A Meditation on "An American Werewolf in London" The Old Horror Film from John Landis: A Queer Look"
It was called An American Werewolf in London. Released in August of 1981, it was written and directed by John Landis and apparently was billed to be both a comedy and a horror film. So during its opening week, knowing nothing about it in advance, we bought tickets and sat in the spanking new air-conditioned theater at the River Ridge Mall. The Regal Cinemas movie theater was Lynchburg’s first and only triplex, a big deal for Central Virginia. The mall itself had opened in 1980 with 67 stores and a long skylit atrium with water fountains and fake town squares.
The newly cushioned seats and new carpeting still smelled of the factory. I was curious if the film had lots of blood and gore. Michael had bought the popcorn. He had balked at the two giant squirts of chemical-strength “butter” which the smiling boy at the counter had pumped forth onto our mound of white fluffy kernels. Michael protested as we walked to our seats. I told him he’d survive.
I knew the horror film starred David Naughton, the heartthrob actor who had splashed on the scene in 1980 with a raucous Dr. Pepper ad on TV. The young twink was adorable and had made such an impression on many a young woman and young gay boy, including me, that by sheer virtue of his raw physical energy and bad-boy looks he’d captivated our hearts. His youthful vigor and the frenetic dancing-singing razzmatazz seemed to owe most of its appeal to the disco-crazy love parades of 70’s disco clubs. Even I could read his polyamorous, poly-preferential studly vibe.
But as the theater turned dark and the screen lights faded and Michael munched away, I felt a sudden disorientation and panic that had hounded me for quite some time. I still couldn’t believe that I was actually back in my hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, sitting next to Michael. Michael signified New York City and was just on a visit. But now we were in Virginia territory. For the past year I’d been driving down the town’s same streets, past the same school where I’d gone to first grade, and eating Sunday dinners again with my parents. The moment of transition into cinematic make-believe in that dark Virginia theater stirred up memories of the summer just a year ago.
Four years after graduating college in 1976, I’d taken the 1 Train downtown at midnight in June of 1980 to King Street to meet Michael by the velvet rope and enter the Paradise Garage. The Garage was the penultimate gay dance club in New York City. A half-hour later at one am. in the dregs of morning, with Michael at my side, we stood in Oz, somewhere over that dayglo rainbow to a land of vivid whirling color. Sparkly pinprick lights revolved around us from a disco ball as I bumped my booty, and blew from the whistle hung about my neck. The DJ was spinning Diana Ross’s hit single “I’m Coming Out,” then just topping the charts. In the strobe-lit iridescence of a sea of diverse men wearing white tank-tops and carpenter pants, I could see the slow-motion flickering tableau of gay men in close communion, with their cloth rags soaked in poppers gripped between their teeth; pressing close together and doing The Bump in ecstatic adulation. The song’s lyrics were an anthem for the exciting, arty, crazy, disco-, sex-filled liberated late-night life of gay debt-ridden New York. Now and then I saw Michael through the haze of stage smoke and hunky bodies smiling serenely with eyes closed.
Following college, I’d come out as bisexual and then primarily gay. That night at The Garage I’d just broken up the week before with my pregnant girlfriend and two long-term boyfriends: one, my on-and-off again stage-manager-lover-roommate, who lived with me in our rambling apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; and, the other, a classical musician, a moody romantic genius, who was about to leave the US for good to live in Berlin. West Germany at that time was a mecca for down-and-out aspiring American artists. There they could find financial support and an appreciation for the Arts, light years ahead of the United States, which was going through a huge economic downturn. To make matters worse my girlfriend, whom I’d been seeing earlier that spring, had announced she was pregnant and wasn’t sure if I was the father or if it was her ex-boyfriend. Apparently she had been seeing him on the side while sleeping with me. She also revealed that she’d decided to have an abortion and she didn’t care what either her ex or I had to say in the matter, as she was committing solely to her new girlfriend whom she’d been having a lesbian affair with the whole time she was seeing me.
Standing there on the dance floor in a stupor of sorts, half ecstatic, half manic, and royally depressed, I felt like I was drifting toward the edge of a cliff, as though something horrible was about to occur and sweep me over into certain ruin. Little did I know that my prophetic feeling would in little more than a year come true, and not just for me, but for all those happy men twirling and kissing throughout the room.
However, that moment also had implications for me. To cut the chase, barely two weeks later after that night at The Garage, I decided in a moment of panic to cut my loses in New York City, abandon my hopeless modern dance aspirations as well as my moody writing dreams and in the interest of practicality head home to Virginia. My intent was to complete all the science prerequisites required to apply for Physical Therapy school. This turn toward economic stability and a reliable profession would be paid for by my dad, a one-time offer that I had to commit to before he retracted it. I wasn’t necessarily intent on returning to New York City per se; in fact, I imagined a clean break and turning over a new leaf.
So, on July 17, 1980 I was seated next to my mother on a crocheted throw on a tiny couch near my father who was lounging in his favorite armchair. We were watching Ronald Reagan on TV accepting the Republican presidential nomination. I saw Jerry Falwell, the local Lynchburg celebrity, smugly smiling, having put Reagan in the lead by his support and that of his Moral Majority. Christian fundamentalism and Falwell were engaged in a cultural battle to conservatively clamp down on America’s “godless” society; in part, represented by me. Homosexuality and abortion were their key targets. Phyllis Schlafly had established her conservative political interest group, the Eagle Forum, and was fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment, as well as pushing nationally for Pro-Life, Pro-Family legislation.
Watching the Right-Wing Republicans at the convention spouting off their hate and seeing the whole country going mad with dangerous conservative social fundamentalism, I began to fear for my life. A month before in New York City, dancing in a state of liberal nirvana on that island of progressive social and political thought, I now felt far away as if it were a lifetime ago.
I had not come out as yet to my parents, still only a few days into my move down South; but, I did have the courage to make it clear to them my disgust that night with the Republican Party, Reagan, and Jerry Falwell. My parents, life-long Republicans, part of the Greatest Generation, were caught up in the allure of Reagan. My mother had a mad crush on the former actor turned politician and admired also admired his wife Nancy. Mom had started to emulate Nancy’s fashion sense—she now wore only bright red skirts or sweaters and white blouses. She’d even restyled her hair to brunette. I might have fled the room or I might have begged them not to vote for Reagan, but I believe in truth I just sat there knowing it was feudal and that I was beholden to them bigtime from that point on. So I kept my views to myself.
Jump forward to July 3rd of ’81. I was in the hospital cafeteria at Lynchburg Baptist Hospital in Lynchburg. At that time, I was 27 years old and had taken a job as a wheelchair transporter for their PT Department. PT school required a minimum of hours spent volunteering or working in a PT clinic. I balanced this hospital transport job with my prerequisite studies at Lynchburg College. It was my intention to finish my coursework in a year and a half to two years at the latest, including with summer school sessions, and then apply.
I was picking out my dreary lunch when I happened to see an open page to The New York Times. I assumed that one of the doctor’s had forgotten the paper and had left it near the tray counter. As no one seemed to claim it, after I’d sat down, I went and picked it up to study it over lunch. My eyes were drawn immediately to a small article. The only words I seemed to absorb were the title: “Rare Gay Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” I read the entire story, and then I read it over again several times and felt immediately a pang of fear. I could tell that whatever this gay cancer was it was associated with gay men who lived in New York City. My mind immediately began to consider that maybe I had been compromised but then I concluded that I had to be safe as I’d been away from the City for over a year.
Soon after, I heard from Michael, the consummate gay city-dweller. Michael wanted to come to Virginia that August to visit with me. He told me that he felt compelled to perform a rescue mission, an intervention, to convince me to come back to the City even if he had to drag me. Michael did not understand in the least what had possessed me to leave the City and return to Lynchburg. He further told me that he desperately needed me to show him what “local civilized and cultural scraps” there were to be had in such a godforsaken southern town. He found the whole idea of Virginia, home to General Robert E. Lee with all its Confederate trappings, morally repugnant. Of course, he’d never visited the state or for that matter the South before. His only referents were in fact Auntie Mame, Streetcar, and Gone With The Wind.
I forget where Michael stayed, perhaps on my couch, but around August 19th or so he arrived on the Southern Crescent train for his four or five day sojourn. Thus with little else to entertain him, we found ourselves seated next to each other in the chilly movie theater, Michael neatly arranging a handful of popcorn on an outspread napkin in his lap. Of course, he handed me gingerly a napkin of my own to follow in kind. We both gazed at the opening credits. David Naughton and Griffin Dunne, both hot young actors, played two American backpackers abroad. “David Kessler” and “Jack Goodman,” were their respective characters. The boys in the first few minutes of the film are seen wandering across the Yorkshire moors. They are beginning a lengthy hiking trip in England with the goal of ending up in sunny Italy. Jack plans to hook up with an American girl there and former classmate, whom he has been secretly pining forever for. David’s assessment of the girl is that she is a complete shrew, toxic to boot, although decidedly hot and attractive and infinitely bangable.
I could see immediate parallels between Michael and “Jack,” and me and “David.” Like “Jack,” Michael was my best-buddy and he was always looking for love and sex no matter how unlikely the situation. Michael was full of complaints since the minute he’d appeared in the Lynchburg train station. From the start, he was critical about my choice of moving back to the “semi-rural Yorkshire” of Virginia. He didn’t see why I had not wanted to stay and study in “sophisticated, warm, sexy, Rome,” of New York City. Plus, Michael, since arriving, had begun questioning the motives of the Lynchburg “town folk.” He reported time and again that he detected undertones of anti-Semitism as well as paranoid disgust over his thick Queens accent, which he felt pegged him as a gay northerner, a sissy.
The difference between Michael and me physically was telling as well. Over my year in Virginia I had become quite tan and had gained some added bulk to my arms from pushing wheelchairs and doing weights. Michael, whereas, seemed a pale member of New York’s walking-bookish “dead.” His demeanor as urban ghost was accentuated by my new red-blooded “country boy” look in dress and manner. I was hiking, sailing at our lake house, and distance running along the Avenue every evening to join the steady stream of all those young Lynchburg dads home from their law offices. I had biology and chemistry books to study and plans for becoming a PT with my future now invested in the physical aspects of treating the body.
Michael was still in a New York mindset: that purgatory which exists somewhere between endlessly talking about art and practically speaking, making it. He was still caught up in endlessly arguing for a transformative, progressive-social-liberationist-thinking agenda versus actually rolling up his sleeves and actually making change. But of course, I was doing the same thing in my own way. But despite being preoccupied with the rather solipsistic urban life questions: i.e., Verdi versus Puccini, Black Party versus White Party, Macy’s versus Bloomies; he was perceptive enough to spot that Lynchburg was still a bastion of traditional populism, if not hardcore racism, misogyny, conservativism with heavy helpings of conspicuous leisure over rigorous intellectualism.
So, after David and Jack, are attacked on the moors by the gruesome werewolf and Jack is horridly laid low, left dead and disfigured; David appears nakedly dashing through the woods in full-frontal nudity during the course of a lengthy transitional dream sequence. Michael and I were beyond impressed and quite aroused—napkins rising accordingly in our laps—by this homoerotic visual. Not since two years before when I had gone with Michael to the Elgin arthouse theater on Eight Avenue to see a revival of Ken Russell and Larry Kramer’s Women in Love, had I been privy to a scene of such graphic male erotic nudity. But where Russell and Kramer gave us only one momentary and frenetic jump-cut vision of two adult men entwined in violent struggle over their competitive love-friendship and adversarial man-loves-woman relationships, Landis takes his time and pays loving attention to Naughton’s sensual young body in all its erotic delight.
Like Michelangelo’s sculpture of David in Florence, Naughton’s body is glorified by Landis as a fleet paragon of male perfection, pale of skin, and youthfully hairless. The camera lingers on him in his nakedness, as David Kessler, “nature-child,” moves fluidly along as both handsome object of desire and fleeing animal. Up to that point such a major studio film feature to be shown to American audiences would have avoided this singular overt male nudity, unless it was part of a straight love scene or straight group love scene, both of which affirmed the newly supposed sexual “freedom” and “candor” of straight American male-female relationships.
Landis defies this long tradition of the camera being the sole vehicle for the male gaze, locked in synch throughout with the male heterosexual prerogative. I’ve been long accustomed and Michael too to this unwritten code that the female character had to be portrayed as a beautiful sensual desirable object, glorified to perfection, and used as continuous focus for the visual narrative. The female body was the driver of a film’s plot: “the hero always got the gal.” Partial female nudity was expected as eye-candy, always in the service of pleasuring the red-blooded normal heterosexual American men that comprised the audience. Of course this was a total fabrication, far from the truth.
Instead, Landis gives us “gal gets her boy-toy sex slave,” and subverts the gaze to that of the female. “David” after the attack, wakes up to find himself in a London hospital ward. Out of his nature dream of nakedly dashing through the countryside and arriving in urban London as a modern-day innocent Adam without his fig leaf, he opens his eyes to discover the nurse, Alex Price. Alex, at his bedside, betrays herself to being lasciviously turned-on by the young rock-hard athletic David. Sweet natured as Alex is played by the actress Jenny Agutter, it was not lost on Michael nor I the wonderful camp nature of this character role. Alex, and such a name can be obviously read as both male or female, can’t keep her eyes off this tasty twink. She lures him to find lodgings in her flat after his hospital discharge and keeps him as her live-in stud, ever ready to oblige her ever fantasy on demand after she comes home from work. Michael and I saw clearly that Alex could be read as a surrogate or proxy for our gay selves; two hot-blooded gay Americans for once being titillated by a joint British-American main feature film.
But while we both happily assented to this homoerotic tour de force, we could also read into the film another level of homosexual aesthetic, replete with overtones to gay Cocteau’s cinematic classics. Landis makes us see the horrible transformation of David into the vilified, feared, predatory werewolf, the unwilling social outcast. He lets us in on the secret that beneath the monstrous beast is a sweet innocent young man that we have freely desired for the second quarter of the film. Cocteau does something similar in his film Beauty and the Beast where he plays with the tropes of male brute masculinity and subverts the myth of the bestial aggressive womanizing male by showing the “Beast” as actually capable underneath of a sensual, soft, and erotic nature; one that exemplifies some of the long-held characteristics of the female archetype. Cocteau and Landis present these misunderstood male characters as ostracized by normal society due to straight society’s fear of their “otherness,” an otherness which is not of choice but of things beyond their control. David is on the one hand, dangerous, yes—wild, carnal, predatory and bestial; but, on the other hand sensitive, sensual, erotic, and desirable.
My desire that night in the movie theater for David on the screen intensified with Naughton’s repeated nudity: a fact that the actor Naughton paid dearly for by losing his Dr. Pepper spokesperson job and being blacklisted for a time in his career. David’s guilt and conflict about his uncontrollable Jekyll and Hyde transformation, and the constant plea by Jack for him to commit suicide and destroy his evil closeted secret, seemed to match completely Michael and my own internalized homophobia and guilt which we’d been facing for most of our young lives.
Being that evening with Michael far from New York City, where we had both been so jubilantly out and proud, I realized some of the unfortunate self-censorship that Lynchburg life entailed. I also felt the growing fears and threats that were swirling around me, both in Lynchburg and in the national news
It didn’t help that David as werewolf dies in the end of the Landis film. Before shot in a barrage of bullets, Alex tries to advance and help him. This ending for David, so cliché for most gay characters throughout film history—if not physical death then psychological—felt to me unjust and ill-informed. It suggested “moral” punishment for David in all his youthful sexual homo- and hetero-sexual play. It lined up to me with the chilly wave of social conservatism that was hitting American culture in the eighties.
Michael and I both lamented after the film about the growing accusations and condemnations of evangelicals, self-ordained moral watchdogs, who were then calling gay men bestial monstrosities; sodomites who exhibited unnatural behaviors; recruiters who hid in the dark of night ready to snatch teens and turn them gay. Again as I’ve said, gays were being scorned and persecuted everywhere by people like Falwell, Schlafly, Bryant as indeed by the entire Moral Majority and conservative wing of the Republican Party who were participating in this jeremiad of intolerance and revulsion. These opinions flooded the airwaves of Christian stations in Virginia.
That night Michael also shared with me that he was deathly afraid that my self-imposed exile to Falwell country was going to turn me into a dumb simpleton, a laissez-faire conservative Republican, a repressed pro-Reagan mediocre closeted basket case overnight. He didn’t wish to see me give up on a hard won political gay agenda to settle for gay sex behind secretly closed doors and juggling pronouns at work.
But difficult of all and much later that night, he finally shared with me, in hushed hesitant tones, about the strange gay plague going on in New York. He had wanted to hold back telling me as he feared the revelation would cause me to retreat, withdraw, and definitely go back in the closet and never return to the City he knew we both loved.
Only then did he describe about so-and-so of our friends, who had transformed into a thin, emaciated, skeletal, walking corpse. He told me about the purple spots on his skin, his legs like sticks, his sunken eye sockets and ashen complexion. He said it struck without warning and how in the hospital the nurses were even afraid of entering our sick friend’s room; that the staff was afraid of bringing him his food tray; and how Michael himself was being denied bedside visits. And a day later I put Michael on his train back North.
Two years later and after one or two intervening short letters to Michael and two more lengthy phone conversations that had ended in stalemate, and, after completing my all my course work, I’d applied to many different PT schools primarily in the South. The only school I’d ventured to try up north was Columbia but this was at the bottom of my list. As fate would have it, however, Columbia University was the only school I had a clear acceptance in for the fall of 1983.
The “gay cancer” had now spread with numbers climbing in New York City and now the CDC was calling it AIDS or acquitted-immune-deficiency-syndrome. I was terrified. “An American Werewolf in London” would almost decidedly about to become “An American Werewolf in New York.” I spent nights worrying about the physical dangers I would face going back to the City and whether I too, would die from the mysterious fatal disease.
And so at the start of Labor Day weekend, anxiety rushing throughout my body, I lifted my suitcases from a railroad platform onto the Southern Crescent bound North to New York City. I was to be Michael’s roomie in his apartment on the Upper West Side, fearful to set foot again in plague-ridden Manhattan; yet possibly, just possibly, ready to step back on to a glowing dance floor.
by Walter Holland, copyright October 1, 2020, All Rights Reserved
(An American Werewolf in London, 1981
Horror Film Written and Directed by John Landis)