There always comes a point early in a newfound friendship when you’ll ask the other person what their favorite movie is. Since we’re horror fans, we tend to gravitate towards the genre first. My conditioned response to “what’s your favorite scary movie?” is usually always EVIL DEAD 2, followed very, very closely by Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. But if we expand beyond the horror genre, what else do I love? Well, I grew up a child of the video generation, and of the early days of HBO. So, I love ’80s movies, teen comedies, slashers, things with fantastical elements, etc. But really, when I stop to think about it, I’m pretty sure TEEN WOLF is my favorite movie of all time.
Yes, I’m well aware there are better movies, but this is my comfort film. I can put it on at any time or place, and start it from any moment, and I know every scene, frame, music cue, joke, piece of dialogue, character quirk and so on. It’s just one of those movies that hit me at just the right time.
I was 9 years old in 1985 when it came out. I was already a huge fan of the Universal Monster movies and tended to gravitate the most towards the sympathetic Wolf Man. Simultaneously, my brother had taken me to see BACK TO THE FUTURE, which was a life-changing and imagination fueling piece of cinema for an impressionable young boy. BACK TO THE FUTURE is a film I still consider one of five perfect movies. (The others being JAWS, DIE HARD, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and PULP FICTION) So, when TEEN WOLF came out, and it starred the kid from FAMILY TIES and BACK TO THE FUTURE as a teenage werewolf, it was everything I loved all in one flick.
Also, look – as middle school approached, I wasn’t exactly the most popular kid in class. The two things I found comfort in were horror movies and comic books. I enjoyed the thrill of vicariously surviving a horror film, but I learned my morality from reading Marvel comic books, in particular Spider-Man where I learned that “with great power comes great responsibility.” So, TEEN WOLF, written by Matthew Weisman and Jeph Loeb (who would go on to have a significant role in comic books, and currently helps guide the Netflix Marvel TV universe) was the culmination of both of the worlds I was so embedded in.
Scott Howard is a good hearted kid that is tired of being so “average.” Sure, he plays basketball with his high school team, the Beavers, but they kind of stink, and the hot, popular gal that he pines for, Pamela Wells, dates the over-age Mick, who is on their rival team. Scott does have his dad, his best friend, Stiles, and the girl next door, Boof. But he’s also going through… changes.
As it turns out, Scott comes from a long line of werewolves, something his father had hoped would pass him by, but as it turns out, being “the wolf” comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. In fact, the script lifts the same adage that good ol’ Uncle Ben once told Peter Parker about “great power” and “great responsibility.”
It turns out maybe that popular girl isn’t such a nice person to want to be with? Maybe your true friends are the ones that already liked you before you were able to show off your newfound abilities? And maybe that girl next door that not-so-secretly pined for you is the person you should be with? It’s a very traditional morality tale that distinguishes right from wrong in a way that was completely indelible to me as a 9-year-old.
In one of my favorite scenes, while debating whether or not he truly needs his wolf alter-ego, Stiles begs Scott to “do the right thing.” And Scott replies, “that’s all I want to do, Stiles. That’s all I want to do.” For all of us that don’t feel like we 100 percent fit in, we at least desire to do the right thing, especially by the people we care about. And I think what makes a movie like this with a goofy premise work as well as it does is, despite all the jokes and outlandish scenarios, is that its heart shines through and through.
A few years ago at a Q & A for the film, the writers said that they knew Rod Daniel was the perfect director for this material because he was the only filmmaker that came in, and when asked what he thought the movie was about replied, “it’s about a father and son, just trying to figure it out.” There’s your heart and soul, folks.
What’s interesting about TEEN WOLF is that it was shot before BACK TO THE FUTURE, but released after. And naturally, BACK TO THE FUTURE was a cultural phenomenon and catapulted Michael J. Fox into household-name status. Capitalizing on the success of BACK TO THE FUTURE, TEEN WOLF came out a mere month later, and was also a huge hit, coming in number 2 at the box office, right behind BACK TO THE FUTURE.
Would TEEN WOLF have been as big a success had it come out before? We can hypothesize all we want, but this is the way it happened, and because of it, plenty more TEEN WOLF-esque properties came into being. It became a franchise! In 1986, a cartoon series was produced based on the movie (with a few minor alterations). In the series, Scott also had a grandfather, his “Teen Wolf” persona was secret except to Stiles and Boof, and Mick was no longer a 21-year-old that got left back, but another high school jock bully that constantly taunts Scott. It lasted 2 seasons and 21 episodes were produced.
In 1987, a sequel was released, but instead, it focused on Scott Howard’s cousin Todd Howard, played by Jason Bateman, whose sister, ironically enough, was played Michael J. Fox’s sister on the sitcom FAMILY TIES. At the time, I was already TEEN WOLF crazy (between both the original movie and the cartoon series) to the point that I don’t think I could’ve been more excited for a sequel than I was for TEEN WOLF TOO. In fact, I remember convincing my older cousin, Daniel, to take me because I had volunteered to write a review of it for the Middle School newspaper. This would be the first ever piece of film criticism I’d ever give, and who would’ve thought it would lead me to where I am today? It began with TEEN WOLF TOO! I don’t have that review anymore, although my vague memory was that I gave it a considerably good review, mainly because I so desperately wanted to love it that I forced myself to.
In retrospect, it was a disappointment, but it was also the first time I started to realize specific things about movies, franchises, and how studio mentality worked against them. For starters, the story picks up in college, so was this originally intended to be a direct sequel that followed the characters we knew and loved into the next chapter of their lives? And at that point, because Michael J. Fox was so huge, did they opt instead to change the lead character to his cousin? Sure, James Hampton (Scott’s dad) and Mark Holton (Chubby) returned, but Couch Finstock and Stiles were recast. It basically follows along as a loose, less successful remake of the first one (instead of basketball, it’s boxing!) but this version doesn’t quite connect, despite the best efforts of Bateman, who got to redeem this performance on Jimmy Fallon a few years back!
Also, character actors Kim Darby and John Astin help add some positivity to the proceedings. This one didn’t do as well as the original and hence, the proposed third TEEN WOLF movie, which was slated to do a gender-switch and star Alyssa Milano, was canceled! (Although, rumor has it that the 1989 feature TEEN WITCH with Robin Lively started out as a potential TEEN WOLF sequel/spin-off as well.)
Now, when younger people hear TEEN WOLF, they think of the hit MTV series, rather than the goofy coming-of-age comedy from 1985. I guess that’s ok. I tried to watch the TV show and made it maybe 4-5 episodes, but it just wasn’t for me, and it was so far removed from the movie it’s based on that I gave it up. I assume it’s similar to BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER; sure, the movie exists (and I rather like that a lot!), but the show was intended for a different audience. And it was huge for that audience, much like TEEN WOLF, the series, was huge for a new generation.
But that doesn’t mean that the original TEEN WOLF isn’t still out there as part of the pop-culture zeitgeist. For some inexplicable reason, the lead singer of the band M83 performed the track “Do It, Try It” from the album “Junk” on the Jimmy Kimmel show, complete in TEEN WOLF make-up. I still have no idea why! It wasn’t Halloween, it was in April. But kudos, regardless!
And like I said, I revisit the movie often, as it’s something I can put on at any time and feel like I’m with an old friend. The things that stand out to me now are the craft behind the picture. What was great about this era of movies was that everyone from every department took their job very, very seriously, and it was all about the craft of their work. I often have had this conversation with filmmakers Ti West and AJ Bowen. Sure, the premise of TEEN WOLF may be ridiculous, but no one on that set showed up and said, “this is silly, let’s half ass it.” One of the best scenes is a long, one-take tracking shot with Scott and Boof walking down the street talking about how they almost ran away together when they were kids. It’s a beautifully acted, shot and executed scene that, out of context, would fit in perfectly with any drama of that era. This is made all the more awesome by the fact that it’s actually from a movie about a kid that turns into a werewolf.
I’ll leave you with some advice from the great Coach Bobby Finstock in TEEN WOLF. It’s 3 rules that I, myself, have lived by ever since I first heard them in this movie, and I think they’re valid.
“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. Now you stick to that, and everything else is cream cheese.”