What if James Dean’s character from Rebel Without a Cause had been bitten by a werewolf? That was the basic premise behind American International Pictures’ horror “gem” which kicked off a brief-lived series of “teenage monster” movies that would end with Herbert L. Strock’s How to Make a Monster, but the first in this brief franchise was more notable for the casting than its premise, as it starred then unknown Michael Landon a man who would go on to fame and fortune in such television shows as Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie, and Touched by an Angel.
Our protagonist for this particular AIP outing is a troubled teenager named Tony Rivers (Michael Landon) who will overreact to the slightest perceived affront, even a surprising pat on the back can instigate a complete meltdown and kick off a massive brawl and we are introduced to him during a knock down drag out fight with his classmate Jimmy (Tony Marshall) that is only stopped due to the intervention of local police Detective Sgt. Donovan (Barney Phillips), and it is through this kind officer’s suggestion, as well as Tony’s girlfriend Arlene (Yvonne Lime), that Tony eventually caves into the idea of seeking professional help when it comes to handling his anger issues. This sounds good but this help comes, unfortunately, in the form of Doctor Alfred Brandon (Whit Bissell), a “psychologist” who is not only a practitioner of hypnotherapy but also of pharmaceutical manipulation that he believes is required to save the human race. When Tony is served up to him on a plate he tells his assistant, Dr. Hugo Wagner (Joseph Mell), that “I’m going to TRANSFORM him and unleash the savage instincts that lie hidden within… and then I’ll be judged the benefactor. Mankind is on the verge of destroying itself. The only hope for the human race is to hurl it back into its primitive norm, to start all over again.” As I always say, if you’re going to have science it may as well be mad science.
There’s not really much plot to I Was a Teenage Werewolf, not that this kind of horror film really needs one, and most of the film consists of stupid teenagers doing stupid things that are intermittently interrupted by Tony acting like an asshat until the movie eventually gets around to him turning into a werewolf and killing a couple of his idiot classmates. What makes this werewolf movie unique is the science fiction angle, there are no gypsies offering sage advice regarding wolfsbane and the full moon, instead, we have a mad scientist using psychotropic drugs and hypnotism to regress our tragic hero into some primitive state – why this transformation is triggered by hearing a school bell is never quite explained, but hey, that’s science for you – but once he does become a hairy murder machine the local authorities are quick to round up a torch-bearing mob to hunt the poor bastard down. There are some traditions you can’t let go and chasing a monster through the forest by torchlight is clearly one of them.
• Tony is a hot head who explodes into an uncontrollable rage at the drop of a hat, if he’d been hit by gamma rays instead of chemically induced lycanthropy he could have made for a good Incredible Hulk.
• When the movie starts it is Halloween but we don’t see a single Trick or Treater in sight, in fact, even the party that Tony takes Arlene to is said to be a costume party, apparently, only one person got that memo.
• At this “Halloween party” in a “Haunted House” that looks like someone’s basement rec room, the guys constantly play idiotic practical jokes on their girlfriends, and I can’t help but wonder if these guys ever get laid.
• Dr. Alfred Brandon uses drugs and hypnotherapy to “hurl Tony back to his primitive state” but shouldn’t this have resulted in a “Teenage Caveman” and not a werewolf?
• One glance at the crime scene photos of the first victim and the police station janitor comes to the immediate conclusion of “werewolf” despite the fact that a slashed throat could be caused by just about anything, that he is immediately proven right does not negate my point.
• Brandon wants filmed documentation of the transformation to show the world his amazing discovery, but he doesn’t think to put Tony into restraints before turning him back into a werewolf.
With a meagre budget of $150,000 thousand dollars, I Was a Teenage Werewolf does not have the look of either a gothic masterpiece or science fiction epic as the day-for-night shooting is laughably obvious and the werewolf itself looks far from convincing, but the assembled cast is surprisingly good for an American International Picture, even if the teenagers in this movie all look to be in their late twenties to early thirties, and Michael Landon pulls out all the stops as this very angry young man, even when acting like a complete jerk and is able to garner some sympathy for his character. Not only do we get great character actors like Whit Bissell and Barney Phillips in prime roles we also get Lost in Space dad Guy Williams as a uniformed police officer tasked with tracking down the werewolf, what’s not to love about that?
Overall, this little science fiction/horror flick takes an interesting spin on one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters and while it lacks much in the way of cool werewolf action, seriously, there isn’t a lot of werewolf action other than Michael Landon in monster makeup wandering around the woods, it more than makes up for it with the calibre of acting on display. This low-budget 50s outing isn’t going to rival classic films like Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man or modern interpretations like Joe Dante’s The Howling but it’s still a fun little gem that is worth checking out.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) –
Movie Rank - 6/10
This film came out during the wave of cheap teen movies that were released for the drive-in market but it’s certainly better than a lot of its contemporaries and definitely more interesting.