By the time An American Werewolf in London hit theaters, John Landis was a household name. His previous directorial efforts — 1977's Kentucky Fried Movie, 1978's Animal House and 1980's The Blues Brothers — found him the sort of comedy street cred most filmmakers can only dream of. While he stayed true to his comedy roots with the 1981 werewolf-themed movie, Landis branched out from the confines of the genre and added some gruesome horror to the mix.
What's intriguing when you think about An American Werewolf in London is that, on the film's surface, it is simply about an unknowing young man who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time — only to be bitten and eventually transform into a lycanthrope.
After a gruesome attack that leaves David Kessler (David Naughton) horribly wounded and his buddy Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) torn apart at the scene, David finds himself stuck in Britain. And, like any other average young American male, he quickly falls in love with his nurse — and even quicker, still, begins to question his own sanity as he receives multiple visits from his recently deceased pal.
Was he going insane or was this werewolf transformation really happening? Trying to calibrate his own sanity, we watch as David tries to acclimate to his new hospital surroundings.
Up until this part of the movie, the audience gets a fair share of Landis' signature comedy and character dialog. Needless to say, nothing could prepare viewers for the scene that came next.
From the hospital, we're suddenly transported back to his family's living room. The Muppet Show is playing on the TV set — a nod to the Frank Oz series which was canceled that same year — and we see a young boy and girl sitting in front of the television, watching intently, as the Kessler patriarch reclines on the couch. David's mother, from the kitchen, yells for David to answer the door. Our hero is too busy buried in his homework to be bothered.
Meanwhile, a wide shot of the living room gives us further insight into the family's religious origins: Multiple candelabras adorn the mantel above the fireplace, including a menorah. If David and Jack's last names didn't clue you into the Jewish-ness of our main character — and if you glossed over the corny Jewish joke made at David's expense in the hospital, regarding the size of the young man's penis — this would be a moment of clarity: David and the rest of the Kessler clan are Jews.
Which makes the next moment all the more horrifying.
Instead of bothering David a second time to get the door, his father gets up from the couch to do so … revealing a heavily armed gang of mutant Nazis standing on their doorstep. David's dad is immediately gunned down, thus sparking an onslaught of gunfire as his family, one by one, is murdered right before his eyes. And with one of the mutant Nazis holding him down, a large knife to his throat, David is literally unable to do anything but watch each of his loved ones perish before his eyes.
His mother is blown across the kitchen, another mutant gang member kicks in the television set — bye bye, Kermit and Miss Piggy — and David continues to witness this whole attack unfold as his brother and sister become the next victims in the hail of bullets.
The amount of gunfire tears the house to shreds. Then they use the lit fireplace to ignite torches, setting the entire structure ablaze. With flames surrounding him, and each member of his family dead, the mutant holding David down finally uses the knife at his throat and slices, prompting David to awaken from the nightmare. But he's not really awake, not yet. From the safety of his hospital room, David is assaulted once more by a mutant Nazi in hiding, finally allowing him to escape sleep's grip.
When viewing this scene in relation to the rest of the film — aside from the gruesome werewolf transformation segment which put makeup artist Rick Baker on the map — it's easy to label it as a "WTF Moment." But while the bonkers violent nature of the nightmare easily takes the audience out of its comfort zone, there's a deeper meaning to the whole scenario entirely.
Werewolves, throughout horror lore, have existed as, sort of, the red-headed stepchildren of the monster bunch. Vampires get romanticized; Lycanthropes, however, are, more often than not, looked at through a misfit lens.
The attack by the mutant Nazis, as over-the-top and bloody as it was, displays the fears and anxieties faced by modern day Jews in a post-holocaust world. Remember, An American Werewolf in London took place less than four decades after Hitler's reign came to an end. Placing an American Jew in a landscape where ghosts of the past still linger fresh in the present day air, digs up the unspoken, yet understood, fear that's rooted from an era where these atrocities were the law of the land.
David's fever dream, this fiery invasion of a bunch of killer Nazi thugs, in mutant form, is simply an amped up, hyper-stylized representation of the monsters who slaughtered his ancestors, and the all-encompassing symbol of the monster — as well as the fear and the shame — that can find itself hiding inside us all.