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Non-Review Review: Teen Wolf

Teen Wolf is quite possibly the single strangest werewolf movie I have ever seen. I would love to have been a fly-on-the-wall at that pitch meeting:

Teen movies are all the rage this year, sir.

And werewolf films have been trending up since The Howling.

Now if there were only some way to combine the two.

As the name implies, Teen Wolf is the story of a teenager who discovers that he has hair in places where he didn’t have hair before. Lots of places. The film does an… interesting job using a conventional movie monster as an exploration of teenage “otherness”, and I actually like the film’s second act is completely off-the-wall, but even the considerable charisma of Michael J. Fox isn’t quite enough to salvage a muddle mix of eighties clichés, knock-off eighties theme songs, and confusion about the movie’s rather basic “be yourself” metaphor.

Scott’s attempt to grow a beard has gone horribly wrong…

On one level, it’s a fair obvious premise. Going through puberty is tough. You feel different from everybody else, because it’s an immensely private and personal experience. If you’re feeling especially melodramatic, it’s a particularly simple for of body horror – your body literally morphs into something radically different. Your voice deepens. Hair spreads. You have growth spurts. Reimagining this aspect of teenage life as a horror movie transformation might not be an especially complex idea, but it’s a good one.

A large part of the problem with Teen Wolf is the execution. After all, if you’re going to transform into a horror movie monster, there must be some element of horror. I’m not talking about gore or violence or anything like that, but something even remotely unpleasant about the experience. After all, the werewolf story is about the animal we all have tucked away inside us. The problem is that our plucky lead character doesn’t seem to have any real conflict with those darker animal urges. Well, at least not until the mandatory climactic crisis, where he’s forced to come to terms with his “gift” or “curse”or whatever. However, when the most animalistic thing that you werewolf does is to tear the shirt off a jock jerk, you know your werewolf movie has a problem.

Seeing red…

What’s weird about the werewolf thing is that it’s just… sorta… well, there. I give the movie props for originality in portraying the way the community responds to these changes – nobody is panicked or weirded out by a wolf amongst them, and nobody is concerned about their kids going to school with one. However, it feels a bit strange that being a werewolf feels almost incidental to the plot. The film very quickly brushes over all that when our lead imagines a life of being hunted with silver bullets for stealing chickens. His father tells him, “With certain obvious exceptions, werewolves are people just like everybody else.” And that’s that.

With the exception of a jock jerk, nobody else seems to mind our lead’s “otherness” – which is strange. One girl even seems to have a kinda kinky thing for it. Teen Wolf is like the weirdest, but nicest, werewolf ever. On going through his first transformation, our lead’s only response is “jeez louise!” Our hero even skips the traditional “bitten by a wolf”sequence, inheriting the gene from his father. There’s never any tension or threat or suspense or anything like that – the wolf has no teeth to speak of. That’s obviously not a necessary ingredient of itself, but it does stretch the suspension of disbelief a little. The audience can accept a fantastic monster, but somehow the lack of any real reaction to it is somewhat jarring.

An alpha male…

On the other hand, it is relatively original. I can honestly say that I did not expect a “now he’s cool” montage with a werewolf, complete with cheesy eighties soundtrack. And there are some delightfully surreal moments. I especially like the attempted talk between werewolf father and werewolf son, which just feels so ridiculous and so grounded at the same time. And, of course, Michael J. Fox makes an engaging lead. Fox is charismatic and charming, and holds pretty much sole responsibility for keeping the film together.

The production looks notoriously cheap. The werewolf doesn’t look especially impressive, and the cast are clearly quite some time out of high school. That said, the soundtrack is especially dodgy. The movie’s score seems to have composed using three random keys on a synthesiser, and the songs accompanying the action are less than impressive. There’s a cheeky and distracting amount of copyright-evasion-evasion going on here, as the production crew are careful to use songs that sound quite similar to (and are yet distinct from) songs like Stayin’ Alive and Worlds Apart. The “he’s suddenly cool” montage even gets a song that sounds like an attempt to ape Randy Newman, while our lead is sure to dance something similar to Thriller at his High School dance.

A grey werewolf…

However, the film runs into real trouble with its moral. The film has a fairly stock moral, one that isn’t too difficult to grasp and takes considerable effort to screw up. The film bangs the “be yourself” drum repeatedly throughout its runtime, suggesting that our plucky lead needs to be happy in his own skin rather than pretending to be cool. The problem is that… well… the werewolf is his own skin. It’s part of his DNA. He’s not hurting anybody, and it’s part of his inheritance. He was born into it.

While it seems okay to say “be a little less werewolf”, the metaphor breaks down when one realises that “werewolf” is part of our lead’s ethnic identity. Imagine a film that told its protagonist “be a little less [insert ethnic minority].” To be fair, the movie does deal with the obvious metaphors for this sort of teenage transformation. After all, a lot of people discover things about themselves during their teenage years.

His good looks are going to the dogs…

When told our hero has something to confess, the comedic relief jokes that our lead might be a “fag”, and it’s an apt analogy – a teenager discovering something fundamentally different about himself. If the kid’s status as a werewolf can be used for a metaphor for homosexuality, the moral feels distinctly uncomfortable. “Be yourself, unless you’re something different from the norm.” (It is interesting that both characters use “fag” – not just the politically incorrect best friend. It does suggest an uncomfortable conservatism around the production.)

Teen Wolf is an interesting premise with a lackluster execution and an uncomfortably mixed moral. While our lead doesn’t ever have to face silver bullets or pitchforks, one senses that perhaps they’d be less threatening than the films appeal to conformity. At least they’d be overt in their prejudice. It’s a shame, because there are some good ideas here. Unfortunately, they just get a bit lost in the mess of the film.

3 Responses

  1. Most of all, in Teen Wolf, lycanthropy stands for generational difference—or, rather, the lack thereof. Importantly, Scott’s father is also a werewolf, a fact he reveals for the first time after walking in on his son wolfing out in the bathroom. In their hairy regalia, father and son resemble nothing so much as hippies: their shared shagginess brings them together. Teen Wolf, like Hughes’s films, provides a 60s eye view of the 80s—it reads then-nascent youth culture through the prism of the Baby Boom’s own golden age, always looking for points of connection to an earlier, more familiar iteration of the counterculture. It’s of note that Teen Wolf is not even remotely scary – “Thriller” is way more terrifying – and that’s because it’s not meant to be. Becoming a hard-partying, sexually proamamiscuous werewolf is not a trauma but a rite of passage: proof that the rising generation’s cynical Alex P. Keatons are really just earnest counterculturalists like Mom and Dad.

  2. From a Cracked.com article: “American pop culture couldn’t ignore the racial divide any more than Justice Douglas could stop being paralyzed, movies just ended up acknowledging racism accidentally. For instance, in Teen Wolf, Scott (Michael J. Fox) finds out that he’s a werewolf, and we find out that werewolves happen to embody nearly every single white stereotype of black people. After Scott turns into the wolf, he’s not just good at basketball, he plays like a Harlem Globe Trotter, dribbling the ball between his legs, spinning it on his finger and pointlessly looping the ball behind his back before dunking. Traditional werewolf traits like grave robbing and howling at full moons are replaced with traits like spontaneous break dancing, calling classmates “my man” and starting a dance craze called “The Wolf” that can best be described as “what white people look like when trying to do the dance from ‘Thriller.’

    The only downside to his new “wolf” powers appears to be that women don’t love him so much as they love his doggy style — the girl of his dreams makes him transform into the wolf before they have sex for the first time. Hey, you know what they say about wolf penises.””

    Anyway, I don’t have anything to add to it, but I thought it fits in nicely with your comparision of the wolf with an ethnic identity.

    Read more: 5 Baffling 80s Trends (Explained by Rare Mental Disorders) | Cracked.com http://www.cracked.com/blog/5-baffling-80s-trends-explained-by-rare-mental-disorders/#ixzz20Tmj5xcu

  3. Michael Landon got his start as a teen werewolf. But I don’t think he had a double. He went on to bigger and better things. Too bad he’s no longer with us.

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