Americana Movie Month: "Teen Wolf" Review


Americana Movie Month: "Teen Wolf" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 23, 1985
Directed by: Rod Daniel
Genre: Comedy/Fantasy/Romance

Here is how goofy and unserious were the makers of "Teen Wolf," the fun, lighthearted romp from the '80s: the movie poster announces that Michael J. Fox is "back from the future with a new comedy." With that kind of attitude going into this film, what came out the other end was all but guaranteed to be high camp, with lots and lots of goofy jokes and corny gags galore. None of this counts against the film; sometimes what's on the screen is "Citizen Kane," and sometimes it's "Whatever Rob Schneider Is Doing for Money These Days." An audience member who's looking for serious themes and powerful action is advised to try "An American Werewolf in London." From the start, "Teen Wolf" is going to be all about goofy fun.

This is literally all the Internet Movie Database has to say about the plot of "Teen Wolf:" a high schooler discovers that he is a werewolf. As a synopsis of the plot, this seems to say both everything and nothing all at once. It is certainly true that in "Teen Wolf," young Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) begins as a typical high school nerd, of a type much featured in '80s teen comedies. As the movie unfolds, he gradually becomes aware that all is not as he took it to be, as he starts developing tremendous strength and athleticism. The theme of "abrupt physical development" is never developed, however, as the film prefers to build on a solid foundation of nerd-revenge fantasy. Of course, Scott shakes off his bullies, gets the girl and makes quite an impact on the basketball court. The distress of his transformation develops early on, but it is put to bed by the third act, when Scott's uncle Harry (James Hampton) reveals that the men of the Howard family just happen to be werewolves, which skillfully steers the plot away from any darker potential backstory.

It just isn't possible to treat "Teen Wolf" as something other than what it is: a goofy teen comedy, fit for popcorn and soda during a fun night out. The film doesn't ask so much for a suspension of disbelief, as much as vault over the audience's disbelief with a wide cheery grin, announcing that it doesn't care whether the premise goes over or not. A film that ends with a teenage werewolf, which was once a figure of terror and despair, dancing around a high school basketball court and slam-dunking over the rival team's heads has officially jumped the shark of believability and is now just goofing around for kicks.

The script is surprisingly well written for such an undertaking. It seems as if the writers (Joseph Loeb III and Matthew Weiman) knew they had a lot of space in the screenplay and were determined to produce workmanlike copy despite the film's wonky premise. This may have been a conscious decision on their part, as the mere fact that a film is destined to be goofy doesn't absolve the rest of the cast and the crew of their responsibilities. Silly as it may be, "Teen Wolf" could only have been rescued from the straight-to-video bin when the writers, costume matrons, and direction all take themselves very seriously and put in their best efforts. The jokes are where they belong in "Teen Wolf," the events of the plot all have reasonable antecedent causes, and nobody involved with the movie seemed to be confused about what they were doing.

In other words, "Teen Wolf" has unexpectedly high production values, which saves the movie somehow. The film itself is a kind of homage to an earlier style of horror films. That is to say, B-movies from the 1950s intended to be consumed as horror in all seriousness, but were undone by their own low production values and irresponsible direction and camera work until they were nearly all rendered watchable only as ironic comedy. "Teen Wolf" reverses that order, by deliberately shoveling a ridiculous premise and thematic reality at the audience to lower expectations dramatically and then hitting the screen with all of the precision and effect that a big-budget Hollywood studio can pour into a blockbuster film.

The effect of this technique is jarring and makes "Teen Wolf" a memorable experience in a way that really no other similarly campy classic has ever quite managed. Somehow, a film about a teenage werewolf who overcomes the school bullies and aces the big game by virtue of tremendous effort and highly serious professionalism on the part of the crew has managed to turn an instant cult classic into a delightful movie about horrible monsters that one would be glad to take the kids to see.

The actors in "Teen Wolf" are largely unknowns, with the sole exception of Michael J. Fox. The direction, however, is sufficiently tight that fine performances are wrought from each and every one of them. No awards would ever have been given to the people who worked on "Teen Wolf," but that certainly isn't to say that the film doesn't have a place in the memories of an entire generation of filmgoers.

Rating 3 out of 5