Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf

Howling Fad: Teen Wolf and the Legacy of Adolescent Lycanthropy

By J.T. Trigonis

I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael J. Fox. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been gradually paging through his first book Lucky Man, which I found while rummaging an estate sale for cool books and vintage finds. Or maybe it’s because I got sucked into Josh Gates’s Expedition: Back to the Future series on the Discovery Network. Whatever it was, it got me thinking of those iconic Mike Fox movies of the 1980s and ’90s like The Secret of My Success (1987), Doc Hollywood and The Hard Way (1991), and one of my all-time favorites, The Frighteners (1996). And of course, how can we forget his role as Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties? The sitcom nearly inhibited him from taking on his most famous role as Marty McFly in the original Back to the Future (1985) and its two sequels.

While pressing the rewind button on the life and times of this most fantastic Mr. Fox, I remembered a movie of his that made me want to howl at the moon with sheer excitement every time it came on HBO when I was a kid. That movie is none other than the original Teen Wolf. Released in the same year as Back to the Future, Teen Wolf tells the story of Scott Howard and his struggle to cope with being both a teenager and a werewolf. A completely offbeat comedy, the film features house parties and underage drinking (“Get me a keg of beer,” Scott tells the grizzled old codger behind the liquor store counter, eyes blazing red with lycanthropic power), the best (girl) friend who wants to be more than friends; the crazy best bud trying to market his pal’s furry new identity; basketball; and a slew of jokes that could only pass in the ’80s, because today they might be construed by many as offensive and grounds for canceling.

Revisiting Teen Wolf in 2023, I found that, unlike Back to the Future, the film didn’t age well. I was able to scrounge up a DVD that had on it both Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too, which we’ll touch on later, and couldn’t help noticing that the production value was definitely lower budget, with audio issues and mediocre sound design––things I never realized or cared about when I would watch it on repeat every Saturday and Sunday at my brother’s house. That said, though, the film still carried with it a fun note of nostalgia; an excitement during the first transformation scene––albeit nothing like the transformation of David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London (1981), but they tried, and those tense synthesizer notes really aided the low-budget prosthetics; and, of course, a heartfelt message about being oneself as Scott foregoes the wolf within for the teen who learns to work with his team to win the basketball finals. 

I made my way through the movie as a 45 year old man, and I found myself still having a good time. However, as a kid I found myself wanting my family to watch the cool scenes with me as they happened; as an adult I was hoping my partner wasn’t watching, since so much of the film is overburdened by two-dimensional cliche stereotypes: Coach Finstock, for instance, reeks of cliches––giving ridiculous advice (his “three rules to live by”) and supposedly being there for his players so long as they’re not dealing with anything too serious.

Two years later, MGM released a sequel that has earned a whopping 8% on the Tomatometer as of this writing and was not anywhere near as good as the original despite it being the exact same film. Teen Wolf Too graduates from high school to college and follows Scott’s cousin Todd Howard (Jason Bateman) as he undergoes the same trials and tribulations of discovering the family curse that makes him a werewolf when his awkward nerves get the better of him. The film, even in 1987, was a far cry from its predecessor and a flop. What wasn’t a flop was the Teen Wolf animated series which ran from 1986 to 1987 and featured one of the most fun opening credits and theme songs I’ve ever seen (and so totally ’80s!). A rewatch of some of the 21 episodes shows that the cartoon has aged somewhat better than the film it’s based on, as I found myself laughing out loud not in a cringey way but out of a genuine good time. Sure, some of the retcons are a bit silly, like the town in which Scott lives (Wolverton) with his dad and perpetually wolfed-out grandma and grandpa and his sister Lupe, and Stiles driving what looks sorta like a hearse with fangs. Overall, the cartoon captures the spirit of the original movie quite faithfully.

Now, I’ll go on the record here and say that, while I’m a big fan of almost all things related to vampires and werewolves, I have not seen a single episode of the new, modern adaptation of Teen Wolf because, well, I had no interest. Until now. And by “interest,” I mean to say that I wanted to watch a few episodes simply as comparative material to the original film and animated series. That said, I was not impressed. I will say I was happy to see Colton Haynes in the show––I loved him as Red Arrow in the CW’s Arrow, but I didn’t buy the beefy geek-heartthrob that was Scott McCall, played by Tyler Posey. I will say that I did appreciate the origin story and Dylan O’Brien’s portrayal of Stiles, though the pacing of each episode moved too quickly for me, but this is a show that’s targeted to a much younger demographic, so the sped-up storyline makes sense for today’s fast-paced world.

All in all, I think there’s a reason Back to the Future has stood the test of time, and Michael J. Fox is certainly part of it. Teen Wolf, as a concept, is brilliant, as evidenced by the success of the MTV series, but it hasn’t aged well for a fantasy/comedy. As a piece of nostalgia, an artifact of a bygone era when going through the growing pains of high school and finding one’s identity, it perhaps is a reminder of how good we had it, even in the darkest corridors of our locker-lined high school hallways. Sure, we had to deal with raging hormones, bullies flushing our heads in the toilets, and not getting caught cheating on our geometry exams, but we didn’t wolf out in the same way Scott Howard did.

At least we had that to help us sleep better at night.

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As always, thanks again for reading Nostalgia’s Revenge! In the next month or so, we’ll be going undercover and taking a look at the only tech outside of Nintendo products I had growing up––Spy Tech!