Full Moon Features: Comedy — Where the Werewolf Film Went to Die in the ’80s
by Craig J. Clark
Aug. 1, 2012
Inspired by the twin successes of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, the ’80s yielded a veritable bumper crop of werewolf-centric horror comedies, most of which chose to accentuate the comedy over the horror. Whether this tendency arose out of a misreading of what made those hit films resonate with audiences or the desire to keep budgets down by limiting the mayhem, the end result was the same: almost to a man (and, in one case, woman), they were effectively defanged.
That’s definitely the case with 1981’s Full Moon High, which was written, produced and directed by perpetual triple threat Larry Cohen, whose approach to comedy is scattershot at best. The story opens in 1959, when high school football star Adam Arkin is attacked by the cheesiest-looking werewolf imaginable while accompanying his super-patriotic father (Ed McMahon!) on a super-secret mission to communist Romania. Upon their return home, Arkin takes to attacking young women, but the most he does is nip them in the butt, inspiring the local paper to run the understated headline “Werewolf Annoys Community.” After transforming in front of McMahon, who freaks out and accidentally shoots himself, Arkin leaves town just before the big game, which his school loses in his absence. The film then leaps forward 21 years, at which point he returns home and, posing as his own son, hopes to fulfill his destiny.
Chock full of non sequiturs, one-liners and running gags (such as the pesky gypsy violinist who seems to follow Arkin everywhere), Full Moon High comes equipped with a supporting cast augmented by the likes of Kenneth Mars, Jim J. Bullock, Bob Saget, Pat Morita, and Alan Arkin (a.k.a. Adam’s father), who plays a famous abnormal psychologist who specializes in insult therapy. In the end, though, the film is a little too chaotic for its own good, but that’s pretty much par for the course for Cohen. Still, it does cause me to wonder whether the makers of Teen Wolf, which came along four years later, ever looked at Full Moon High and said, “Hey, we could make a movie like that, only not so schticky.”
In many ways, Teen Wolf‘s Scott Howard (played by Michael J. Fox, as if I needed to tell you that) is one of cinema’s most nonthreatening werewolves, so much so that the movie even spawned a Saturday morning cartoon. A wholly unremarkable small-town youth, Scott plays for his high school’s lousy basketball team, hangs out with his slacker friend Stiles, is mooned over by his best friend Boof, and works part-time at his father’s hardware store. Then he starts noticing some things — extra hair on his chest and hands, heightened senses of smell and hearing, pointy ears — that aren’t the sorts of changes that they talk about in health class. Everything becomes clear on the night of the full moon, though, when he undergoes a full transformation and discovers that his father is also a werewolf (just not of the teen variety).
Since Teen Wolf is primarily a comedy as opposed to a straight-up horror film (or even a send-up like Full Moon High), being a werewolf turns out to be a pretty sweet deal for Scott, especially once he demonstrates his prowess on the basketball court. All of a sudden, the hot blond he has the hots for is giving him the time of day, the drama teacher is writing a part into the school play just for him, and his coach has a winning team on his hands. His only problems are the vice principal who’s gunning for him for some unknown reason, a sporting and romantic rival who knows how to push his buttons, and his teammates who grow to resent his ball-hogging antics. Will Scott learn to control the wolf within in time to help his school win the state championship? Do I even need to answer that?
When the time came to make a sequel to Teen Wolf, Michael J. Fox was far too big a star to want to don the hair, fangs and claws a second time, so it was left up to his sitcom sister’s real-life brother Jason Bateman to take on the role of his college-bound cousin for 1987’s Teen Wolf Too. Of course, his casting may have also had something to do with the fact that the film was produced by Jason’s father Kent Bateman, who in all honesty should have held out for a better vehicle for his talented son’s feature debut. I’m not saying Teen Wolf is an unassailable classic or anything, but on the list of unnecessary sequels Teen Wolf Too has to rank somewhere near the bottom.
Believing the werewolf gene has skipped his generation, Bateman’s Todd Howard has landed at a second-tier college where he wants to study science to become a vet, but the imposing Dean of Men (John Astin) would rather he concentrate on boxing since he’s there on a sports scholarship due to the machinations of Scott’s old coach, who has graduated from high school basketball to college boxing. From there, the story follows the Teen Wolf template almost to the letter (there’s even a direct callback to the first film in the scene where Todd’s eyes go red and he uses a deep voice to intimidate an unbending registrar into changing his classes), even to the point of giving Todd a nerdy, Karen Allen-ish biology lab partner who’s hopelessly hung up on him. And like in the first film, Todd doesn’t know quite how to handle his new-found popularity after he becomes the wolf during his first boxing match and cleans his opponent’s clock. The post-fight celebration is something else entirely, though, with Todd singing “Do You Love Me?” and leading an embarrassing dance number. And his cousin Scott would have never consented to catching a Frisbee in the air, which is beyond degrading.
If Full Moon High and the Teen Wolf diptych tipped more toward the comedy end of the spectrum, then The Monster Squad (also from 1987) made up for them by not skimping on the horrific aspects of its story. Of course, instead of being centered on a sympathetic (and occasionally just plain pathetic) werewolf, it had the advantage of having five kinds of monsters to work with, led by a ruthless Count Dracula bent on world domination. Written by Shane Black and director Fred Dekker, The Monster Squad follows the titular quintet of grade-school Van Helsings as they take on not only Dracula, but also Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolfman, the Mummy and the Gill-Man in a bid to restore the balance of power.
A real treat for horror movie fans, The Monster Squad gave special effects wizard Stan Winston the opportunity to have a go at all of Universal’s iconic monsters. He does an especially good job on Frankenstein’s Monster (who’s played quite effectively by Tom Noonan), although I’m less impressed with his Wolfman since the poor guy’s completely unable to turn his head and his face is pretty immobile. And then, of course, there’s the Scary German Guy (played by veteran character actor Leonardo Cimino), who turns out not to be so scary after all. So I guess the moral of the story is don’t be afraid of the German guy who lives down the road because he just might be able to help you banish the bad guys to limbo where they belong. Also, Wolfman’s totally got nards.
Skipping over 1988’s Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf and Curse of the Queerwolf (something I recommend you do as well), the final werewolf comedy of the decade is 1989’s My Mom’s a Werewolf, which was directed by Michael Fischa (who apparently felt that he was under no obligation to make it a good one). As it opens, klutzy housewife Susan Blakely is feeling decidedly unappreciated, both by her schlubby hubby (a well-cast John Schuck) and her headstrong teenage daughter (Tina Caspary). Then, while out running errands one day, she meets charming pet shop owner John Saxon, a werewolf on the prowl for a mate who seduces her and, one bite on the toe later (shades of Adam Arkin’s butt-nipping), she’s on her way to becoming the wolf woman of his dreams. She also goes from being a strict vegetarian to eating raw meat and growing fangs, pointy ears and hair all over her body. (And she thought Saxon was a “furry little devil.”)
At first Caspary merely thinks her mother is having an affair, but when the truth comes out she turns to a gypsy fortune teller (played by Laugh-In‘s Ruth Buzzi) for help. Along the way there’s a lot of silly gags, forced physical comedy and cartoony sound effects, and more dog- and hair-related jokes than you can throw a stick at. These would be tolerable if they were even marginally funny, but alas, that is not the case. It may have taken a decade, but My Mom’s a Werewolf proved that the werewolf comedy had finally had its day and needed to be put down.