I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
After finally sitting down and watching I Was A Teenage Werewolf, I can honestly say it's just about as crappy a movie as I think you'd expect it to be. It's poorly scripted, over acted, over simplified, largely boring and sometimes just plain trite. Even with those major league strikes against it, I still really enjoyed this drive-in classic and I'm not alone. If you mention this 1957 bargain basement cheesefest to a person of the right age, they smile. That is largely because IWATW provided the first starring role for one of American television's most beloved personalities, Michael Landon.
Landon played Tony, a likable normal teenager who happened to have some social anxiety problems. For one, Tony didn't like to be touched. He also didn't like to be told what to do. He especially didn't like to be made the butt of a practical joke from a small, annoying, faux-hipster, off-key singing bongo player. When Tony didn't like things, Tony hit people. That made the school and Tony's girlfriend's parents a little concerned. After a heart to heart talk with his single-parent Dad , Tony agrees to see a therapist to reign in his uncontrollable rage. Dr. Alfred Brandon (Whit Bissell) begins to treat Tony with a combination of injections and hypnosis. He tells Tony the injections will make the hynosis easier; in reality the drugs and subconscious regressions are playing on Tony's naturally violent tendencies, devolving him into a primitive, sub-human beast, one that kinda looks like a werewolf. Dr. Brandon you see, is a mad doctor. He believes that the human race can only be saved by reverting back to a primitive form. Saved from what, I never understood. Also, since I wasn't ever sure what the human race needed saving from, I was never sure how making everyone furry and fangy was going achieve it.
Of course a movie as bad as how I've described this one has to have more than nostalgia for a TV star going for it to be so fondly remembered half a century later. It does indeed have more than nostalgia. The troubled-teen theme of IWATW has been compared with that of another famous fifty's film, Rebel Without A Cause. Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff and American International Pictures obviously wanted to cash in on a sure-fire money maker, so they followed the sympathetic youth formula, adding the schlock-shock touches that were AIP's signature. Landon's Tony is the emotional brother of James Dean in RWAC. Like Dean, Tony was a generally good kid with a lot of emotional baggage, baggage that was just beginning to be acknowledged in the fifties. With the AIP trappings however, you didn't get Jimmy Dean feeling like "You're tearing me APART," you got Michael Landon tearing someone else apart - with his bare hands! Despite the cheese of the rubber fangs and the glue-on fur, violent and emotionally troubled teenagers were and are a frightening subject. Imagine instead of Tony becoming a wooly beast when he's at his most agitated, he armed himself with semi-automatic weapons and went on a shooting rampage. You see, the theme is still relevant, and maybe even more poignant than it was in 1957.
Landon's performance is actually not bad. He didn't get much chance to spread his dramatic wings, but he capitalized on the material when he could. As written, Tony tended to either seethe or rage with little in between but Landon does a nice job of layering humanity and subtext into the two dimensional role. Granted it's no Oscar performance, but it ain't bad for a first timer in a B-grade drive-in movie.
The other actors in the film range from passable to pathetic. If you are a fan of classic TV which is quite possible seeing you've sought out a film whose reputation is built around its classic TV star, you will most likely recognize Whit Bissell from the series "Time Tunnel" and Guy Williams (playing police officer Chris Stanley) from "Zorro" and "Lost in Space." Director Gene Fowler Jr. has a resume as long as my arm, but is best known for directing I Married A Monster From Outer Space.
From a visual standpoint, IWATW is actually a good looking movie. The cinematography is very well done. The framing and composition of the shots are interesting, effective and attractive. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle went on to film the classics The Long Hot Summer and The Apartment among others.
The biggest gripe I personally had with IWATW was the werewolf label. Tony was no werewolf in the conventional sense. His transformation was triggered by a Pavlovian response to a bell for cryin' out loud. Aside from Tony being furry and fangy (makeup by Phillip Sheer, How to Make A Monster, Blood of Dracula, Attack of the Puppet People) the only other connection to lycanthropy in the film is a little story the old police janitor tells Officer Stanley about werewolves from the old country. It looks to me like they needed to tack that in so the "werewolf" title made sense. No association with the moon, no silver bullets, no connection to the supernatural. Ah, I'm picky.
American International Pictures, as well as a succession of other even worse studios, used the "I Was A Teenage [insert monster here]" formula for quite a while. For better or for worse, you name the monster, there's been a teenage version. While the formula was used and abused for decades after IWATW, none of the other teenage monster films had the success of the original. In fact the king of "crank 'em out cheap and turn a quick buck" movie making, AIP had a bona-fide hit with IWATW. The film cost a paltry $82,000 to make and grossed over $2,000,000 in its first year's box office! For a largely crappy movie, that's impressive. For a largely crappy movie, its longevity is impressive. For a largely crappy movie, I Was A Teenage Werewolf is a real hoot and well worth overlooking its flaws.