to Alex’s flat.
She’s there waiting for him, worried since he has been gone all night. Dr. Hirsch calls and tells them to come to the hospital right away so David can be in his care. Hirsch read the morning papers and there’s some alarming news that could be correlated with David’s disappearance.
All Is Lost: Riding in a taxi en route to St. Martin’s hospital, at 75 minutes, a chatty cabby reveals the grisly spate of murders—“six of them: all in different parts of the city, all mutilated. He must be a real right maniac, this fella.” This is the same thing that Dr. Hirsch read in the morning papers.
Enraged, David tells the cabbie to pull over. Alex asks him what’s he’s doing. David realizes that Jack was right—he’s a werewolf and he killed all of those people. The full moon will rise again and he will change—he must do something to stop himself! David immediately finds a bobby (police officer), admits his crime from the night before, and asks to be arrested. When the bobby refuses, he tries insulting the constable but to no effect. Angry and confused, David tells Alex that he’s too dangerous to be around and that he loves her, and then he breaks away into the crowd of onlookers. He’s now loose and alone in the city.
At St. Martin’s Hospital, Alex and Dr. Hirsch speak with Inspector Villiers and his partner. The nurse and doctor are convinced there’s a connection to David and the killings but Inspector Villiers is not (this skepticism will be his fatal undoing). Nonetheless, Villiers says he and the police will scour the city to find David.
Dark Night of the Soul: In a Piccadilly Circus phone booth, David calls home. His mom and dad aren’t there but he talks to his kid sister, telling her his goodbyes, his subtle suicide note to them. After the call, he attempts to slit his wrist with a Swiss Army Knife—to sever the werewolf’s bloodline forever to end the sinister curse and to free himself and Jack, as well as prevent more killings. He can’t do it. As he’s leaving the phone booth, he sees undead Jack motioning him inside a porno theatre. David obliges his corpse friend.
In the Piccadilly Circus porno theatre, Jack, who has decomposed so much his skull is beginning to seep through his decayed skin, introduces David to the people (more Half Men) he murdered the previous night—the couple in the park, the man on the tube, and the three bums from the wrecking yard. They’re all horribly bloody and some are disfigured. Jack and the rest tell David he must take his own life—as they’re not happy with David’s actions. He has no memory of killing them, but he’s sure he’s responsible. The werewolf victims happily give him suggestions on how to do it. This is David’s learning moment that is his synthesis—he mocked traditions and ignored Jack’s false mentor warnings and these fresh corpses are the consequence. David has come full circle from his time early in the story at the Slaughtered Lamb. Heed the warnings—they’re all true.
Break into Three: In bustling Piccadilly Circus, the full moon rises over the electric-light night.
In the theatre, David transforms into a werewolf for a second time.
An onlooker, perhaps thinking David’s writhing around in his seat is more of a sexual reaction to the bad porno film on the screen, is the first victim, and more follow.
Inspector Villiers and the police show up. Villiers, who didn’t believe in the werewolf theory, has his head bitten off by the monster (his ignorance of the warnings killing him). The werewolf then rampages through the London traffic, causing several deaths from car crashes as the drivers veer away from hitting the snapping, raging beast.
Alex and Dr. Hirsch get word that there’s a disturbance in Piccadilly Circus involving a “mad dog.” Alex knows it’s David. In a synthesis moment, she finally believes in the ancient curse her new beau was talking about (and Jack warned David about) and this ties A and B stories together for the final time as well as raises the stakes.
Five Point Finale:
1. Gathering of the Team – The police gear up with rifles to stop the beast. The werewolf howls, revealing his location. The police cordon off the street and trap the monster in an alley. Seeing all the police at the mouth of the alley from her taxi, Alex knows where to find David. She hops out and takes action.
2. Executing the Plan – Alex breaks through the police line and heads down the dark alley toward “David.” Alex confronts “David,” who’s lurking in the shadows, telling the monster that she loves him, responding to his declaration of love the last time they spoke.
3. High Tower Surprise – The werewolf, seeing only prey and no longer the woman he loves, leaps at Alex from the shadows to rip her throat out.
4. Dig, Deep Down – The police, demonstrating some incredible marksmanship firing down a dark alley and completely missing Alex standing in the way, hit the werewolf with a volley of rifle fire.
5. Executing the New Plan – The wolf falls into a heap of fur and blood. Alex cries as Dr. Hirsch runs toward her, followed by the police. The werewolf is dead. This is, perhaps, a callback to the earlier scene in Alex’s apartment where David was talking about the classic Wolf Man film and “that a werewolf can only be killed by someone who loves them.” Alex didn’t pull the trigger, but by her being there, it caused David Lycanthrope to spring—and ultimately for him to die. Did the beast bite the bullet for love? Was Alex willing to risk her life for love? Did beauty kill the beast? Those questions remain in the dead-end alley forever.
Final Image: David lies naked among the trash, his body riddled with bullets. He has transformed through the story from a fun-loving figure full of life and jollity into this, a tragic character who meets a sad end. And yet, David has a look of contentment about him. His curse has lifted and his suffering, as well as his undead friend Jack, are over forever.
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