Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film is a major four-month film season at BFI Southbank and across the UK from October 2013 to January 2014.
There should be a distinction struck between films that we love and films that we merely really, really, really like. To love something is so much more than to really like it: it’s to be changed by it, to be somewhat emotionally dependent on it and to want to be around it forever.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) might seem an incongruous choice under such auspices. It’s undoubtedly a film that a lot of people admire and in the last few years has undergone a long overdue critical reassessment. You can’t throw a digital rock without hitting a blog by someone more learned or geeky than me on this film. But I don’t want to write about the film so much as the love I have for it.
1985. Yellow-brick suburban Oxford. Fat little Jewish boy. Not just the only Jewish boy at my school but, I suspect, the only Jewish boy to actually ever have gone to that school. The term ‘Jew’ was misunderstood by everyone there and none more so than me. I was nine and had yet to internally either embrace or deny my religion as anglicised, provincial little Jews must as they approach puberty.
I was not offended by the frequent playground anti-semitism as I knew those hurling it had even less of a clue as to why it was supposed to be insulting than I did.
Judaism to me was a chore followed by good food. A couple of times a month, I’d sit in a big room where people would sing harmoniously in a language I could read but not understand. I quite liked it but didn’t really get the point of it. It was something I inescapably was rather than something I had chosen to do.
And then An American Werewolf in London happened. Dad taped it for me off the TV one night, as he did any film he thought I might get a kick out of. I adored it from the first reveal of the protagonists, two amiable American hitchhikers being dropped off on the Yorkshire moors with the line “You have lovely sheep” – which was Pythonesque enough to instantly win my heart.
As a precocious film geek, obsessed with the land of America and its abundant promise, to see an American film set in the UK was mind blowing. UK cinema to me at that time was the endless drudgery of Carry On films every Sunday afternoon. This novelty, along with the pithy script, Brian Glover and – hey – a werewolf, got me through to the exchange that bears most significance. Recovering from the initial attack, our titular hero David Kessler (David Naughton) lies unconscious in his hospital bed, watched over by two nurses.
“He’s a Jew” says one.
“How do you know?”
“I had a look.”
My life changed. To me, in suburban Oxford, Jews were hairy old German-sounding men with huge ears, and a smattering of younger people who would eventually jump ship or become that. I considered Judaism obscure to the point of curiosity. I had no notion that there might be Jews in Hollywood (hey, I was nine) and absolutely no notion that a Jew could be interesting.
David Kessler became my hero. Wisecracking, vulnerable, an apparent master of cunnilingus (it took me a couple of years to understand that scene) and a werewolf to boot!
As the film progressed, an amiable horror comedy full of jumps balanced by fun, I suddenly found myself confronted by the most disturbing cinematic sequence I had ever encountered. Seemingly a flashback to happier times, we see David at home with his family. Their house, replete with the religious nick-nacks that I, too, was surrounded by. A knock at the door is followed by an invasion of unmistakably Nazi demons who gun down David’s whole family, desecrate and set fire to his house and slit his throat.
It turns out to be a dream sequence but, even at nine, I knew there was something far more shocking about it than the gore or noise. It gets right to the heart of modern post-holocaust Judaism. It embodies this primal fear that our new western society could turn on us interlopers at any moment, systematically destroying us like animals while hatefully spitting on our culture.
Culture is perhaps the key word. Up to this point in my life, Judaism had been a religion but this film revealed a culture: intelligent, deeply humorous, somewhat integrated but always the outsider. It wouldn’t be long until Dad would tape Woody Allen and Mel Brooks films for me and I’d start to feel comfortable in, even proud of, my cultural identity.
An American Werewolf in London is often credited as both one of the greatest horror films and greatest comedies in modern film history. Rightly so. But I’ve yet to hear it credited as the exceptionally significant piece of Jewish cinema that I truly believe it is.
The story of a man equipped only by his wit (if not his wits) in a country that neither understands nor particularly wants him. A man who is dazed by his recent bloody and brutal ordeal who does his very best to get along, despite being racked by the guilt and self-hatred of knowing what he is inside. I’m not arguing that director John Landis set out to make a hairy Jewish allegory, I’m just saying that there was an incidental subtext that continues to speak to and comfort me almost 30 years later.
And that’s why I love it. An American Werewolf in London is the film that connected me to my Jewish culture. It taught me that one doesn’t need to be religious or dogmatic (it’s a pun, but it’s a good pun) to be Jewish. It gave cathartic release to certain primal fears. It gave me my first proper taste of that delicious New York Jewish humour… And it had WEREWOLVES in it!
I’ve met John Landis a few times over the years. The first was at a geeky film convention in London where I was giddy about the prospect of getting my poster signed. I queued patiently and as I approached him, he roared “OH! Finally a JEW!” uncannily mirroring the sentiment that he had inspired in me three decades earlier.