Too many films these days are disposable distractions, but every once in a while it’s nice to be challenged; to be pushed, to be forced to contemplate matters in a hitherto unprovoked way. Art – at its very best – leaves us with questions.
But then, so does Teen Wolf.
A new addition to Netflix’s growing archive, I revisited this 80s cult classic giddy with just one pertinent question: was it as good as I remember? But upon finishing the story of Scott Howard – an average high school student who discovers he’s a werewolf – I was racked with more. Many more. I’ll share some of them if you will permit me, together with my valiant attempts at answering them.
Advanced warning: I may be overthinking this.
1. Was it as good as I remember?
Honestly? No. No it wasn’t.
For a comedy, it’s not too funny, and the high school clichés are so aggressively implemented that had the producers been a little more self-aware they could have wrung some extra laughs from how formulaic the plot was (werewolf elements notwithstanding).
There are some bright spots along the way, not least the great gag of our panicking hero opting to reveal his transformation to his father (“You asked for it”) only for his revelation to be trumped by his dad standing before him equally wolfed-out. (“An explanation is probably long overdue”). The scene is only marginally spoiled by the fact that the splendidly avuncular James Hampton bears an uncanny resemblance to Dave Lee Travis when in lupine form. It’s probably no coincidence that the best scenes are between father and son given that the two actors are so likable. Which brings us on to…
2. Are many actors as effortlessly charming as Michael J Fox in his prime?
While there are things wrong with this movie, its lead actor isn’t one of them. In fact, were it not for the easygoing charm of Mr Fox, revisiting the film would have been something of a chore.
One of the few actors who could still convincingly play ‘high school’ in his mid-20s (a tip of the hat also to Ralph Macchio), Fox oozes charisma throughout the picture; the twinkle in his eye and his comic delivery honed to perfection after years on his TV sitcom Family Ties. It’s no wonder the film’s producers postponed the release to take advantage of his career-defining turn as Marty McFly in Back To The Future – a film he completed long after wrapping on Teen Wolf (and several more episodes of Family Ties).
He’s so likeable that you kind of ignore his despicable treatment of best-friend-and-possible-soul-mate Boof, and his almost stalker-like inability to be disheartened or discouraged by clear and specific rejection from object-of-his-affections Pamela.
And while two films in a row hardly qualifies as a pattern, what is it with Michael J. Fox being cornered by ball-busting teachers in school corridors?
3. Why does Scott’s werewolf look more simian than lupine?
All the elements are there – hair, fangs, and pointy ears – and yet there’s something about the make-up that feels a little more Planet Of The Apes than American Werewolf In London. Indeed, it’s as if the make-up artist had the latter’s iconic poster in mind and used that mid-transformation shot as the basis for the finished look. And while long hair is probably much more cost-effective than convincing fur, there’s something rather ape-like about the way it drapes over his arms in the basketball scenes… you half expect Clint Eastwood to turn up and requisition him for some hand signalling manoeuvres.
4. Why’s the school full of white people?
Seriously, Scott Howard’s high school is about as culturally diverse as an Amish barn-raising ceremony. I counted two scenes featuring black characters: Styles approaching a member of an opposing basketball team to hustle a donation towards his school’s ‘African American festival’, and another where Scott in wolf-form encounters apparently his school’s only black student and – I kid ye not – body pops and breakdances with him. No one of colour was apparently invited to either the raucous house party or the high school dance, because I guess unless you’re going to make a specific point about a character’s skin colour, why bother including anyone at all?
If all Scott wanted was to be different, then maybe he should have just pulled a ‘C Thomas Howell in Soul Man’ (shudder). It was the 80s, after all – it was deemed acceptable back then.
5. Uncle Ben, is that you?
C Thomas Howell was also in The Amazing Spider-Man, which is relevant since Teen Wolf has Scott’s dad spouting a famous piece of advice in a clear and faithful manner that seemed to elude Martin Sheen and The Amazing Spider-Man’s many screenwriters.
“When you want it, you’re gonna have great power. And with great power goes a greater responsibility…”
I’m surprised Marvel didn’t sue (can you trademark iconic mantras?) Prophetically, the script for Teen Wolf was the first screenwriting credit for Mr. Jeph Loeb, who went on to write for Marvel (including the Spider-Man: Blue limited series) and now heads up their television department.
6. Does Teen Wolf feature cinema’s first spoiler song in its soundtrack?
While the climax of the film is never really in doubt, the denouement is nevertheless spelled out in musical form over the final basketball match by an oh-so 80s musical track called Win In The End.
I wonder if anyone watching Michael J. Fox dribble down the court while an audio distillation of the decade wailed “Wiiiiiiin in the end. I’m gonna win in the eeeend” was robbed of that revelatory moment when Mr. Fox and his team do indeed win (in the end).
No soundtrack has provided such foreshadowing since that reissue of Casablanca where Leaving On A Jet Plane played over every appearance of Ingrid Bergman.
7. What was that background artist thinking?
You’re in the final scene of the film. Budgets were tight and they couldn’t hire that many extras, so you are sitting essentially on your own. Michael J. Fox, his character delirious from victory, comes rushing towards your section of the stands to embrace someone. You’re right there! In the background of possibly the film’s final shot! You stand up to cheer, your big moment has arrived, and…
Are my pants still undone? I’ll just check. Yup. Yup, they’re undone. I’ll just pull my sweater down and zip myself up. No one will ever notice. They’ll probably film it again anyway. And even if they don’t, it’ll be a funny thing that might make me kinda famous. I mean it’s not like I’ll be mistaken for a guy taking his junk out, is it? And then have that myth perpetuated by a satirical cartoon in the future? Surely that would be very unlikely? I am a woman after all.
(No really, check out the TV version of the film formatted for 4:3. It’s a lady, Family Guy, definitely a lady. And she’s just zipping herself up, not waving around a phallus. But thanks for precipitating a series of passionately defended arguments between my friends and me.)
8. Why wasn’t his dad affected by the dog whistle in the hardware store?
Perhaps it’s a tad unfair berating a film like this for plot holes – it does, after all, feature a scene in which a werewolf does a handstand on a moving van dubbed the Wolfmobile – but it would be remiss not to point out some issues with the internal logic at play here.
That dog whistle really seems to hurt poor Scott, yet his dad barely flinches. You’d think he’d at least realise that his son could hear what he could hear and put two and two together, precipitating an earlier instance of that vital father/son chat.
Other narrative inconsistencies that preoccupied me, which for the sake of brevity I will bundle together, include:
How does the home team win in the end, exactly? They were rubbish without the wolf, and in all the most recent games were just standing around cos Scott was hogging the ball. You overcome the sporting odds with hard work and practice – you don’t just suddenly and inexplicably become good because it’s convenient for the plot.
And in that final game, why does a character exclusively called Chubby (or Chub to his friends) get so angry about being called ‘Fat Boy’? If names that mock your weight are upsetting for you, then don’t settle for the moniker of Chubby!
Also, when did everyone learn that awful wolf dance? I mean the moves are quite basic, but it was still very well choreographed. Did someone send out a flyer of dance moves before the party?
And why don’t a bunch of scientists arrive mid-movie to quarantine and experiment on the freak of nature that has suddenly been revealed? Not that this is a turn the film necessarily needed to take, but a werewolf busting out of military containment might have made for a more entertaining finale.
9. What exactly is the moral of this story?
I used to think it was ‘just be yourself’, which seems like a fine moral to any story, but needless over-analysis has muddied the waters somewhat. It’s the Spider-Man quote that does it…
Apparently, Peter Parker had it all wrong. If Teen Wolf is to be believed, then what ‘great power; greater responsibility’ really means is that you should repress and bury any gifts that give you amazing abilities, and just act like you were before you found out you had them. Nobody likes a show off!
Even though Scott was “tired of being so average,” having something that marked him out as being special was apparently very bad (despite it making him popular, and good at sports, and more confident, and arguably more content) and he really should just be happy being average, because CONFORM! CONFORM!! CONFORM!!!
I mean what was the terrible price he paid for being the wolf, exactly? So he ripped a guy’s shirt for making offensive remarks about his dead mom and best friend. I reckon he could have drawn a bit of blood and still held the moral high ground on that one.
Is it anti-drugs? Does the wolf represent mind-altering substances that make you feel great but will only result in you hurting people? The most obvious analogy would be puberty, but I don’t recall my own ‘awkward phase’ equating to an up swing in popularity and a newfound gift for sports.
Maybe if Scott’s dad had been tragically killed by a burglar we would have been treated to the continuing adventures of a crime-fighting monkey-wolf. But no, Harold Howard survived to badly mentor another member of his lycanthropic family in Teen Wolf Too: a film that has almost the exact same plot as the original (just substitute Michael J Fox for Jason Bateman and basketball for boxing).