Sunday, July 25, 2010

May 11, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘I Was a Teenage Werewolf’

Movie monsters have always been handy vessels for metaphor. Dracula is the embodiment of sexual terror and venereal disease. Frankenstein plays on distrust of science. Dr. Jekyll is a junkie. The Creature from the Black Lagoon symbolizes man’s inherent fear of fish. But no monster is as metaphorically ripe as the werewolf. Werewolves represent the subsumption of the ego by the id… an inarticulate, self-control devoid, hairy-palmed, snarling, drooling, havoc-by-moonlight-raising id. Sound like someone you know? No? Well then you’ve never been or spent time around a teenager. By all accounts, teenagers are pimply, violent, amoral, unhygienic creatures, and no one believed this more than the adults of the 1950s. Before that decade of pre-fab housing and six-martini lunches, teens were essentially societal nonentities. They were only bit players in both everyday life and fiction. Hell, even the fucking Bible totally skips over Jesus’s teen years. This changed in the ‘50s when things like TV-watching, comic book-reading, and record-buying made teens viable demographics to advertisers. In other words: they became actual people. But the programs they watched, the comics they read, and the records they dug convinced a good portion of adults that this once invisible minority was being pumped with a disturbing dose of rebelliousness. Adults imagined a generation of kids hopped up on the dope, filled with murderous impulses by E.C. comics, and driven to unimagined heights of sexual mania by Buddy Holly records. Teenagers became enemies every bit as formidable as Joe Commie. They were all id.

So it was only a matter of time before some cagey maker of B-pictures drew the parallel between teens and werewolves. That someone was Herman Cohen of American International Pictures (AIP), the gentleman responsible for such classics as Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and Magnificent Roughnecks. The film: 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf starring that icon of unfettered sexuality and carnal rage, Michael Landon. When I was a kid, the image of Landon with his facial pompadour, bucky fangs, and letterman jacket as Tony the Teen Werewolf glowered back at me from many a library book about monster movies. But that was as close as I could come to seeing the movie because it almost never played on TV. It still remains unissued on DVD, so it has taken me about thirty years to finally see the movie often used to illustrate the junk proliferating drive-ins after the end of horror’s 1930s/1940s golden age. Once again, You Tube is our knight in shining armor:



No one is going to argue that I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a work of monstery art on the level of Bride of Frankenstein or Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but as far as ‘50s drive-in junk goes, it’s top-drawer stuff. Tony is a sullen rebel-without-a-cause getting heavy slabs of jive from his high school peers, his perky blonde girlfriend Arlene (Yvonne Lime), and the fuzz (Barney Phillips, a ubiquitous presence in the ‘50s perhaps best known for playing an alien diner cook on “The Twilight Zone”). A possible cure to Tony’s teenagerness arrives in the form of geeky shrink Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell, the Olivier of geeky-doctor roles), who employs a radical treatment of hypnotherapy and hypodermic drugs to stop Tony from obsessing about fighting and fucking. But it backfires, and in a nutso departure from the usual mythology, the treatment causes Tony to transform into a murderous teen wolf.

Hey, kids, it ain't cool to drool.

Questioning the logic of this is kind of dumb considering how illogical werewolves are in the first place, so let’s just skip to the reasons why I Was a Teenage Werewolf is such a stand-out in its genre. Teenage culture is basically presented as cluelessly here as it is in any other picture of its era. Adults apparently thought their kids all spoke in a non-stop stream of hipster lingo and broke out into spontaneous song-and-dance routines to faux-Rock & Roll tunes way jazzier than the real stuff. But the movie does a good job of capturing the inarticulateness, frustration, and sexual confusion one experiences while slouching toward adulthood, which surely resonated with the teens who were the main audience for this kind of picture. Significantly, adults —not comics, not Rock & Roll— are portrayed as the culprits behind their kids’ waywardness, which probably also appealed to the movie’s young audience. Dr. Brandon is a brain-tinkering quack (read as: your science teacher’s a psycho). Barney Phillips’s Detective Donovan is a stupid flatfoot who paves the way for Tony’s werewolfism by hooking him up with the mad doc in the first place, and the janitor at the police station does a better job of solving the murders than the cops do (read as: the cops that hassle you and your friends are morons). Arlene’s parents spend their nights sitting on opposite ends of their living room (read as: your girlfriend’s parents have intimacy problems); her dad pounding beer and playing solitaire (read as: your girlfriend’s dad drinks while he masturbates). Tony’s dad is a milquetoast too busy obsessing about his late wife to notice his son’s antisocial behavior (read as: your dad’s a necro). The adults in I Was a Teenage Werewolf are uniformly unappealing— notice the cops’ callous self-concern during the grim denouement— while Landon’s wolf is rather sympathetic, even if he is a killer. He brings a disarmingly complex combo of unruly darkness and little-boy vulnerability to the hormonal lycanthrope. The music and daddy-o dialogue are a hoot, and the wolf make-up is memorably cheesy, but the film never dives into the camp deep end as other AIP flicks like The Screaming Skull and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die did. That means I Was a Teenage Werewolf may not be as much fun as these other pictures for some viewers, but I also cared more about Tony than I did about anyone in The Headless Ghost.
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