Not all teenage werewolf movies are created equal.
As a kid, I couldn’t have been more primed to see 1985’s Teen Wolf, a movie that seemed positively made just for me. I was obsessed with star Michael J. Fox, first from his TV work as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties and then as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, to this day my favorite movie of all time. Werewolves have always been my movie monster of choice, even as a boy of just eight years old. Combining Michael J. Fox with werewolves—in a high school comedy, no less, then (and possibly still) one of my favorite film genres—seemed a foolproof recipe for a classic. And, in its way, Teen Wolf is a classic: a movie that’s probably as good as it can be while still being far from great. It’s sweet, it means well, and it’s endlessly watchable, none of which should be taken for granted. That it’s sort of dopey shouldn’t really be held against the movie.
Fox plays Scott Howard, a painfully average high schooler with a few close friends, a single dad who runs a hardware store, and a spot on a losing basketball team even though he’s not great. Recently, Scott’s been going through some changes, which might seem like puberty, but he’s clearly already gone through that. No, the changes are because Scott is a full-blown werewolf from a long line of werewolves. His lycanthropy is unlike what we normally see in movies; there is no painful transformation, no curse of the full moon. Scott is able to change into the wolf at will and uses his new abilities to become the most popular kid in school: he’s great at basketball, an excellent dancer, and finally gets the attention of Pamela Wells (Lorie Griffin), the hottest girl at school—much to the dismay of his best friend, the unfortunately named girl-next-door Boof (Susan Ursitti).
While made on the cheap ($1.2 million, but grossing a staggering $80 million) and directed with a sort of TV movie approach by first-time feature director Rod Daniel (whose prior experience in television informs his stylistic choices here), Teen Wolf gets by on the charisma of Michael J. Fox and a few supporting performances—namely Ursitti, James Hampton as Fox’s father, and Jerry Levine as his friend Stiles. The themes are the stuff of standard teen movies: the importance of being yourself, don’t overlook what you already have, etc. The visuals are flat, the werewolf makeups pretty lame, the comedy rarely funny (with the exception of Jay Tarses as disinterested Coach Finstock, whose every line delivery is gold).
But Teen Wolf has heart, and heart is a hard thing to fake. The central relationship between Scott and Boof, longtime best friends who are clearly destined for a deeper relationship, gives the drama a spine because it gets us to invest in their happiness—we want Scott to do the right thing and be himself because that’s what Boof wants and we like Boof. There is a scene about halfway through the movie in which the two characters walk home from school together and reminisce about a story from their childhood. It’s told in a single long shot and is genuinely beautiful, a moment of true humanity and first love amongst all the werewolf dancing and high school hijinks. The scene represents Fox’s character arc in a nutshell: it’s a reminder of what is grounded and sincere in the middle of a bunch of shallow, goofy nonsense. It’s the best part of Scott—the part that’s not the wolf.
Teen Wolf was a big enough hit to inspire an entire sub-genre of teen comedy/horror movie hybrids (as well as a hit MTV series in the 2000s), nearly all of which leaned much more heavily on the teen comedy aspects than they did on the horror stuff. There was My Best Friend is a Vampire and My Demon Lover and Teen Witch and a half-dozen others. Most importantly, though, was the 1987 sequel Teen Wolf Too, which replaces TV star Fox with TV star Jason Bateman and high school basketball with college boxing; other than those changes, Too is the same movie in practically every way. As such, it provides a fascinating case study in a sequel trying to replicate the high concept charms of its predecessor and falling way short (see also: Mannequin 2: On the Move). While Jason Bateman has grown into a terrific actor on both the big and small screen, his performance in Teen Wolf Too smacks of someone not yet ready to graduate to movies from sitcoms. He feels like the JV Michael J. Fox, just as Teen Wolf Too is the JV Teen Wolf.
While I’ve always felt that my lukewarm response to the sequel was just a result of it copying its predecessor without adding anything new, Blumhouse writer and Teen Wolf superfan Rob Galluzzo crystallizes one of the movie’s big problems on the retrospective documentary included as part of the disc’s special features: whereas the first Teen Wolf uses a team sport like basketball to teach Scott to come together with his friends and work as a group, Teen Wolf Too’s decision to focus on an isolated sport like boxing makes Todd too much of an island. It removes the central arc of the first movie and fails to replace it with anything as meaningful or dramatically satisfying. When taken alongside the loss of the sweet romance the likes of which Scott has with Boof, Too doesn’t have much left on which to hang its wolfy hat. There is an attempt at creating a romance with Estee Chandler as Todd’s study partner, but building a relationship from scratch doesn’t hold the same weight as the established, lifelong friendship we get in the first movie.
Scream Factory brings Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too to Blu-ray in separate collector’s editions with new HD transfers and bountiful bonus features. Both are presented in 1080p HD in their original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratios, with Teen Wolf getting a transfer taken from the original interpositive (Too appears to have been sourced from an existing HD master). The Teen Wolf disc includes a massive, two and a half hour documentary called “Never. Say. Die.,” which contains interviews with a number of the cast and crew and is broken up into themed segments, though neither Fox nor director Rod Daniel (who passed away last year) are included. The only other supplements are a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
Teen Wolf Too gets its own, much shorter retrospective doc called “Working with the Wolf,” which is billed as an interview with director Christopher Leitch, though it includes comments from a few other participants as well (including the aforementioned Galluzzo). Leitch details some of the challenges he faced making the movie and working with the studio and comes off like someone who did the best he could do. Stuart Fratkin, who replaces Jerry Levine as Stiles in the sequel, is also interviewed and vents some of his frustrations with the project, though he has positive things to say about the experience as well. Also interviewed are actors Estee Chandler and Kim Darby, as well as costume designer Heidi Kaczenski. A gallery of production and promotional stills round out the supplements.
Teen Wolf has enough of a nostalgia factor and is a complete enough package to deserve a spot on the shelf of any lover of ’80s movies and/or Michael J. Fox, while Teen Wolf Too may only be for completists. Scream Factory may have done better to include the sequel as part of a double feature with the original, as I can’t see myself throwing it on again any time soon—there’s almost nothing I can get from Too that I haven’t already gotten from Teen Wolf. The original movie remains its own sort of classic. The sequel is proof that some teenage werewolf stories are best left alone.
Teen Wolf Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 2.5/5
Teen Wolf Too Movie Score: 2/5, Disc Score: 3/5