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Film Review: Teen Wolf

Teen Wolf (1985; Directed by Rod Daniel)

I really don’t get the ’80s, culturally speaking. Pretty much any other post-war era of youth culture makes some relative, context-specific sense to me, as far as styles, fashions, values, and so forth. I may not enjoy those elements or find them “cool” (though that word itself and all that it implies is at the root of the problem), but they have a measure of general intelligibility, at least. The 1980s are simply unintelligible. I just have no idea how anyone could have possibly thought any of the fashions, music, or colloquial expressions were good or interesting on any level, nor the lifestyle ideal that they all anticipated. The cultural assumptions simply seem utterly deluded to an embarrassing extent. And that same impression goes for a movie like Teen Wolf.

Even a werewolf can't make air guitar cool.

I can acknowledge that Michael J. Fox, at the height of his post-Marty McFly fame (though not that far post, as Teen Wolf followed Back to the Future by a mere month and a half), has some undeniable aw-shucks appeal to bring to the table. This is to say nothing of his considerable reserves of flailing, frantic comic physicality. The finest directors that he worked with (Robert Zemeckis in the Back to the Future films and Peter Jackson in The Frighteners) recognized that Fox is never more endearing than when he is running desperately somewhere, swinging his arms wildly as he stops in full frame. Rod Daniel is not a very fine director, but he includes a moment or two just like that. Furthermore, it’s undeniable that there’s something potentially inspired about burgeoning werewolfish abilities as a metaphor for puberty, especially when grafted onto the mid-80s’ diminuitive prince of vanilla-white teenage everymanhood.

But Teen Wolf never gets to that plateau of inspired knowingness, for a panoply of reasons. The supporting cast – headed by an avuncular dad (the revelation that he shares his son’s blessing/curse is actually slightly clever and unexpected), a wacky buddy, the nice girl and the manipulative girl, and a square-jawed antagonist – bluff their way through stock roles. The special effects are astoundingly bad, and the music is an ugly smear of synthesized pablum. Additionally, the basketball scenes are laughable to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the game’s rules; I was shouting for a 10-second violation when Fox’s Scott Howard transforms to his lupine self on the court and dribbles slowly backwards, but the ref ignored me just as he ignored the rule book.

The Phoenix Suns Gorilla: The Early Years

Beyond this, though, I wonder at the film’s thematic message about individuality and conformity. Scott laments being an average nobody before discovering that he’s different and special, but the script has him choosing conformity over distinction in the end, because conforming and being “normal” is what it takes to be true to himself. This is complicated by the depiction of the school’s enthusiastic reaction to his wolf self, however; assuming the animal identity is characterized as living up to others’ expectations of what he ought to be, so he must choose to reject it in order to “be himself” (almost always the preferred end point in Hollywood films).

I could be wrong, but this strikes me as a very Reagan-era thematic value: individuality and excitement are to be discouraged. Sure, it’s fun to be an uninhibited beast for awhile, but then you have to grow up and get a mortgage; werewolves may be pretty badass, but I’d like to see one of them apply for a bank loan. For this film as for Reagan’s America, there is no shame in conformity, and much less in the way of social dangers as well. Being an average nobody will set you free! That Teen Wolf upholds such values while embodying the sort of shiny mediocrity that underlies them makes it a relic of its baffling time, and not really much else.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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