Jewish Horror Films: An American Werewolf in London (1981)

I had planned to write about the way Jewish filmmakers sometimes code their characters as being Jewish, sometimes in subterranean ways. However, upon a recent rewatching John Landis' "An American Werewolf in London," I realized there's nothing coded, nothing subterranean.

No, Landis' two doomed American leads are unambiguosly Jewish. They hail from Long Island, lust over a young woman named Debbie Klein, and get upset when she beds a fellow named Rudy Levine. A nurse peeks under the sheets when one of the boys is hospitalized and declares him Jewish. They call each other putz and schmuck. And, most tellingly, when one of the boys has a nightmare, it is of werewolves breaking into his family home dressed as Nazis and massacring everyone with machine guns, which also destroys a prominently placed menorah.

I suppose I might have been a bit confused because Landis cast two Irish-Americans as the boys -- specifically David Naughton and Griffin Dunne. But, even then, Naughton has a certain swarthiness and Dunne is neurotic in a strangely cheerful, comic way that reads as Jewish. And who am I to complain that Irish Americans are playing Jews? Every single one of my biological ancestors came from Ireland, and I am a Jew.

So instead I will instead discuss the way the characters' Jewishness informs the film. The plot is brutally easy to summarize: Two American boys on a three-month tour of Europe are attacked by a werewolf on the moors of Northern England, and one is killed. The other awakens in a London hospital, falls in love with a nurse (the terrific Jenny Agutter), and received repeated and unwelcome visits from his dead friend informing him that when the moon is full, he will become a wolf and kill innocent people. And, on the full moon, that's exactly what happens.

I suppose one the the reasons the Jewishness of the film had seemed subtle to me is because the film feels so very English. Landis is not English, of course -- he was born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles. But he lived in London for a while, both working in film (sometimes as a stunt double) and cowriting, without credit, the James Bond film "The Spy Who Loved Me." Landis has also demonstrated a taste for Hammer horror films in later interviews and writing, and so "An American Werewolf" is heavy on English atmosphere.

In fact, the film opens with a series of long, static shots of the moors, demonstrating a fascination with the strangeness of the English countryside that I have only seen elsewhere in folk horror movies; it would hardly be surprising if he moved his camera and revealed people dancing naked around an enormous megalith while a figure burns in a wicker statue. Instead, when the camera moves, it is to reveal our heroes, crushed into the back of a truck filled with sheep. It's a comic image, but a smart one, because it immediately shows them misplaced and ill-at-ease, but also because they are about to be lambs to the slaughter.

In fact, the next place they end up is a rural pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, with an appropriately gruesome bar sign. The bar is filled with English character actors, as is the whole film. There's the battered visage of screen heavy David Schofield, the brutal looking ex-wrestler Brian Glover, the Cockney crime film star Alan Ford, and even the dazzling (and badly missed) comic actor Rik Mayall in a small role. The casting is perfect throughout the film.

There are a few reviews of the film that claim that we shouldn't be looking for subtly in a John Landis film, but this is a tremendously precise piece of filmmaking, from making sure Northerners speak with Northern accents to the fact that it is set in a London that is an international city, especially filled with Indian and Pakistani neighbors -- it was the only film I saw that captured a London that looked like that until the films of Hanif Kureishi some years later. Landis created a film that was supposed to be set in a London that felt like a real London, including a tour of the nurse's tiny apartment and complaints about the cost of living, which American films don't bother with.

That being said, Landis is also a satirist, and the film doesn't simply place London on the screen, but heightens it slightly. Little children will always be dressed in Paddington Bear style duffle coats or schoolboy uniforms with cricket hats. Businessmen will always have their brollies with them, even when fleeing monsters. The police are either gruffly or genially incompetent, especially the bobbies, who all have 'ello 'ello wots all this then accents and seem puzzled and put out by any request for help. Northerners all wear wellies and flat caps, are unwelcoming to visitors, and all have occult secrets. Even when we see a few moments of The Muppet Show, it is of Miss Piggy and Kermit watching a brutal English Punch and Judy show and arguing about its merits. There is a lot in the film that is genuinely daffy, and so these details don't spring out immediately, but they provide the whole film with a sense that Englishness is being slightly lampooned.

Our surviving American, Laughton, is contrasted with all this, in a variety of images that show him being wildly out of place. He finds himself surrounded by English punk rockers on public transit (and is caught when he briefly mocks them), he finds himself locked out of an apartment with children laughing at him, and, in ones of the film's longest sequences, he wakes up naked in the zoo and must nakedly navigate his way back to the apartment.

In fact, Naughton spends about 40 percent of the film naked, and I don't think it is unmeaningful that we hear about his circumcised penis early in the film, as he will spend a lot of the rest of the movie accidentally showing it to English people. He's not just an outsider because he is American, or because he is naked, but especially because he cannot avoid demonstrating that he's Jewish. It's subtext, I know, but I feel like his Jewishness adds a sharpness to his foreignness. Even the film's Pakistanis and Indians feel somehow like they are part of the necessary texture of London -- they are immigrants, but immigrants from British colonies with a long history of expatriating to England. For how out of place he seems, Naughton might as well be a space alien, or, I guess, a werewolf.

There was a sequel to this called "An American Werewolf in Paris," which I shan't bother with, but I will mentioned that I was terribly disappointed that we didn't revisit London, because there is more to explore of the tension between Jewishness and Englishness. There is, after all, a very long history of Jews in England, and a lot of what we think of as typically English were either introduced by Jews (eg. fish and chips) or came out of markets that Jews dominated (eg. English fashion). I suppose it is a bit much to ask for a film in which a Jewish werewolf interacts with the Jewish population of London, but I would see that film.

And this is a deeper cut, but it is possible to read the werewolf story as already being a subtly Jewish one as well. In this film, Naughton references an earlier werewolf film, and it's not the Oliver Reed version made by Hammer. It's the older one, the Lon Chaney one. He's talking about 1941's "The Wolf Man."

This was a film written by Curt Siodmak, a Jewish author from Germany who fled his native country after hearing an antisemitic speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Now, Siodmak wrote a lot of horror films, and I'm not going to go digging through, say 1957's "Love Slaves of the Amazons" to look for Judaic content. But Siodmak created a lot of the mythology that we associate with the werewolf, including the creature being marked by a pentagram and only being susceptible to silver. The Wolf Man, as we think of the monster now, really was Siodmak's invention, created in the middle of the Second World War by a man who had fled Nazis, and includes two details that feel directly inspired by these events. Firstly, there is the idea that man can infect man with something that makes him murderous and monstrous, and secondly there is a theme of losing control of one's destiny in Europe and becoming a hunted wretch as a result.

Neither of these parallel Nazism precisely, or we end up with a wolf man who is a proxy both for Nazis, as a creature of murderous ideology, and Jews, as an outsider victimized by European fanaticism. So I am not making the case that Siodmak was directly translating his experiences into the film, but it's also impossible not to see echos of those experiences in the story. I mean, this is a movie where the doomed hero is marked with a star, and it's impossible not to see shadows of the Holocaust in that.

Unlike in "American Werewolf," the Jewish content in "The Wolf Man" really is subterranean. So I guess I did end up writing that essay after all.