Teen Wolf? Is it Halloween already? Nope, today we kick off March Madness here on Deluxe Video Online. We’ve decided to dedicate the month to our favorite basketball flicks, both serious and stupid. Apparently this sport lends itself especially well to cinematic treatment, because there are a ton of movies on the subject, even going back to 1927’s silent film, The Fair Co-Ed (AKA The Varsity Girl.) That’s right, the first film about basketball was about ladies’ hoops!
This time out, we’re going to start light, looking at a troubled young man who finds self worth and identity out on the court, while struggling with his personal demons. And being a werewolf. So sort of like The Basketball Diaries, if teen Leonardo DiCaprio could grow a believable beard.
Teen Wolf (1985)
Scott Howard is an awkward teenager, struggling with a crush on the most popular girl in school while toiling away on a basketball squad that is the laughing stock of the whole state. Like any teenager, Scott starts to go through changes. Mood swings, hair growing in weird places, a nasty temper, and razor sharp fangs and claws…What? Scott, his father reveals, is the latest Howard to inherit a proud family tradition of being werewolves. While the young man thinks that his life is over, he soon finds that being more than human gives him tremendous appeal. While many fear and shun him, the wolf he becomes is charismatic, cool, fearless and incredibly strong. Strong enough to stand up to the school bully, and maybe strong enough to turn his teams losing season around. If only he can keep the animal under control…
A Few White Hairs
I was interested in seeing how gracefully this film had aged since I first fell in love with it more than 30 years ago. Michael J. Fox‘s portrayal of Scott Howard remains strong, which is no surprise since this role really played to his strengths. Like Back to the Future, Fox is both cool and suave in places, and completely over his head and vulnerable in others. This mode seems like his wheel house, as other projects that only allowed him to play the debonair pretty boy (The Secret of my Success, Doc Hollywood) really lacked the charm of either Teen Wolf or Back to the Future.
The visuals and special effects in this film remain mostly enjoyable. Like every werewolf movie made before modern digital effects (and many made afterwords) the transformation between man and wolf is frequently janky. There are good transitions that mostly make use of quick cuts and use of shadows to hide the prosthetic trickery, but there is also the mandatory “big transformation” where the movie is obliged to show the whole painful ordeal, where the prosthesis are readily apparent. Once in full make-up, Teen Wolf looks good, although he does seem to be beautifully groomed from the get-go. Must have been eating a lot of eggs to get such a healthy coat of flowing fur!
Making the Familiar Strange
At its heart, Teen Wolf is a coming of age comedy that is rather routine. A young man trying to find his place in the high school hierarchy must choose between being cool and being genuine. Not rocket science. The werewolf angle modestly insulates the piece from being cliche, even though the plot is largely formulaic. There is quite a bit of wish fulfillment going on, but it is ultimately redeemed by the final act, where the hero makes a decisive choice about which set of values he wants to live by. There is also a basketball game…one of the most boring basketball games ever filmed.
B Minus Ball
The iconic final game is where the film struggles under its own weight. This isn’t because the game doesn’t work as a grand metaphor, or because Scott’s choice doesn’t carry strong convictions. It is a brave choice for David to face Goliath without even a sling shot. I liked the decision to sideline the hero’s powers deliberately, instead of using a cheap trick to force Scott to win without them (like if the other team found a way to prevent him from changing, or grabbed his friends and blackmailed him into being normal)…it just ends up being a rather long slog to watch. The film throws out the wolf completely and becomes an underdog story, which strains credulity as the wolf was the only thing keeping this team afloat. The final game is so painfully technical, it relies on fouls and free throws to settle the contest. Yawn. So much for a howling good time!
Still Got It?
Teen Wolf is still a fun film, mostly because of the charm of its lead, Michael J. Fox. It pays its dues to both werewolf movies, teen dramas and underdog success films, with mixed results. The final game feels tacked on, and I could just have easily lived with Scott punching out his rival in the parking lot instead of having some big sports competition grind its way to a forgone conclusion for the last twenty minutes. Hell, it would have been wonderful if Scott had lost, but still become beloved for his personal courage instead of his shaggy fur. The film starts strong, and has plenty of heart and humor to make up for its lackluster finale, and just manages to coast to victory based on the strength of Fox’s performance.