“On the moors, we were attacked by a lycanthrope, a werewolf. I was murdered, an unnatural death, and now I walk the earth in limbo until the werewolf’s curse is lifted.”
David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two college boys about to backpack through London. Their trip is deterred by a group of hostile locals, who force the boys out in the rain. Though the boys are warned to keep to the road, they veer to the moors and are disturbed by animal noises. Jack is soon attacked and killed by a wolf while David tries to run for cover, though he returns in time to be bitten by the wolf just as the locals from the pub kill the beast. Following this horrific event, David tries to heal with the help of extremely affectionate Nurse Alex (Jenny Agutter). However, David is haunted by Jack, whose ghost assures David that not only will David turn into a werewolf, but that Jack, along with David’s other victims, will walk the in-between of life and death until David dies.
On the surface, this is a werewolf movie; during the full moon, the bitten man transforms into a bloodthirsty beast. If you look closely though, there are powerful themes at play that may explain some of David’s behavior throughout An American Werewolf in London.
David suffers from tremendous guilt after Jack’s death. Aside from being haunted by a progressively decaying friend, David mentions Jack often. He even mentions him during his transformation (^watch the video), which is by far one of the best – if not the very best – on-screen werewolf transformations to date. AT LEAST watch that part.
The surface view suggests David is doing fairly well. He shacks up with a hot nurse; appears healthy; and seems mild-mannered during the day, but his nightlife is rife with bizarre dreams and visits from Jack. The situation becomes even more urgent when David does evolve into a moon-mad monster. As his body count climbs, the suicide suggestions from Jack climb ever higher until David transforms in the middle of a seedy movie theater.
Did David Kill Jack?
This is where things get really juicy, or meaty, or whatever you prefer.
There are scenes in which the psychiatrist, Doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine) speaks to the pub-goers (who apparently live at this pub) and he is told about the town’s collective werewolf belief. David transforms into a werewolf. The people of London see David running around as a werewolf. If you believe the narrative is told from an outsider’s perspective, then of course David did not kill Jack; it was that damn werewolf!
But then again…
The story is mainly told by David. He witnesses Jack’s death, but he is the only witness. Yes, David does transform into a werewolf – but conveniently, no one else sees his transformation. Also, wouldn’t turning into a werewolf be such a tidy, though wild, explanation for David’s behavior? This could be a way he copes with his heavy guilt; his behavior is not his fault. He can’t help it. He is at the mercy of the moon.
The events leading up to David’s revelation are strange when one considers that David does not call his family after a lengthy stay in-hospital; he does not choose to go back to America; he does not appear to have plans to return to his old life. There is also a very obvious clue – so obvious it stares the viewers in the face as it gets more decrepit with each passing scene; Jack tells us, in so many words, that David did kill him.
When Jack reveals all of David’s victims to him in the movie theater, he implies that all of David’s victims will walk the earth until David dies…so that begs the question: What is Jack doing there?
If in fact a werewolf – the same one that bit David and turned him – killed Jack, then when that werewolf was killed by the pub folk, Jack should have been spared the limbo that he explains to David. Yet there he is, hanging out in the movie theater. The only other victims in the theater with David and Jack are the ones murdered at David’s hands since he became a beast, not any victims of any previous werewolves. In this way, Jack tells us exactly who did kill him – not a wolf, but a man posing as a close friend.
I guess that will teach us to choose very carefully who gets to backpack through London with us.