I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957), or Michael Landon Is A Shapeshifter! Run For Your Lives!

14 04 2009

It seems that whenever one hears the name Michael Landon, the first thing everybody always says is, “Oh, the dad from Little House on the Prairie!” Others might say, “Yeah, he was, uh, Little Joe on Bonanza!” Or if you ask a religious old bitty,you might get, “OOOHHH, that Michael Landon was such a sweet man in Highway To Heaven, the way he did the bidding of the Lord in those tight Wranglers….Mmmm…..” All fine responses, but nobody ever seems to talk about the movie that made us start talking about Michael Landon at all. Nobody ever says, “Michael Landon? You mean Tony from I Was a Teenage Werewolf? I love that guy!” Well today I watched this career-making film from Landon, and despite the extremely exploitative title courtesy of American International Pictures, it is actually more subtle than one would imagine. It is a film about the alienation of teens in the face of conformity, and the harmful effects of trying to make every kid the same. Oh, and werewolves.

Michael Landon plays a teenager named Tony, a kid who doesn’t fit in. He has a bit of a temper, and “the man” doesn’t like that. He’s always getting into scraps over little things, his life at home with his dad leaves much to be desired, and his girlfriend can’t understand what it is that makes him act like that. Everyone in his life wants him to adjust, but they don’t tell him how or why. In his words, “People bug me.” Eventually, without any guidance, his angry ways take him too far one night and he realizes that he needs help. But with nowhere to turn in his everyday life for guidance, he turns to a stranger, an Air-Force psychiatrist named Dr. Brandon. Dr. Brandon uses hypnotherapy on him, telling him that it is to relieve his anger and give him more focus in school. It does, but it also has the unfortunate side effect (and alterior motive of Dr. Brandon) of transforming him into a werewolf (!!!!). OOPS! So Brandon lets were-Tony off the chain and into the night, where he revels in his primitive freedom and, in his new-found freedom, performs unspeakable acts. Things begin to look worse when he begins to believe that all the hypnosis is actually working and goes more often, allowing Dr. Brandon to keep him a werewolf longer (??). And when the police get involved with all the things Tony does as a werewolf, it is only a matter of time before he is discovered…

Although the goofy title suggests that this might be a campy B-movie, and at times the premise outweighs anything resembling remotely severe, this movie actually has something to say. That is extremely rare for these AIP pictures (Daddy-O and Teenage Cave Man don’t sound like they carry much importance, do they?), but I was pleasantly surprised. This is a movie about teenage conformity, and the pressure to be like everyone else when you just aren’t.

The whole world wants Tony to fit in the round hole, but the fact is that he is a square peg, and that just drives everyone crazy. Sure, he could be a little less abrasive, but the one person he would listen to, his father, is always working late shifts and doesn’t have time for him, so he feels the need to act out. Tony’s social circle are no help either. His girlfriend is meek but subtly controlling. And his friends only talk to him about unimportant things like parties and dances instead of really getting to know him. It all adds up to Michael Landon playing a tragic hero that showed off his range before he was even a household name.

The movie surrounding this surprising performance is passing, leaning towards bad. I cannot believe how many worthless scenes are in here. After Tony begins his change, it begins to turn into a police procedural instead of a delightful werewolf teen movie. A bunch of doughy guys sitting around an office hypothesizing is not what I expected from this movie, and there sure are a lot of scenes here featuring JUST THIS. Oh, and the teen scenes. First of all, if you think kids are growing up to fast in 2009, just take a long hard look at the teens in 1957. They’re all played by people in their mid-thirties! Michael Landon was actually only 21 for this role, but his friend Jimmy looked like he came straight from the Grown-Ass Man Factory! And my, oh my, are those teen scenes terrible. One of Tony’s friends, named Vic, sings (!) an eye-rolling little ditty called “Eeney Meeney Miney Mo” (!!!) that made me droop my head in embarrassment for the guy.

A word about the werewolf prosthetics on Michael Landon here. Although it looks archaic by today’s standards, it is actually not too shabby for 1957. It’s not scary, by any means, and in our modern shell of cynicism it is easy to laugh at something that today looks so obviously fake. But if one puts themselves in the 1957 mindset for a while, when there were no visceral horror movies out shocking the world, and when the audience had to settle for a less-is-more approach to avoid disappointment with the special effects, it has the potential for a little classic horror value in the dark of midnight when you’re all alone.

Altogether, its a good character study wrapped in B-movie trappings. There’s a bit more to it than the trailer above demonstrates, and anyone who can stomach a lot of police procedure and “teen” giddiness would do well to watch this tragic story about youth wasted in the face of 50s teenage conformity. It is the movie that started Michael Landon’s career, so fans be on the lookout for this one; it could very well be one of the better performances of his career. I give I Was a Teenage Werewolf 7 Grown-Ass Man Factories out of 10!

Tomorrow I finish my The Gods Must Be Crazy set of reviews by watching The Gods Must Be Crazy 2! See you then!




One response

16 04 2009

Actually when someone mentions Michael Landon, the first thing I think is “oh wait, that guy that everyone else though was really nice and sweet, but was really an abusive alcoholic?” Yeah I remember him all right.

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