The Case of Teen Wolf

So as we wrapped up our month of horror, we thought of the perfect movie to help us transition into the Spring season. Its got everything: a touch of horror, a little bit of romance, some basketball, and a whole lot of fun! We’re talking about the 1985 Michael J. Fox film, Teen Wolf! 

In the early 1980’s, Michael J. Fox was the good-natured Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, a somewhat-popular sitcom. When the show got a new timeslot, it jumped to number 2 in the ratings. By the mid 1980’s, Michael J. Fox was a bonafide star, appearing in the wildly popular Back to the Future and of course, Teen Wolf. 

Since we’re coming off of Frightening February and into March, we thought it would make sense to do an episode that mixes horror with basketball! We’re not going to lie to you and say that Teen Wolf is Fox’s best film–or even his second best. But, it’s a wonderfully entertaining piece of 1980’s pop culture, and we’re excited to talk about it. 

HISTORY OF WEREWOLVES

  • Teen Wolf features the concepts of one of the most classic monsters: The Werewolf. So, we thought it was appropriate to talk a little bit about the history of the werewolf! We will have more werewolf episodes in the future, so we will have more chances to dive into this mythology! 
  • Werewolves are an ancient part of folklore. How ancient? Well, scholars aren’t entirely sure. Some say the first known mention of a werewolf was in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written in about 2100 BC. The text mentions a woman that turned her lover into a wolf. Since then, humans taking the form of wolves appeared in Greek Mythology and Nordic Folklore. Each time, though, werewolves were wild beasts hungry for human flesh. The idea of the friendly werewolf doesn’t come from classic literature. 
  • There was a string of serial killers that also claimed to be werewolves in the 15th and 16th centuries! 
  • The lore of the werewolf has cited many ways in which people can change into the animal. Some stories included enchanted pelts or elixirs, and many claimed the cause was a curse or exposure through a bite or wound from another werewolf. 
  • The most well-known mythology today is that mankind changes into a werewolf when a full moon appears, and it can be killed with a silver bullet. Werewolves are mortal beings and can be killed by many of the things that would kill humans. 
  • If you’ve ever seen Teen Wolf, then you know that it doesn’t really follow much of this mythology. It adds some head-scratching details. For example, being a werewolf apparently makes you really good at basketball! 

SYNOPSIS

Scott Howard is your average high school kid. He plays for the basketball team (though they have never won a game) and has a crush on the popular girl. He also has a quirky best friend, and girl-next-door who adores him. One day, Scott starts to notice that he’s going through weird changes, and eventually realizes the unbelievable: he’s a werewolf. Being a wolf changes everything for Scott. He’s now a pro on the basketball court, and has all the attention he could ever want. But this makes Scott question, do people like him? Or the Wolf? 

MAKING OF THE MOVIE

  • The concept of a teen wolf was hardly original, even in 1985. Other films like 1957’s “I was a Teenage Werewolf” and 1981’s “Full Moon High” both explored similar plotlines. This movie, however seemed to strike a balance between campiness and heart, especially due to Michael J. Fox’s performance. This film is self-aware at times, but it’s not a straight parody, allowing the audience to take it just seriously enough while laughing at the strangeness of it all. 
    • In some ways it’s incredibly dated, but it’s a clever portrayal of the average high school experience, with a focus on confidence and a realization that popularity isn’t as important as personal relationships. In a way, we were all teen wolves at some point, right? 
  • Teen films were gaining popularity in the 1980’s. They were easy to make, with relatively low budgets, and drew in big audiences. After the success of “Valley Girl” in 1983 (starring an unknown Nic Cage), Atlantic entertainment was looking for an original teen movie of its own. Enter writers Jeff Loeb and Matthew Weisman, two recent film school grads looking to sell their first movie. 
    • Loeb told Vulture that he was working at TGI Fridays when he and Weisman pitched Teen Wolf. The meeting was only 15 minutes, and the studio already had Michael J. Fox in mind for the part. The catch was, Fox was a busy guy already. The writers had to pen the script in three weeks, in order to get it to Fox for approval. Once he committed, the movie was greenlit for the tiny budget of a few million dollars. 
  • Director
    • Rod Daniel was hand-picked by Loeb and Wiesman to be the director of the film. They conducted several interviews, but Daniel was the person that seemed to really understand the message and content of the film. He immediately understood that the movie was more about being a teenager than a wolf, and that got him the job. Rod’s son Lucas attributes Teen Wolf and other movies for his wonderful childhood, saying that these helped his father work out issues with his own father. 
  • Special Effects Make-up
    • While the actors wore special effects make-up, they couldn’t eat solid foods. 
    • The scene where Michael J. Fox is turning into the full wolf for the first time in the bathroom took an entire day to film. 
      • Jeff Dawn worked on this transformation. His grandfather is Jack Dawn, the man that was the make-up designer for The Wizard of Oz!
      • Jeff Dawn said that Steve Laporte (who did make-up for things like BeetleJuice) met up with him to help. When Michael showed up they began the long and arduous task. They did several different levels of change; from the nails, teeth, hair, and face. 
        • In order to create the facial change that we see, bladders were put under the surface of what appears to be skin. Jeff and Steve could literally pump to have the skin move under the foam prosthetics and lace eyebrows.
        • When Jeff explained the process he said “It takes all day to do a transformation like that because you do it, you clean it off, you add some more, you do it, you clean it off, you add some more.”
  • Stunts
    • Urban Surfing
      • Loeb admits that urban surfing, the act of standing on a moving vehicle, was something he actually did in college! He said that they would do it in the wee hours of the morning, and had to bang on the roof when a traffic light came up, in order to tell the driver to slow down so they could duck under the lights. 
      • The stunt double for the actors weren’t in as much danger. They were attached to the van roof. Jerry Levine, who played Stiles, actually did the stunt himself! The engineers ran a cable through his pants and into the roof of the van, and also had a cable around his waist.
        • With paramedics on standby, they drove up and down the street for several takes as he danced to “Surfin’ USA.”
      • Jeff Loeb wants everyone to know that they should not try this stunt at home.  
    • Basketball dunking
      • Michael J. Fox’s basketball double was a college basketball player named Jeff Glosser. He was hired because even with two weeks of basketball training Michael could not grow taller than 5’4” or become great at the sport.

STARRING

  • Michael J. Fox as Scott Howard
    • He is of course known for the Back to the Future movies as well as Family Ties, Spin City, and so many more.
    • At the beginning of production, Fox was still fairly unknown. While they were filming, Family Ties jumped in the ratings and extras started recognizing him as a TV star. Some takes actually needed to be re-done because girls would scream when he appeared. 
  • James Hampton as Harold Howard
    • James has been in several things but he is known for being in Sling Blade, Teen Wolf, and The Longest Yard (1974.)
  • Susan Ursitti as Boof, the love interest and best friend we all root for
    • Susan is now retired but she did appear in a few shows and the movies Defense Play, The Runnin’ Kind, and The Walking Dead (1995.) 
  • Jerry Levine as Stiles one of the coolest guys on the planet
    • Jerry has been in lots of things but most notably Born on the Fourth of July, Wag the Dog, and K-9.
    • He was so recognizable as Stiles that he was at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and somebody shouted to him saying “Hey Stiles!”
    • Stiles is one of the most iconic parts of the film, gracing the screen with his charisma and knack for party games. But one of his most well-known features are his unique t-shirts. They were the director’s idea, and were created specifically for the movie. The most famous one is, “What are you looking at, Dicknose?” a phrase written by the screenwriters.
  • Matt Adler as Lewis
    • Matt has also been in Flight of the Navigator, The Day After Tomorrow, and North Shore.
  • Lorie Griffin as Pamela
    • Lorie was not in very many things but a few movies were Cheerleader Camp, Drug Runners, and The Burning Zone.
  • James MacKrell as Mr. Thorne
    • James is known for his broadcast career and his appearances in movies. For example he was the voice of the broadcaster Lew Landers in Gremlins! He had this same character name in The Howling. Both of these movies were directed by Joe Dante.
  • Mark Arnold as Mick the popular guy dating the popular girl
    • He has been in Blade Runner 2049, Angel Has Fallen, and Florence Foster Jenkins.
  • Jay Tarses as Coach Finstock
    • Jay is an actor but he also is a writer. He wrote episodes for The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and Buffalo Bill. He also helped write the movie The Muppets Take Manhattan.  
  • Mark Holton as Chubby
    • Mark is most known for his roles in A League of Their Own, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Leprechaun. 
  • Scott Paulin as Kirk Lolley
    • Scott has been in a lot, most notably The Right Stuff, Pump Up the Volume, and Turner and Hooch.

FUN FACTS

  • The girl who plays Rhonda (the girl that gets jello shoved down her shirt during the party) was Playboy’s “Playmate of the Month” in July 1982 and had been in Real Genius which was released shortly before Teen Wolf.
  • One of the writers, Jeff Loeb, has also written for some Spider-man comics. This could explain why Scott’s father tells him, “with great power comes an even greater responsibility.” 

RECEPTION

  • Although Teen Wolf was filmed first, it was released a little more than a month after Back to the Future. Back to Future had become a hit and everyone was ready for some more Michael J. Fox. Writers Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman and director Rod, however, were still worried when they went to a showing the first day at 5pm and there were only about 4 people in the theatre. After having a silent and stressful dinner, the three decided to head to a college town theatre and see a 7:30 showing. The show was sold out! The three had to beg the attendants to let them stand at the back of the theatre to watch. Jeph Loeb said that the crowd was quiet until the bathroom scene, where Scott opens the door to find that his father is a full werewolf. He said the rest of the night was full of fun and laughter, where everyone had a great time. 
  • Unfortunately the critics hated it, with The New York Times’ Vincent Canby calling it “aggressively boring” and pointing out that Scott’s rival team would somehow have to be intramural as Mick, his rival and antagonist, attends the same high school. 
  • On a 6 million dollar budget they grossed about 33 million, quite a lot for the time. 

THE LEGACY OF TEEN WOLF

  • As silly as it sounds, Teen Wolf has a pretty strong legacy for a campy 80’s film. For one, it inspired an urban myth about an extra exposing themselves in the background of the final basketball scene. There have been lots of articles and videos showing the scene, and upon further inspection, it appears there is no genitalia at all. One extra does seem to have their pants unzipped, but all the camera sees is white fabric. Whether this is underwear or a tucked in undershirt, the world will never know. You can, however, see the extra reach down and zip the pants as they get ready to jump on the floor and celebrate with the others. 
    • As we briefly mentioned earlier, the movie has some dated material. One of the most upsetting and unfortunate parts would be the homophobic slur that Stiles uses when Scott tries to tell him about his werewolf problem. Televised versions of the scene cut it out (rightly so) and writer Jeff Loeb himself has called the line “unfortunate.” Many films from this time period feature the word, generally as an insult or a joke, but we felt it should be acknowledged.  
  • In Teen Wolf Too, which came out only a couple years later, Jason Bateman plays Todd Howard, Scott’s cousin who faces similar problems while in college. Jason said that at that time the special effects make-up was not safe and they ended up having to shut production down for a few days due to him getting chemical burns on his skin.
    • Jason Bateman’s sister Justine was actually connected to Michael J. Fox, playing his sister on Family Ties! 
  • In 1986, there was an animated TV show based on the movie! Of course, some concepts were changed for the show. For example, Scott has siblings in the show and tries to keep his werewolf-ness a secret from the outside world. In both versions, however, Scott does not have a mother. 
  • In 2011, the film was adapted into a dramatic horror TV series for MTV with the same name! In the live-action show, Scott becomes a wolf via bite, while in the film it’s an inherited trait. There are various other differences, though many character names are similar. The show lasted for 6 seasons! 

Teen Wolf is ridiculous. It’s a silly, fun, and laughable film that represents the wild and wonderful parts of 80’s teen life. It built on the concepts of classic horror and turned it on its head. It’s a film that cleverly seems to bury the lead–Sure, Scott is a werewolf, but that’s not his biggest problem. We don’t get much of an explanation because, well, it’s not really what the story is about. This is a story about a teenager that just happens to be a werewolf, which happens to make him good at basketball. The film accomplished what it was meant to and more; it resonated with teens and went on to be a blockbuster and a cult classic. 

We knew that after a month of horror, it would be the perfect romp to get us in the mood for Spring. Simply put, Teen Wolf is a howlin’ good time.  


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