When I recently reviewed the sci-fi horror comedy Invasion of the Saucer Men, I was quick to praise the picture for escaping criticism by mocking itself so openly that any sarcastic derision aimed at it would feel redundant. The film was in danger of becoming an empty exercise in teen-marketed drive-in horror genre tropes, but turned itself around & ending up functioning almost like a full-blown genre spoof. Although I enjoyed its detached, laissez-faire approach to 50s monster movie mayhem, the film it was attached to on a double bill, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, stands as a testament to the idea that big risk earnestness often pays off more than sarcastic self-parody every could. I Was a Teenage Werewolf is the exact kind of teenage-marketed monster movie that Invasion of the Saucer Men openly mocked, but it’s one that took such big risks in its basic formula that it ended up standing the test of time as the much more significant work. You could even claim that it forever changed the motion picture landscape at large, which is quite a bold claim for a schlocky monster movie cheaply slapped together for the drive-in crowd.
The main innovation I Was a Teenage Werewolf brings to the table is the very basic idea of a teenage monster. It’s difficult to imagine modern horror cinema without teenage monsters. Transforming into a heinous, bloodthirsty monstrosity is a perfect metaphor for the hormonal powder keg of puberty and has been put to effective use in countless horror pictures. Even the werewolf teenager picture has evolved into its own genre, including titles like Ginger Snaps, Cursed, and, duh, Teen Wolf among its ranks. In 1957, however, this idea was entirely foreign & even somewhat controversial. Keep in mind that the very idea of a teenager was a relatively new concept at the time, with almost no thought given to the awkward bridge between childhood & adulthood previously. More to the point, though, horror villains were almost unanimously either murderous adults or supernatural creatures so I Was a Teenage Werewolf was something of a game changer. Teens had gotten used to watching their peers terrorized by monsters onscreen, but this was the first instance where they saw themselves becoming a monster, which surely struck home in some way, considering the way puberty had already transformed their minds & bodies.
The titular teenage werewolf of I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a hothead with anger management issues named Tony (played by a pre-fame Michael Landon). The film starts with Tony engaging in a fistfight over most innocuous of offenses. A friend playfully tapped Tony’s shoulder, an act that threw him into a rage, exclaiming “I don’t like that kind of friendship!” His teen angst extends far beyond schoolyard fights, too, and Tony spends most of his day bucking the influence of parents, teachers, and police officers with an “I don’t like to be pushed around!” attitude. His quest not to be “hassled” by the adults in his life & a quick-to-anger personality is given an official diagnosis. Tony is told that there isn’t anything wrong with him, necessarily; he’s just having a difficult time “adjusting”. Sent to the mysterious Dr. Brandon, known for curing patients through hypnosis, Tony is told that he should be able to “adjust” after psychological treatment. “Adjusting” is far from Dr. Brandon’s mind, however. The maniacal scientist is hellbent on using Tony as a guinea pig in experiments to save the world by bringing Man back to a primitive state. Using the same meditative, de-evolution technique as Ken Russell’s masterful Altered States. Dr. Brandon’s mission to unlock “the primitive past that lurks within” & conviction that “the only road to progress is to hurl the human race back to its savage beginnings”, of course, only leads to monster movie mayhem as he turns the poorly adjusted Tony into a murderous lycanthrope.
I should be clear that I Was a Teenage Werewolf is finely-crafted in a campy kind of way. If you couldn’t tell by its title alone, this is cerainly an exploitation picture & a genre flick so the outdated hokeyness of its dialogue & monster make-up is certain to illicit a giggle or two. I was personally amused by the way the film panders to teens by attempting to co-opt their hip youngster slang. Phrases like “yakety yak”, “How square can you get?”, and “This party’s really percolating!” all play like the way parents think teens speak instead of how they would actually talk. Much like Roger Corman’s beatnik horror classic Bucket of Blood, I Was a Teenage Werewolf is certainly made by outsiders looking in & there’s a good bit of humor in that false authenticity. Campy or not, though, this movie is one of those unique genre pictures that achieves far more than its limited means would indicate. There are some truly beautiful shots/scenes to the picture that surprise in their craft.A fist punching the camera lens, a pan shot of Tony’s shocked friends, a masterful scene featuring a beautiful gymnast/Playboy bunny, and the then-idiosyncratic imagery of a werewolf wearing a varsity jacket on a high school campus are all far more striking than they have any right to be. I Was a Teenage Werewolf not only forever changed the course of horror cinema by turning its teenage target audience into monsters themselves; it also looked fantastic while doing it. It’s the kind of old school monster movie that burrows into your subconscious the way a less earnest picture like Invasion of the Saucer Men never could. It’s a genuinely fantastic slice of camp horror history that deserves to be remembered fondly & with great, schlocky reverence.