Of all the films American International Pictures released throughout the 1950s, none featured a title that instantly evoked more intrigue, excitement, and sensationalism than I Was a Teenage Werewolf.
Directed by Gene Fowler Jr (who would go on to direct the exceptional I Married a Monster from Outer Space), I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a film that exceeds the expectations one might have upon hearing the title. On the contrary, the film manages to tackle mature themes with its nuanced approach to teenage anxiety, supported by compelling performances. That these elements are wrapped in the guise of a monstrous werewolf speaks once again to how powerful such genre films can be in tackling social issues.
Tony Rivers (Michael Landon) struggles to fit in at high school, regularly getting into fights and violently reacting to so little as a tap on the shoulder. As his aggressive outbursts worsen, Tony is referred to Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell), a psychologist known for his use of hypnotherapy. Dr. Brandon initially appears to have Tony’s best interests at heart, but he has mysterious motives. Dr. Brandon plans to use Tony in an experiment he believes will save the human race: to revert humanity back to our primitive, animalistic selves to save us from self-destruction…
On the surface, such a narrative may seem wild, and indeed it is. Were it not for Michael Landon’s superb performance, the rather contrived reason for him turning into a werewolf could have robbed the film of its credibility. No matter how one tries to rationalise it, turning a young man into a werewolf as a means to save humanity pushes one’s suspension of disbelief too far. That said, Tony’s characterisation is wonderful, carrying nuance and pathos that fleshes out a very tragic character. Landon’s performance works in tandem with how his character is written. Tony isn’t merely a young man angry at the world; he is acutely (and somewhat painfully) aware that his outbursts are hurting those he cares for. After lashing out and beating his friend over a miscalculated practical joke, Tony stands alone against the horrified silence of his peers. Gene Fowler jr allows the camera to linger on Tony, and in the torturous silence Landon projects someone instantly made small by the scale of their actions. Landon is capable of projecting so much in just a strained look around the room.
Despite the sensational title, I Was a Teenage Werewolf responsibly presents a teenager. Tony’s outbursts may be embellished, but the person behind them is truthful to the complex beast we call ‘growing up’. Consciously or otherwise, the film asks us to look beyond the violent teenager narrative prevalent in contemporary culture. We are asked to look at an individual struggling to cope with his environment. Tony isn’t just a thug, and the deep sense of regret at his outbursts is palpable; he doesn’t want to be the way he is. That he is then exploited for the twisted assertions of Dr. Brandon is the final nail in the coffin for Tony’s unfortunate narrative; the only help available to him is that which betrays and destroys him.
Despite the ludicrous reason for Dr. Brandon’s experiment, Whit Bissell turns in a solid performance as the mad doctor. Bissell is able to sustain an uncomfortable degree of menace that lurks beneath an air of pompous arrogance as he preaches about the doomed future of mankind. His performance is further bolstered by the striking use of shadows throughout his scenes; Dr. Brandon’s eyes pierce the darkness of his laboratory with an unhinged madness. He is the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
In terms of pace, I Was a Teenage Werewolf begins with tremendous energy as we observe a fight between Tony and a classmate. Indeed, that pace is upheld as we learn more of Tony’s violent tendencies and his troubled relationship to those around him. Unfortunately, the pace is severely undercut following the killing of Tony’s first victim once he becomes the werewolf. We constantly cut between Tony stalking the woods (short but exciting bursts of werewolf wonder) to the plodding police investigation. Some scenes of the investigation fair better than others, thanks to the performance of Barney Phillips (as Detective Sgt. Donovan) whose worry for Tony’s wellbeing heightens the stakes. However, by contrast, the tired performances of both the other police officers and the press undermine those stakes considerably – if they seem disinterested in finding the werewolf, why should we care?
Despite its pacing issues and some ridiculous plot elements, I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a remarkable horror film. With a limited budget, Gene Fowler jr delivers a meaningful exploration of growing up, and the dangers posed by exploitative authority figures. With thoughtful cinematography and arresting lighting, Fowler is able to flesh out the beats of his characters with skill. Moreover, Michael Landon sustains the film’s credibility (despite the reasons for his turning into a werewolf) with a nuanced projection of teenage frustration, never once allowing the character to become unlikeable despite his aggression. I Was a Teenage Werewolf remains a well-crafted, if sometimes flawed, horror picture with enough gleeful werewolf mayhem to satisfy fans of cinema’s best lycanthropes.