Teen Wolf (1985)

Directed by Rob Daniel

teen wolf 3

Teen Wolf was released during what I have to assume was called the Summer of Michael J. Fox, right?  The August 23rd released date followed the early July release of Back to the Future, Fox’s definitive role.  While the earlier film was a resounding hit, Teen Wolf may have been less so, but it’s become a cult film over the years.

So what makes a cult film work?  They are typically movies that don’t find an audience upon release but slowly gather an audience over the coming years, sometimes decades later.  Many historically great movies aren’t considered great until decades later, but a cult film is different.  No one recognizes Teen Wolf as a great movie, I’m sure, but I think it’s admired because it knows what it’s trying to do, and it does it.

This movie is hammy, to be sure, and it’s filled with stereotypical high school characters, all a little too old for the role.  If the movie has a message, about self-acceptance, it doesn’t seem to matter.  The joy is in the wish fulfillment of the protagonist, Scott (Michael J. Fox), whose newfound werewolf abilities becomes quickly accepted by the school, making him a Ferris Bueller-esque heralded figure within the community.

I think Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and this one have a lot in common, now that I think about it.  They are both high school movies, and in high school movies there might as well not be a world outside the school.  What matters most is what your classmates think of you and escaping the watchful eye of the dominating adult figure, usually a principal or teacher.  The protagonist might as well exist in a prison camp in which the prisoners happen to develop love interests.

And while Ferris Bueller actually spends most of the time outside of school with Scott spending his time in school, the main similarity is the films’ self-awareness.  In other high school movies, it seems, the protagonist is unique to us, as the audience, but not to his or her peers.  Just by being the protagonist of a movie, the main character is inherently special.  Usually this person is played by a recognizable movie star or at least an up and comer.  The way the rest of the school might ignore this character, while understandable, doesn’t reflect our viewing relationship with the protagonist.  So in these two films, by having the entire school recognize the protagonist’s uniqueness, it puts us in the same position as one of the hero’s classmates.

A better way to say this is just that the world of the hero recognizes his heroism, and in doing so there is a slight acknowledgement of the movie itself.  It’s as if the filmmaker wants to make it clear that this character is worth being the main character in a feature film, so he decides to have the protagonist worshipped as the movie star the performer really is.

In doing this, there is certainly a breakdown of the supposed realism of the world of the movie, but movies like this are always a little unreal anyways, particularly in this case.  When Scott turns into the Wolf, you anticipate that he will have to try and hide this from the world around him.  Having been more unfamiliar than I realized with this story when I finally saw it, I was a bit shocked when Scott’s father opens the door, revealing that he too is a wolf.  It was the perfect turn in the story, letting you know that this isn’t going to be the movie you expect.

Scott’s Wolf won’t haunt the school or even pose the same problems you may have anticipated.  Instead his Wolf his celebrated, and it’s heartwarming to see an outcast be recognized for something he is ashamed of.  Of course this starts to go too far, as Scott’s Wolf celebrity goes straight to his head.

But the ‘Fun & Games’ portion of the script, typically early in act 2, is tremendously fun.  A moment like this, where everything is going well, usually means that it’s going well for the protagonist, but his success is so enjoyable, especially as it effects the more villainous characters.  I didn’t want this part of the movie to end, but you know that the cheer will wear off, and the story will get much more serious, as it is obligated to do.

Teen Wolf deals mostly with cliches and cheap 80s villains who hate Scott because that’s just what they do.  The bully, Mick (Mark Arnold), is unnecessarily aggressive towards Scott, but I suppose you do understand his anger when Mick’s girlfriend, Pamela, uses Scott’s Wolf to make Mick jealous.  The ultimate point made by the movie, that Scott doesn’t need the Wolf to fit in, comes in the form of a basketball game against Mick’s superior team.

We establish early on that Scott’s team is atrocious, but when he becomes the Wolf, they are unstoppable.  By the end, Scott decides that he should just be himself, and he proves that their team can still win even if he plays as himself, not as the Wolf.  This is a great message and all, but it’s more than a little silly to watch the entire film be boiled down to a game of basketball.

Sports as portrayed in movies are often very tough to watch.  The actors are actors more than they are athletes, and watching them pretend to shoot a basketball or throw a pitch is incredibly awkward, as it is here.  It might be a problem in this movie if the story weren’t already so hammy and silly.  Because at the end, all I wanted was for Scott to make those two free throws and rub it in Mick’s smug face.

So I get why this is a cult movie.  Logically, you look at all the missteps in the film, but emotionally it all works, almost inexplicably.  It’s silly and fun, and even when the story gets more serious it never feels too heavy-handed.  You know that the seriousness of the film is still an element in the genre of this type of movie.  Even Ferris Bueller got serious by the end, though that seemed to be more genuine than in this one.

A cult movie embraces what makes it weird and unique, just like Scott embracing his Wolf.  You don’t run and hide from the thing that makes you stand out, you run into it full bore.  Teen Wolf tells us that you don’t need to pretend to be something you’re not, but hey, Scott wouldn’t be so well off in the end if he had never become the Wolf.

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