Teen Wolf, the 1985 movie starring Michael J. Fox, starts off in brilliant teen film fashion. We hear the echoing, rhythmic pulse of a basketball hitting a high school court.
We see the protagonist, sweat dripping from his fear-filled face. It’s the big moment at the free-throw line. He shoots. He misses. It’s the kind of epic failure that can resonate with adults as much as it does with kids. Our hero inevitably lands on the floor, his ego perhaps more bruised than his body.
In the first few minutes of Teen Wolf, we meet Scott Howard (Fox), the high school basketball player on the verge of a big problem. We meet his rival from an opposing school team, his idiotic coach, and his really nice dad. We find out that Scott is awkward and disappointed with his unexceptional life. He has a great female friend who obviously likes him, but he’s attracted to the school’s conventionally beautiful bad actress. So far, so good. After that, though, Teen Wolf quickly devolves into a slapped-together collection of ’80s teen movie tropes sprinkled with sexism and homophobia.
It takes about a half-hour for Scott Howard to turn into a werewolf. That’s one-third of the 90 minute flick, Teen Wolf. Before Scott catches a hairy, sad-eyed reflection in the mirror, lots of things of little consequence happen. He fails at basketball. His jerky best friend coerces him to try and buy beer. The same best friend tries to surf on top of the van Scott is driving as the Beach Boys blast through the speakers. It feels like an attempt to throw in that one iconic teen film moment, but it doesn’t quite work. By the time they reach the raging ’80s teen kegger, the plot has stalled for too long.
There’s a party scene in here that goes on for way too long. Sometime in the midst of the underage debauchery, Scott’s transformation comes to a head. He gets rough with Boof, the childhood female friend who harbors affection for him, in a closet. She’s clearly disturbed, but doesn’t seem to hold this against him as the film progresses. Outside of the closet, the crowd screams with glee as a guy eats Jello out of a girl’s top. Another girl poses in lingerie, playing an assistant, or something like that, to Scott’s cheesy best friend Stiles, who takes on a ringleader role. It’s the sort of scene that would spark Internet outrage today. The guys wield the power. The women are objects, expected to laugh even when placed in humiliating situations.
Further along in the movie, we learn that there are essentially two types of women. There’s the good girl, epitomized by Boof, who sits around and waits for the newly popular Teen Wolf to come to his senses and notice her. Then there’s the stereotypical bitch, Pamela, who pays no attention to Scott unless he’s somehow useful to her. Scott’s mom apparently died well before the start of the film. She’s really only mentioned in passing a few times, including one creepy comment from Scott’s bully which was either a terrible attempt at a “your mom” joke or the relic of an abandoned plot point.
But it’s not just women who are cast aside in the movie. When Scott tells Stiles that he needs to let him in on a secret, the friend’s immediate response is to ask whether or not Scott is a “fag.” Yes, that’s the word they use three times in one small exchange. Ultimately, Stiles is okay with Scott being a werewolf. It might seem like I’m blowing this out of proportion, but, within the context of the film, it’s a big deal. Ultimately, Teen Wolf is about embracing the things that make you different. Keeping that in mind, the message of this bit of dialogue becomes, it’s okay to be a werewolf, just as long as you aren’t gay.
I liked Teen Wolf when I as a kid, maybe not as much as I liked the other Michael J. Fox vehicle, Back to the Future, but I have some fond memories of seeing the basketball montage on television. Watching Teen Wolf now, though, made me cringe. It’s not just that there are some bits in the movie that would be deemed offensive by the 2013 audience. It’s that none of that is even relevant to the film. In fact, it detracts from any sort of “accept yourself” message in the film. I’m not even sure what to make of Teen Wolf anymore, except that the morphing scenes and intense sound effects are still pretty cool.
Images: MGM Studios