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Remembering when Teen Wolf was cornier, furrier, and obsessed with basketball

By Jon O'Brien
teen wolf

The one-dimensional jerk jock whose sole purpose is to make the hero's life a misery; the ridiculously wacky BFF who desperately needs a dose of Ritalin; the spontaneous prom night dance that somehow everyone knows the moves to. The original Teen Wolf ensured that every cliché in the high school comedy handbook was ticked off and then some. It's no doubt the reason why MTV eradicated pretty much everything apart from the title with its angst-ridden ‘00s reboot.

Nevertheless, Rod Daniels’ directorial debut is cherished by some just as much as the other Michael J. Fox movie that kept it off the box-office top spot in the summer of 1985. And its famously boyish leading man, one of the very few twentysomethings to have gotten away with playing a high school teen, can take much of the credit  Indeed, although Fox was familiar to millions as Family Ties’ young conservative Alex P. Keaton at the time, Teen Wolf was his first attempt to parlay his natural amiability and comic timing on the big screen. (Though Back to the Future hit cinemas first, it was actually filmed long after the werewolf caper had wrapped.)

On paper, Scott Howard is a bit of a jerk no matter whether he’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom or furrier than Mr. Snuffleupagus. As the former, he’s constantly dismissive of the girl-next-door who offers him nothing but unwavering support, while his behavior toward the high school vixen way out of his league is worthy of a restraining order. As the latter, he’s a vain showboater who spends his downtime van surfing to the Beach Boys on a vehicle dubbed the Wolfmobile. He should be the absolute worst.

And yet Fox, perhaps the most likable actor of his generation, still leaves you rooting for the guy to get the girl, take down the bully and guide the Beacon Town Beavers to their inevitable against-all-odds victory. He’s particularly convincing in the film’s first half-hour as Scott tries to grasp why his battle with puberty suddenly involves an aversion to dog whistles and sprouting a worrying amount of hand hair.  

The man-to-man chats with his single father Harold (James Hampton), himself a fellow lupine, are surprisingly touching, too. Furthermore, the scene where the pair discover each other’s hirsute alter-egos provides one of the film’s few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. “An explanation is probably long overdue” is something of a gross understatement.   

Watching Teen Wolf 35 years on, though, and much of its humor is entirely unintentional, with the soundtrack a regular source of bemusement. No ‘80s teen movie would be complete without a fist-pumping montage or two, of course, but the accompanying music choices are often downright baffling. What better way to complement The Wolf’s prowess on the court than with erm, a plodding Randy Newman-inspired barroom rocker? And then there’s the climactic showdown’s slightly gothic electro number whose title, “Win in the End,” spoils the outcome long before Scott’s last-second two-pointer saves the day.

Those who know their slam dunks from their swishes may also snicker at the quality of basketball on display. In an amusing faux-scout report published in 2018, Sports Illustrated noted that despite being hailed as the Beavers’ savior, The Wolf had “little understanding of how to run an offense” and that they couldn’t exactly recommend “a 5’5” string bean who has to hop to make free throws.”

In fact, you probably have to be an NBA aficionado to enjoy Teen Wolf to its fullest, as there’s almost as much courtside action featured as in all ten episodes of The Last Dance. Daniels fills much of its slim running time with extended highlights of low-stakes games — the film even dedicates its opening five minutes to a crushing 71-12 defeat.

The upside is we also get to see more of the movie’s funniest supporting character. A refreshing departure from the aggressive sports coach trope, Bobby Finstock is a man with a surprisingly lackadaisical attitude to competition “(It doesn't matter how you play the game, it's whether you win or lose. And even that doesn't make all that much difference”) and some valuable, if rather specific, life lessons (“Never get less than twelve hours sleep, never play cards with a guy who has the same first name as a city, and never get involved with a woman with a tattoo of a dagger on her body”).

Moreover, you can perhaps forgive Daniels for all the padding when taking into account the measly budget of just $1.2 million he had to play with; this also explains the ‘unconvincing even by 1985 standards’ prosthetics and why all but one of Scott’s full wolf transformations take place off screen.

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A lack of funds, however, doesn’t explain the slightly muddled messaging. Like every coming-of-age, Scott appears to learn that it’s best to simply ‘be yourself.’ But is the average Joe who emerges triumphantly really all that he is?

Having inherited the lupine gene from his father, The Wolf is undeniably part of his makeup, too. Sure, he’s slightly cockier, but it’s also more carefree, talented and seemingly contented than the super anxious, fresher face frustrated that life is passing him by. And considering the entire town is strangely accepting of having a basketball-playing werewolf in their midst – the fickle object of his desires even jumps into bed with him — the film confusingly suggests that embracing your inner freak can also reap its rewards.

Of course, Teen Wolf isn’t meant to be analyzed in any great detail — though that shouldn’t be an excuse to let some of the parts of the film that haven’t aged well get by without criticism. Like many ‘80s comedies, there’s a lot in this film that wouldn't pass muster in 2020. Casual homophobia goes unchecked, there’s a whole lot of fat-shaming and in one scene a lunkhead motorboats a jelly-covered partygoer without any hint of consent. 

Yet, if one is able to put Teen Wolf into context and accept it as a deeply imperfect throwaway comedy — one which would perhaps have sank without trace had it not capitalized on the success of Marty McFly — there’s something to howl about. Teen Wolf still entertains, occasionally in a so bad it’s good kinda way, more than three decades after becoming a video rental staple. Furthermore, there’s always the fun of determining whether that closing shot really does contain a flasher or not.