Saturday, September 09, 2006

Jeeze Louise!: Notes on TEEN WOLF (1985)

Rialto Midnight Screening Report!

"Give me a keg of beer..."

I was entirely unaware of any burgeoning cult audience for Teen Wolf (1985), besides myself and my friends, until South Pasadena's historic and elegantly-trashed Rialto theater floated it as their Saturday midnight movie last weekend. After that sparsely-attended screening - mostly quiet but for a suspiciously rowdy and crowded 9th row - didn't do much to prove me wrong. Those held in thrall by the Rod Daniel-directed mind-boggler see it as more than a tepid, confused, rote and inoffensive kiddie horror comedy... it is the tepid, confused, rote horror comedy. Any minor generational obsession with Teen Wolf is probably the product of mushrooming '80s nostalgia, bolstered by comfy familiarity from endless cable TV airings and the patience of divergent irony-seekers. Constant catcalls and sarcastic applause (and possibly some non-sarcastic applause) for iconic moments at the Rialto show (and this writer has immunity from none of this behavior) more or less confirm Teen Wolf fans as gobbling up harmless but empty comfort food, even while gagging on it a little.

For the uninitiated, Teen Wolf reconfigures I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) as a teen high school sports comedy. Painfully average Beacontown, NE teen Scott Howard (Michael J Fox, filmed pre-Back to the Future) discovers he is the latest in a family lineage of werewolves. Able to transform at will and possessed of none of Larry Talbot's murderous instinct, Scott channels his wolf powers into phenomenal basketball skills, leads his team to the state finals, wins the lead in the play, lays the hottest girl in school, and becomes big man on campus. But at what cost?!

"... and these!"

The midnight movie has always been as much a forum for forwarding the cause of Bad Movie Appreciation as for subversive avant-garde art (if not a key locale where where they met, mingled and had babies well before "Notes on 'Camp'"). It is one of the natural tentacles of the midnight movie, coiling back further than the earliest screenings of Reefer Madness, to late-night spook shows attended by packs of howling teenagers. More and more, at least in the LA area, '80s pop movies are being programmed as midnight shows; all bases are covered, from the cream of the genre crop (Gremlins, Fast Times at Ridgemont High), to the camp non-classics (Teen Witch), to those where nostalgia-trippers-only need apply (Flight of the Navigator). I'm always a little troubled by the lumping together of the genuinely witty, the successful broad comedy and refuse that I'm happy to laugh at-but-not-with (it's how Danger: Diabolik ends up on "Mystery Science Theater 3000"), but the ideology of midnight movies has always been tangled; "troubling" is at the core of the appeal.

There's a lot about Teen Wolf that fulfills the needs of the '80s junk collector, as it abounds with high-waisted elastic cuff jeans, rolled-up sleeves, breakdancing, lots of plastic sunglasses, and eardrum-numbing soundtrack approximations of Randy Newman, "Stayin Alive" and Carly Simon. These are natural, if endearingly silly, byproducts of aiming a film at a contemporary youth market, and while Teen Wolf's surface decorations are particularly choice, I'd imagine there's only so many times you can laugh at how tight someone's pants are. To be sure, the pacing is stultifying, the cinematography ugly, the special effects makeup poor for its era, the attempts at South Pasadena standing in for Nebraska transparent and ridiculous. Having spent, well, frankly, a lot of time with the film, I believe the most astounding elements of Teen Wolf lie in profound flaws in its storytelling from basic premise to character motivation to thematic concerns.

Though the inspiration was surely to create a comic twist on I Was a Teenage Werewolf, that film already fully explored the metaphor of lycanthropy-as-adolescence, addressing the physical transformation, sexual awakening, and potential for adult violence. Teen Wolf works this idea for a few scenes: a near date-rape of Scott's gal pal Boof (Susan Ursetti) in which Scott sprouts claws during a makeout party game, and a great setpiece for the first full wolf transformation wherein the sweaty kid locks himself in the john as his father bangs on the door. "Uh no, Dad, I'm ... doing... something in here!" Fox warbles, and mutters "I'll say!" to himself. But the script drops this idea to fill the requirements of the basketball plot, where werewolfism simply unleashes hidden reservoirs of athletic talent. Scott's father, Harold (James Hampton of numerous TV guest roles) first suggests the werewolf is a manifestation of untapped personal potential ("with greater power comes a greater responsibility", he advises), only to later recant and indicate it corresponds with dark emotions, fear, rage and loss of control. It's all very confused, even down to what causes Scott to transform (full moons, anger, horniness and absolutely nothing, at various times) and what being a werewolf means in a literal sense. He is certainly not imbued with wolfish hunting instincts or a danger to others, so it's hard to buy the conclusion that the werewolf must be suppressed.

I can go on and on - why would the basketball team suddenly be good at the climax of the film when they couldn't even score before? Why is the revelation that rival b-baller Mick (Mark Arnold), murdered Scott's mother, and indeed "blew her head off with a shotgun", glossed over as normal small town villain backstory? Basically Teen Wolf tries so hard to follow so many templates that it gets its wires crossed in ways that must be seen to be believed, and seen repeatedly to be untangled in full. The whole enterprise is gloriously screwed-up in a rare way that is usually ignored in favor of fans laughing at Fox's ZZ Top-esque wolf makeup.

Jay Tarses as Coach Bobby Finstock, unrepentant slob

After enough time spent with Teen Wolf, there are some clever intentional touches to appreciate. The film opens on a glowing orb, and Scott's sweat-drenched, gasping face slides into the shot; a shock cut reveals the scene as a basketball game joined in progress, the stand-in full moon merely an out-of-focus overhead light in the gymnasium. There's a laugh-out-loud misdirect when Scott steps out his front door, and freezes when a dog on the lawn seems to say "hello!", before he realizes Boof is sitting on the porch, trying to get his attention. In two scenes, rolling objects are intercepted by disapproving authority figures: first a roll of packing tape and later an empty can. None of this modest flare makes up for the myriad of sins, but it inclines a viewer to more generosity.

As a comedy Teen Wolf is pretty anemic, except for two fun performances. Scott Paulin plays drama teacher Mr. Lolley with comical spurt and stutter line readings that rescue the character from dull stereotype. Jay Tarses is absolutely inspired as the disinterested basketball coach Bobby Finstock, armed with surely improvisation-embellished dialogue. Whether chewing gum was he shaves and eats fried chicken at his desk, or advising the boys that win or lose, it's how you play, "and even that doesn't matter that much", Tarses' role is the only entirely successful element of Teen Wolf.

NEXT on Exploding Kinetoscope: More Teen Wolf! A Celebration of Stiles


Reel Fanatic said...

Teen Wolf is indeed one of those movies that gets better the less you think about it ... Michael J. Fox was just hilarious in it, and he would be the king of 80s teen flicks if it weren't for the reigning John Cusack

Chris Stangl said...

I thought I was arguing that Teen Wolf gets better the more you think about it, but whatever gets you through the night.

Anonymous said...

A couple more cents to add: After watching it numerous times, I always found it odd that Scott and Boof, who'd been friends since childhood ("What were we, six?") after engaging in a pretty heavy make out session, would show no signs of awkwardness in their friendship. You'd think something like that would elicit at least a conversation, and I would never think that the next place I'd see my childhood best friend after making out with her and tearing her shirt to shreds would be playing basketball with my dad. I also think the character Louis, the only person who seems to have the rational response to a werewolf, which is, "Yikes!" is such a minor character that, though I've seen the movie numerous times, I always seem to forget he's in it. And what the hell is Scott holding in that picture when he says, "And these!" It looks like a sandwich.

Chris Stangl said...

One of the main reasons I wanted Teen Wolf on widescreen DVD was to see the "and these"es that were cropped out of the VHS release. Alas the object was still too small for a definitive answer. Having seen the "And these!" scene on the big screen for the first time, my current best-guess is: vanilla sandwich cookies?

My "Celebration of Stiles" (forthcoming) might shed some light on the trinity of Rupert/ Lewis/ Scott.

Unknown said...

Stumbled over here after searching for more Jay Tarses info. Thought I'd throw a correction in, he actually says:

It doesn't matter how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose. And even that doesn't make all that much difference.

Which in my opinion is the best line in the move! Great article btw.