Remember, this is pre-“Funny Freddy” in the NOES films, pre-Cabin in The Woods, pre-meta anything. AAWIL was really funny and really gory, with amazing practical effects and terrific performances. It wasn’t the first film to do of these things, but coming from John Landis, a mainstream director at the top of his game, it felt like a revelation. I don’t think I’m overreaching to say that AAWIL’s commercial success, along with its crazy and effective mash-up of comedy and horror elements, helped spur the 1980s horror boom. It was a boom boon! This movie was ahead of its time, which is one reason it holds up so well today.
Yet at the center of all the craziness are David and Jack, two American students whose defining characteristic is their ordinariness. Actually, casting David Naughton as David Kessler, the movie’s romantic lead/main murderwolf, was part of Landis’s genius. At the time, Naughton was most famous as the star Pepper in Dr. Pepper’s tremendously popular “Be A Pepper” ad campaign. “Oh Jan,” I can hear you thinking due to the telekinetic powers imparted by my demon curse, “Surely a Dr. Pepper commercial wasn’t really a cultural phenomenon.” Yes, actually, it WAS. Naughton was SO appealing, familiar, and popular as “That Guy From The Dr. Pepper Commercials” that when he landed the lead in a short-lived TV series called Makin’ It they let Naughton sing the theme song, and the song got to #5 on the Billboard charts AFTER THE SHOW WAS CANCELLED.
But I digress. (Spoilers ahead for An American Werewolf in London, so if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? It’s awesome.)
This is the crux of Naughton’s performance as David, and we need to buy it all. David is both a man and a monster, to echo the question posed by a tabloid headline shown in the film the morning after his first transformation. Yet, unlike many movie monsters, the two facets don’t bleed into each other. Naughton plays both sides as completely separate but still nuanced enough to be interesting. We need to be able to believe that David is a victim without seeing him at merely pitiable; we need to believe he becomes a monster without seeing him as merely evil. David the Man is as sweet and “safe” as David the Wolf is terrifying and dangerous. We root for David the romantic lead because Naughton plays him with warmth and depth—he’s nice but never boring—and the more we love David the guy, the more we fear David the monster.
JB calls Griffin Dunne’s Jack Goodman character “the moral center of the movie” and I don’t disagree. He’s David’s Jiminy Cricket, that voice of conscience that’s too easy to ignore because David is the only one who hears it. This is what I mean by calling David’s ordinariness his “tragic flaw.” We believe that David is a good person, with good intentions, but we know he’s going to kill a bunch of people, because 1. This is a werewolf movie, and werewolves gonna werewolf; and 2. Jack tells him, “You’re going to kill a bunch of people unless you kill yourself.” Of course, Jack has the benefit of hindsight—as the ghost of a guy killed by a werewolf, it’s easy for him to believe that werewolves are real. The problem is, David is so ordinary, so nice and kind and normal that he refuses to believe in ghosts, or werewolves, or socially mandated suicide… until it’s too late.