Looking back at Teen Wolf
Michael J Fox, lycanthropy and basketball clash in the amusing 80s teen comedy, Teen Wolf. Jeff takes a look back…
Delightfully mediocre is a term that applies to the original Teen Wolf, the less ambitious of two Michael J Fox films released in 1985. Ostensibly an upbeat, John Hughes-esque take on fare like I Was A Teenage Werewolf (perhaps in name only), Teen Wolf only wishes to please, having neither bark nor bite. Still, this eager puppy of a teen flick does a more than a few tricks well, and remains spritely and cuddly after all this time.
Fox plays Scott Howard, an only child living with his father (James Hampton in a quiet, understated performance). Scott has two best friends, the exuberant and at times overbearing Rupert ‘Stiles’ Stilinksi (Jerry Levine), and literal girl-next-door ‘Boof,’ played to wholesome perfection by Susan Ursitti.
His biggest problem is the lack of a maternal figure, and his complete inability to score both on the basketball court and with high school sexpot Pamela Wells (Lorie Griffin), who looks and acts like one of the Pi Delta Pis from Revenge Of The Nerds. Things get hairy (literally) and puberty takes a new turn as Scott develops claws, fangs, and an abundance of hair. Various comedy and sexual antics ensue.
Fox is in the minority of actors here who looks young enough to play a high school student. Most of the extras cluttering the corridors and party scenes appear to have breezed in off the set of Animal House – check out the vixen decked out in lingerie, or the near-nude whipped cream couple writhing on the floor.
It should be a big deal that Scott and Stiles – let alone everyone else under age - get to attend parties like the ones here, but it seems there’s a PG-rated orgy every Friday night in this flick (then again, maybe I just never got invited to those sorts of parties back in the day, which probably explains why I’m writing for this website). There’s barely a hint of acne or gawky teenagers in sight anywhere in the high school, or even the town, a visual detail that separates this film from the more authentic trappings of a John Hughes vehicle.
The script is plotted at an agreeable, almost leisurely pace, and centered completely around a series of basketball games. There’s time for the audience to get to know Scott, his home life, and his crappy basketball playing. It takes a full third of the movie before we arrive at the first wolf transformation. Even then, Scott’s allowed to hang on to the secret until it comes out in an embarrassingly funny way during the midst of a basketball game several scenes later.
What the writer(s) completely ignore is the huge elephant in the room: why is Scott’s mother absent? Did she leave Scott’s father because of what he was? Did she die? If so, did it have anything to do with living amongst a family of werewolves? I don’t even recall seeing any photos up on the walls in Scott’s house. You want to think this is all intentional, but the movie is more concerned with the outcome of basketball games than dealing with family life.
Thankfully, director Rod Daniel, who also helmed passable fare like the Dudley Moore/Kirk Cameron team-up Like Father Like Son, has a sure hand for comedy (his pedigree also includes episodes of Newhart and WKRP In Cincinnati).
The movie is also buoyed by some solid comedic performances, particularly the world’s most inept high school basketball coach played by Jay Tarses. Coach Finstock has a hilarious propensity for snacking on junk food during games and spouts pearls of wisdom such as his three rules for living: “Never get less than twelve hours sleep; never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city; and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body.”
Ramping up the yuk factor is Jerry Levine’s Stiles, who blazes into scenes with a comic intensity and manic zeal that almost belongs in another movie. Levine steals every scene he’s in, simply by wearing red pants or a t-shirt that begs that eternal question, “What Are You Looking At Dicknose?” He’s your prototypical best bud, a character that exists to tell jokes and go urban van surfing to Beach Boys tunes. Levine’s raison d’etre seems to be scoring a keg of beer; when he finally acquires it, there’s a delicious payoff at the high school party.
Director Daniel does manage to bring a certain style to the proceedings. Early on, we’re treated to point-of-view shots with handheld cameras, wide-angle lenses, and a pulsing heartbeat on the soundtrack to suggest that things are changing for Scott Howard. The combined elements are effective, and played for laughs when Michael J Fox uses his newfound powers to obtain the aforementioned keg of beer with the aid of glowing red eyes and a sonically augmented baritone.
Alas, the filmmakers have no inkling how to lens a convincing werewolf transformation. The budget probably didn’t allow for anything on the level of a Rob Bottin or Rick Baker special, but the sequence is shot in harsh light and bizarre close-ups of eyes that reveal all of the seams in the makeup job. Plus, as soon as the proverbial cat is out of the bag, all we get of the wolf is furry Fox in a basketball uniform. For a film bearing the title Teen Wolf, lack of lycanthropic action remains one of the film’s letdowns, especially in the wake of 1981’s American Werewolf In London and The Howling (which probably proved inspiration on the script level).
If the wolf scenes lack bite, there’s a curious fixation on hair (facial or otherwise) that’s notable, even admirable. Michael J Fox doesn’t seem to have much mojo – or hair - until his transformation. The explosion of fur gives him a sudden desirability that even chiseled uber-jock Mick McAllister (Mark Arnold, enjoying every glowering moment) can’t compete with. Fox gets several scenes of playing pretty with his new hairstyle, blow-drying it with relish before the school prom. At a time when it’s become fashionable to shave all manner of bodily hair (yes, even that kind, you pervy readers), Teen Wolf feels as proudly hirsute as a Burt Reynolds moustache.
On a side note, composer Miles Goodman turns in a charming little score with a pleasant love theme that actually sounds good played on the ubiquitous 80s electric piano, but works better when reprised at the conclusion in Amy Holland’s song Shooting For The Moon.
Over a quarter century later, Teen Wolf remains a slight and unassuming slice of 80s teen schmaltz. But it’s also a fondly remembered enough property to have transformed into something truly horrifying – a young adult television drama. Never say die!