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If you're going to dig into 1980s nostalgia for a new Blu-ray release, the Michael J. Fox vehicle Teen Wolf isn't a bad place to start. There's nothing all that original in the story or its treatment, but some bright players and the engaging star keep our interest engaged.
The title might lead older viewers to think of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, a not-bad 1957 horror show that featured Michael Landon as a sort of Rebel Without a Leash who frothed at the mouth as he tore a swath through a lineup of teenaged victims. The makeup in the Herman Cohen shocker wasn't bad either. But Teen Wolf has more in common with the Disney picture The Shaggy Dog, a proto-teen comedy with hot rods and bobby sox, where an ancient curse turns Tommy Kirk into a giant human sheep dog. Teen Wolf peppers the formula with a little sex, booze and allusions to drug activity, but it's still the same story. A loser basketball player desperately wants to win the heart of the teen queen, while ignoring the advances of the nice girl he should be chasing.
Writers Jeph Loeb and Matthew Weisman haven't made a horror film at all, but an old fashioned BMOC (Big Man On Campus) programmer. Dissappointed because he's so 'ordinary', high schooler Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) ignores his girl friend Boof (Susan Urstitti) and instead pursues the obnoxious and conceited blonde Pamela Wells (Lorie Griffin). Failure and anger cue involuntary changes at odd times. Scott discovers that he's a werewolf, which turns out to be a big ego boost, at least in the short run. Instead of a homicidal maniac, he becomes instantly more attractive to the girls. Pheromones? Musk? Scott's basketball skills improve greatly, making him a star player and raising the hopes of the school team. Boof and his father Harold (James Hampton) advise Scott not to rely on his popularity as The Wolf, but he becomes an overblown sensation. Will he learn to handle his newfound celebrity?
Like an After School Special gone monster show, Teen Wolf touches on all the old Archie & Jughead clichés, updated to the the 1980s. Good buddy Stiles (Jerry Levine) promotes Scott for all he's worth -- to please him the underage Scott intimidates a liquor store owner into selling him a keg of beer. Scott pursues the teen queen Pamela, only to find out that she's a heartless tramp, which is hardly a surprise. Pamela's boyfriend Mick (Mark Arnold) also has no intentions of giving up ground to a hairy and befanged competitor.
Michael J. Fox's cuddly werewolf looks quite a bit like a Wookie from that other film franchise ... I can't quite recall its name. After his first reveal there are no more monster surprises. The patient and understanding Boof puts up with Scott's behavior, waiting for him to realize the error of his ways and come back to earth. Scott meanwhile struts around in a white suit with his long brown hair sticking out of every sleeve and pant leg. On the basketball court he looks like an Ourangutan trying out for the Lakers. We assume that the makeup made it easy for stuntmen, dancers and athletes to take Michael J. Fox's place in many scenes.
The movie hints at a potentially much darker subplot, but doesn't carry it through. The unpleasant Vice Principal has issues with Scott's kindly father, and takes them out on Scott. And the bully Mick says something that makes it sound as if Scott's mother died under strange, unexplained circumstances. It's actually rather amusing that the screenplay has the school and the town accept Scott's alter ego with little or no fuss -- nobody is concerned about a werewolf in their midst. Not even Scott's father is upset, and he's been hiding a secret of his own all his life. At the fade-out, we're still wondering why nobody is concerned that that cute Scott kid might not start murdering teens left and right, or why no government doctors have come to isolate him in a cage in a research establishment. It's an acceptable movie with a lumpy concept.
Michael J. Fox comes across as surefire movie star material from his first sweaty closeup through all of Scott Howard's various adventures. A "wild" party shows teens engaging in racy activity, or at least racy activities that might appeal to teens of twenty years before. If you really think about it, Teen Wolf isn't much different than an episode of the old Adventures of Dobie Gillis TV show (now where are those on DVD?). The other actors are veterans from other 80s teen pix who probably discovered that those films constituted a career ghetto. All are pros, with Jerry Levine a little trying as a nervy, ambitious pal and Susan Urstitti a standout as the "nice girl". TV veteran James Hampton is fine as the calm and wise pappa to The Wolf.
Special mention goes to Jay Tarses as the amusingly un-inspirational high school coach, Finstock. The coach doesn't seem to care about anything, and even offers to forfeit a game to an opposing coach. Finstock and Scott's father may be the movie's only really fresh characters. Most everybody else does stock interps.
The only really troublesome scenes in Teen Wolf occur when Stiles and then Scott play "land surfers" by standing on top of a vehicle in motion. The spectacle isn't all that impressive, yet I can see some impressionable pre-teens getting the notion that imitating Fox would be a swell idea. Maybe I'd never make a good film producer, but I think it's irresponsible to promote a stunt like that. Then again, I certainly don't know where to draw the line on what movie content is likely to be copied and what is not.
MGM's Blu-ray of Teen Wolf mines new frontiers in the search for no-frills perfection. The transfer is very good for both picture and sound, but the encoding has no menu at all -- after displaying a few disclaimer cards and logos the movie plays automatically. When it's over, pushing any button will cause it to simply play again. As a plain-wrap approach I suppose this is okay; I believe some Universal DVDs did this around eight years ago, and the main reason we didn't like those because they were full-frame transfers or pan-scanned. That doesn't give us much more to say about MGM & distributor Fox's presentation. We're told it was not a smash hit, but Michael J. Fox is always fun to watch, so I tend to give the show a lot of slack. Kids who grew up in the 1980s and remember the film positively will be even less critical.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Teen Wolf Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.