“Teens in peril” continue to be one of the most popular horror subgenres, and adolescent mayhem is not limited to masked killers knocking off stereotypical characters one by one. Let’s face it, teenage life can be scary. With fears ranging from school exams, dating, and the question of what to do after graduation, filmmakers use countless tropes to transfer those nightmares to the screen. From old school classics to modern, meta takes, teen horror spans the spectrum, focusing not only on movies aimed at a younger audience, but also those dark dramas that feature teen characters. This month, for Black & White Frights, I’m taking a look at 1957’s I Was A Teenage Werewolf.
Several decades before well-known horror icons such as Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees were terrorizing teen characters on movie screens (and creating real-life nightmares), I Was A Teenage Werewolf hit theaters on June 19, 1957. The film helped usher in a new wave of horror that would primarily be focused on teenage audiences. Prior to the 50s, Universal monster movies had been met with enormous success. Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman were already household names, but interest was waning. A relatively new trend was emerging within the genre: that of melding horror with sci-fi. Movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Them (1954) seem to be direct reactions to nuclear testing and war. In simple terms, horror seemed to be taking a more scientific approach than what it was before.
In addition to the change in subject matter, filmmakers during the mid-50s also began to fully imagine another HUGE opportunity for the movie business: the teenage audience. Prior to the production of I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the term “teenager” was still relatively new. Officially coined in the 40s, “teenager” didn’t fully gain traction until a decade later. In 1955, The James Dean starrer Rebel Without a Cause forever changed cinema. In many aspects, Rebel gave birth to what we think of as the ‘modern teenager’.
Another big factor in marketability; the rise in popularity of the drive-in theater. It was obvious to studio executives that teenagers loved going to the drive-in, so why not make movies that could be sold to them? Thus, a new type of film was born: the teen horror movie.
Directed by Gene Fowler Jr. from a screenplay by Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel, I Was a Teenage Werewolf stars Michael Landon (TV’s Little House on the Prairie), Yvonne Lime (Dragstrip Riot), and Whit Bissell (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The story opens at Rockdale High where temperamental teenager, Tony (Michael Landon), is fighting a classmate. Several primary characters, including his girlfriend Arlene (Yvonne Lime), urge Tony to see local psychiatrist Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell) who they believe could help get his anger under control. Eventually Tony gives in, but through the use of hypnotherapy, the doctor makes the situation worse… Tony becomes a werewolf.
Four decades before Wes Craven’s classic Scream (1996) changed the face of horror, I Was a Teenage Werewolf paved the way. A lot of the common cliches were present all the way back in 1957. You could say I Was a Teenage Werewolf had tropes before they were tropes. A werewolf in human form eating raw hamburger meat, a Halloween party in a supposedly haunted house, a humorous scene where a character mistakenly arrives in costume, pranks that go too far, a crazed scientist, and a character who trips and falls while being stalked through the woods, are just a few of the elements that have now become commonplace. Since then, tropes such as these have been torn to pieces in self-referential horror flicks like Scream as well as comedies such as Scary Movie (2000) to the point where they can rarely be taken seriously. Remember though that in 1957 the “tropes” were fresh, and audiences likely found much of what they were seeing to be terrifying.
Aside from the expected scary elements, I Was A Teenage Werewolf doesn’t fail to deliver a huge amount of social commentary and dark drama into the mix. Act two kicks off with Tony going to see Dr. Brandon. The psychiatrist’s scenes raise though-provoking questions regarding the idea that humanity is destroying itself, as well as that of finding your “true self”. Taking cues from the 1950s insurgence of science-fiction movies along with “mad scientist” characters ala Frankenstein, it is soon revealed that Dr. Brandon‘s intentions with Tony are far more twisted than simply wanting to help. Dr. Brandon‘s character and story arc culminates in a tragic scene that poses the dangers of playing God. However, not all of the blame is directly placed on Tony or the doctor. One brief scene has Tony‘s father, who has just learned of his son’s actions, asking himself what he could have done differently in terms of being a parent.
Upon its release on June 19, 1957, I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a big hit at the box office, earning an estimated $2 million on an $87 thousand budget. The film was followed the same year by an unofficial sequel, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and 1958’s How to Make a Monster, completing the early teen horror trilogy. The latter, an early meta effort within the genre, follows a makeup artist who creates a pair of teen monsters during the shoot of the fictional movie, “Werewolf Meets Frankenstein”, and sends the pair to kill the studio execs who have made the business decision to discontinue making horror movies.
“..the beginning of teen horror as we know it.”
If taken at face value, one can easily see the influence that I Was a Teenage Werewolf has had on films such as Teen Wolf (1985), My Best Friend is a Vampire (1987), My Boyfriend’s Back (1993), and Ginger Snaps (2000). But when the history of the “teenager” is taken into consideration with the release, the deep and lasting effect the movie has had on the horror genre is evident. In 1957, the newfound “teenage” audience was just now becoming a viable market, and the filmmakers made sure to use the term to its fullest extent. They boldly and wisely placed the demographic label within the movie’s title, and the film itself features a few lines of awkward dialogue where characters state things like, “What about the teenagers?”. All in all the message was clear: the filmmakers made a horror movie about teenagers, for teenagers. In essence, I Was a Teenage Werewolf was the beginning of teen horror as we know it.
Have you seen I Was a Teenage Werewolf? Or what about the followups, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein or How to Make a Monster? Let us know your thoughts on Twitter, in the official NOFS Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!