August 23, 1985
TEEN WOLF is another Summer of 1985 movie that I already reviewed but wanted to revisit. Now I feel like an asshole that I didn’t find time to do the same for the much better movie LIFEFORCE, but life isn’t fair, is it? I thought it might be interesting to look at TEEN WOLF in the context of the other teen-oriented movies of the time, including the other one with Michael J. Fox. I saw both BACK TO THE FUTURE and this one at the time (one drive-in, one indoors, I believe) but I did not remember that they came out only a few months apart.
It was, in fact, a time of total and complete Foxamania sweeping the nation. He wasn’t a movie star yet, having only done MIDNIGHT MADNESS and CLASS OF 1984, but was in his third season playing young Republican Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. He was on a break from filming the show so Meredith Baxter Birney could give birth, and got the job to replace Eric Stoltz on BACK TO THE FUTURE during TEEN WOLF. So he was filming this during the day and BACK TO THE FUTURE at night. Meanwhile, The Cosby Show had started and brought way more viewers to the show playing after it. So basically this is Fox at the precise moment he was exploding from child actor to superstar, and at the exact same age as when we saw him as Marty McFly. On the same day, basically.
But his character, Nebraska teen Scott Howard, is a little different from Marty because he doesn’t ride a skateboard, play a guitar or wear his collar up, and therefore is more defined as a nerd. He can’t even get any respect by being an athlete, because his school’s basketball team sucks, him included. The movie opens with him absolutely drenched in sweat, looking so terrified he could shit as he loses the first game of the season. I don’t think this is overall a good looking movie, but cinematographer Timothy Suhrstedt (THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW) really pulls off this scene using disorienting closeups and camera angles to convey Scott’s intense nervousness.
I think you may be aware that Scott is going to discover he’s a werewolf. But this is absolutely not a horror comedy like FRIGHT NIGHT or RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. After joking about silver bullets and full moons it abandons all werewolf mythology. It doesn’t associate being a werewolf with any loss of control, and people don’t fear him. At the same time, I would argue that it barely qualifies as a comedy. You get the idea that it is one, because what else would it be, and it even says so on the poster – “A New Comedy Starring Michael J. Fox.” But most of the things that could count as jokes would be considered comic relief in an equally serious high school drama that didn’t have a werewolf. It’s not so much comedy as too ridiculous to be drama.
One possible exception is the droll delivery of Jay Tarses (a writer and producer on The Bob Newhart Show) as Coach Finstock, who would rather give half-hearted “winning isn’t everything” platitudes then try to help the team get better, and goes on weird tangents to get out of giving mentorly advice when Scott speaks to him privately about “going through changes.”
Those changes include randomly sprouting claws and pointy ears, until during a full moon he fully transforms into a hairy wolf-like man. He tries to hide from his dad (James Hampton, THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE) by locking himself in the bathroom – okay, that’s a joke too, since the implication is that he could be jerkin it in there, a joke topic in WEIRD SCIENCE as well – until Dad reveals that he too is a wolf, and this is something that runs in the family.
Trying to keep it a secret results in various mishaps, until Scott outs himself by transforming in front of his friend Stiles (Jerry Levine before IRON EAGLE), whose version of being supportive is to talk about it as a great thing to exploit, and soon he’s selling “Teen Wolf” t-shirts and bumper stickers at school.
The character of Stiles is an unsolvable mystery, because he’s somebody I wouldn’t be able to stand being around for over a minute, and also I remember him being a really appealing character at the time. He’s supposed to be a lovable rascally scoundrel motherfucker, some kind of live action hybrid of Bugs Bunny and Spuds Mackenzie, because he pretends to be important, talks like a parody of a Hollywood agent asshole, and wears bright red pants with t-shirts that say things like “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT DICKNOSE” or “OBNOXIOUS: the movie,” which apparently is supposed to be something provocative, judging by Mr. Howard’s reaction to it? He hangs out with acknowledged nerd Scott and he seems to think he can earn a higher social status by bringing a keg to the party, which ends up not impressing a single soul. Yet also he is the center of attention at the party, dancing around like The Riddler, acting as hyperactive host to whip cream wrestling and closet makeout games, and everyone crowds around and listens and cheers for his nonsense like he’s Cyrus in THE WARRIORS.
As outRAGEous somebody stop me type best friends in Summer of 1985 teen movies go, Stiles is not as funny as Val Kilmer in REAL GENIUS, not as likable as Curtis Armstrong in BETTER OFF DEAD, but not nearly as awful as Fisher Stevens in MY SCIENCE PROJECT. He has fewer homophobic slurs, but the one he uses leads to Scott pleading defensively that he’s not one. He also says “My man!” to a Black guy, but doesn’t get a positive reaction, so depiction does not equal endorsement in that case.
A bigger part of the Stiles character that I don’t think they would be able to do today is his hobby of “surfing” on top of his “Wolfmobile” delivery truck. Scott drives around and “Surfin’ U.S.A.” plays and Stiles pretends to surf on top. Later, having become a werewolf and therefore a cool party animal inspiration to us all, Scott gets to do it, dancing and playing air guitar and doing flips. I guess people must not have been stupid enough to try this at home, or it would’ve been a controversy like when that 1993 movie THE PROGRAM had to cut out a scene where drunk football players got their thrills by laying in the middle of a highway.
Question: why were scenes like this such huge crowdpleasers back then? I suspect it was an ‘80s thing that faded away, but it might just be an I-was-young-at-the-time thing. I think the idea was “Ha ha, you shouldn’t do that! You shouldn’t stand on top of a moving vehicle, but he’s doing it! Just up and doing it!” Is it something like that? I think I used to get it, but I don’t anymore.
Come to think of it, BACK TO THE FUTURE has that thing where Marty hangs onto moving cars while riding his skateboard. Reckless motor vehicle activity was a Michael J. Fox trademark!
Scott’s other best friend Boof (Susan Ursitti, ZAPPED) has the exact same role as the character Melissa in THE HEAVENLY KID: the way cooler and better for him girl he’s already very close with but is too stupid to notice is in love with him while he moronically lusts after a popular blond girl (Lorie Griffin, later in CHEERLEADER CAMP) who’s mean and stupid and has nothing in common with him. It’s even worse for Boof, though, because she has a bad incident making out with Scott at a party (an intentionally upsetting scene where he accidentally tears her shirt with his claws and she thinks he’s getting too rough). Also, for some reason him being a werewolf inspires Pamela to fuck him at school, which can’t be easy for Boof to process.
If there’s a satirical statement in here, maybe it’s the idea that people will accept anything from somebody who’s good at sports. Shortly after he accidentally transforms in public he wins the game, so everybody loves that he’s a werewolf (which he has complete control over from that point on). It’s kind of muddled though because we know there’s nothing wrong with being a werewolf, so his popularity is the correct response. For it to have bite, it should be about him not being able to stop himself from eating people’s cats and shit at night, and everybody excuses it as long as the team is winning.
That reminds me of something. Scott’s rival for sexual access to Pamela is her boyfriend Mick (Mark Arnold, later in TRANCERS 4 and 5), the only person who seems grossed out by him being a werewolf. In one scene Mick says, “You don’t scare me, freak. Underneath all that hair, you’re still a dork, Scott. I’ve handled your kind before. Your mama used to steal chickens out of the backyard until I blew her head off with a shotgun. Right, Scott?”
His mother is dead, and it’s never been addressed how, so I always took this to mean that Mick really did kill his mom. But according to the Blu-Ray extras he was just supposed to be saying something to make Scott angry. Which explains why it’s never delved into after that.
I should mention that Mark Holton (Francis from PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE) plays the other most memorable player on the basketball team, but his character is only referred to as “Chubby,” “Chubs” or “that fat kid” (by the coach!) and his two big moments involve 1) Scott lecturing him that he should be on a diet and shaming him for the snacks in his locker 2) eating an apple during a game. I’m impressed it’s not a greasy hamburger, actually, but I bet it’s worse to play this good guy character than the villainous Francis.
Sometimes I feel like I understand a movie better or differently when I rewatch it years later. This time the newest insight I can offer is that Scott’s low voice when his eyes glow and he threatens the guy at the liquor store sounds like Kylo Ren. The nine years since my last review have provided no illumination into why this movie seems like a big metaphor but doesn’t at all work as one. His werewolfism has obvious parallels to puberty (body going through changes) and coming out (something he discovers about himself, is ashamed at first and tries to keep secret but becomes happier and finds acceptance when he openly celebrates it), but it doesn’t fully fit either of those things, primarily because it’s a rare genetic trait passed down from his father.
So it seems like it could just represent any type of family heritage, or you could set the inheritance part aside and think of any unusual thing that someone can’t control and shouldn’t be ashamed of. Except… why does it make everyone like him, and why does common sense Boof convince him that the right thing to do is suppress it and “be yourself”? I can’t think of a way to see it as a metaphor without it becoming a completely fucked up movie.
I suppose it ties in with his repeatedly expressed fear of being “average.” The moral is that it’s okay to be yourself, whoever that is, even if you’re “average.” But obviously he’s not average, the wolf is part of him, and he should be proud of that. I think they just used the trajectory of teen movies where somebody becomes popular based on a lie, and didn’t care that it didn’t fit here.
Apologies if they address any of that in the second half of the 2 1/2 hour documentary on the Blu-Ray. The part I made it through did help answer my other big question: why? It turns out the answer is that this company, Atlantic Releasing Corporation, had had a big surprise success with VALLEY GIRL in 1983, which taught them the lesson that it’s a good idea to make movies about teens that cost less than a million dollars. They brought in Jeph Loeb & Matthew Weisman, two recent Columbia graduates who were working at T.G.I. Friday’s and a video arcade, respectively, to pitch a bunch of ideas. The writers were surprised and a little disappointed that the pitch the company chose was the one about the werewolf playing basketball, but hey – it was a job. So they wrote it in 3 weeks.
Loeb also brags that they got to choose the director, and says almost all of the candidates went on to become major directors, but they all tried to read some kind of meaning into the premise, or make it more horror. Instead the writers chose Rod Daniel because he was from WKRP in Cincinatti so he “knew comedy.” Such a huge discovery – Daniel of course became the visionary director of LIKE FATHER LIKE SON, K-9, THE SUPER, BEETHOVEN’S 2ND and HOME ALONE 4: TAKING BACK THE HOUSE.
Well, I guess I can’t deny the choice they made was successful. People loved it. I have a confession to make: I was really fuckin excited for this movie before it came out. I would always look at the movie ads in the newspaper, and sometimes they would have teaser ads a week or more in advance. And I remember an ad that just had this logo and the title, and that’s all it took to capture my young imagination. I mean, oh my god, it’s about a teen wolf. Look at that guy! He’s clearly a wolf, right? You can see that. And yet… also a teen (see: sunglasses, possible mohawk? Like a teen). Yep, he’s a teen wolf. Teen that is a wolf. Wolf that is a teen. Wolf teen. Amazing. Love it. Gotta see it.
In the movie he does wear the sunglasses a little bit, but does not have a mohawk, which is fucking bullshit to be honest, but he was definitely (a man in his twenties playing) a teen, and definitely a wolf, or at least a guy with a very hairy face and long beard, which we are told represents a wolf. TEEN WOLF. Promises made, promises kept.
I wasn’t alone. It opened at #2, below BACK TO THE FUTURE (week 8), and those two Michael J. Fox movies stayed in that configuration for a month before CREATOR finally knocked this one down to #3. It didn’t get pushed out of the top ten until October, by which time SILVER BULLET was out. The incredible thing is that TEEN WOLF cost $1.2 million and didn’t even have to be that cheap to make a ton of money – it made $80 million! What the fuck!?
I guess you had to be there. So I’m glad I was? I don’t know.
Summer of 1985 connections:
Obviously Michael J. Fox was in BACK TO THE FUTURE and Mark Holton was in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE.
Stiles uses the motto “Never say die” in reference to his failed attempts to buy beer, much like a Goonie. The other players on the team get upset because Scott is too dominant (like D.A.R.Y.L.). He thinks with his boner and stupidly obsesses over a mean, popular blond girl with a mean, handsome adult boyfriend (like BETTER OFF DEAD). There’s a scene where he’s terrified to be called up to the board to solve a problem (also like BETTER OFF DEAD). I read that there was a scene in the script where Scott and Stiles took the pot that he sniffed out in the garage and got high, to see what it’s like for a werewolf to get high. That might’ve been like the scene in THE HEAVENLY KID where a ghost gets high.
Pop culture/time capsule stuff:
To show that being a teen wolf is being a cool motherfucker, Scott does a backspin in the hall, then gives a pound to a random Black extra. At the school dance he struts in in a while suit referencing SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER.
And this is a timeless one, but Mr. Howard saying, “”With great power comes an even greater responsibility” is of course an homage to Spider-man.
Some of the cast went on to become TV directors. Jerry Levine (Stiles) did episodes of Boy Meets World, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Everybody Hates Chris, Monk, and more. James Hampton (Mr. Howard) did some Evening Shade, Hearts Afire, Boston Common, Grace Under Fire and Sister Sister. Jay Tarses (Coach Finstock) was already a TV writer and producer at the time, but he later directed episodes of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, one of many shows he created and wrote.
Writers Jeph Loeb & Matthew Weisman also sold their spec-script COMMANDO around that time (they don’t appreciate its greatness, because their version was a vulnerable guy, not Arnold). They also wrote BURGLAR and MODEL BY DAY.
In the early ‘90s, Loeb was hired to write a feature film based on the DC Comics character The Flash. It never happened, but publisher Jenette Kahn recruited him to write comics, where he became well known for his season-themed DC stories (Batman: The Long Halloween, Superman for All Seasons) and color-coded Marvel ones (Daredevil: Yellow, Hulk: Grey). He created the character Red Hulk.
TEEN WOLF was mainstream enough to spawn a Saturday morning cartoon that ran for two seasons in 1986 and 1987. The show has the characters transported to a town called Wolverton and the premise is changed so he has to keep being a werewolf a secret. He’s voiced by Townsend Coleman, who later played Michelangelo on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Riot on Jem and the Holograms and The Tick on The Tick. James Hampton returned from the movie to play his dad, with Stacy Keach and June Foray as his grandparents. Foray also played a younger sister named Lupe. Don Most from Happy Days played Stiles, and it had Boof (Jeannie Elias) but he still crushes on Pamela (Ellen Gerstell), who is still with Mick (Craig Sheffer!).
In 1987 there was a widely rejected official sequel, TEEN WOLF TOO, starring Jason Bateman as Scott’s college freshman cousin, a wrestler. Mr. Howard drops him off at college and Chubs is in it. Stiles and Coach Finstock are played by different actors. It had more than twice the budget and made about an 8th as much money, but personally I wouldn’t complain about earning several million dollars for something like that. I’d take it.
Loeb apparently said on a panel that Alyssa Milano had wanted to star in a TEEN WOLF THREE about hockey. And she would’ve been a white wolf! How the fuck did this not happen. It’s a girl, it’s hockey, the fur is white – this is the kind of bold reinvention people want in my opinion.
When I wrote about TEEN WOLF in 2009 I ended my review with one incorrect prediction, and one really good idea for a movie series:
“And apparently they’re working on turning it into a TV series for MTV. If that doesn’t work out (and let’s face it, it won’t) I think they should consider a series of DTV children’s movie spin-offs called FURBALLS, about soccer playing werewolf cubs.”
The MTV show did work out – it was a serious Buffy or Supernatural inspired drama that had Scott and Stiles characters (no Chubs) and aired from 2011 to 2017 and had a devoted enough following that it would frequently trend on Twitter and I would think people were talking about the movie and then remember it was a show.
I was wrong about MTV’s Teen Wolf. But I promise you I was right about FURBALLS. The world needs FURBALLS. And honestly we need it now more than ever. Make it happen, Hollywood or The Secret or whoever. #FURBALLS #MakeFurballsHappen
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.