The hardest films to review are the mediocre ones. “Great” and “awful” films alike, despite being polar opposites in terms of quality, are both easy to review for the same reason: They invoke passion in the reviewer, be it a passion of appreciation (for good films) or disgust (awful films). Mediocre films, however, do not illicit passion. The reviewer struggles to write about the mediocre film, since he/she neither feels the need to recommend it nor destroy it, nor to do anything with it for that matter. Gene Fowler Jr.’s ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ (1957) is just such a film – a picture too flawed to be called “good”, and yet not so unredeemable that one can write it off as “dreck” either.
‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ stars Michael Landon as Tony Rivers, a brooding James Dean-type with anger issues, who is convinced by his father and friends to go see the worst psychiatrist ever in the history of medicine, Dr. Alfred Brandon (Whit Bissell). Dr. Brandon, for reasons that are never adequately explained nor explored, is experimenting with serums and hypnotism in hopes of regressing man back to his “primitive” state, and decides that Tony is the perfect test subject for his ill-defined experiments. Not long after beginning his sessions with Dr. Brandon, people are getting killed by a werewolf, and it’s up to the police to the stop Tony before he kills again.
Perhaps the deadliest flaw that Fowler makes with his picture is taking the material too seriously: It’s title, along with the mechanism behind Tony’s transformation, are too ridiculous and bizarre to be believable, and had the director instead made his film with a more ‘tongue-in-cheek’ aesthetic, then perhaps ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ wouldn’t come off as being so hokey and melodramatic. There are, of course, the other more typical flaws that inundate cheap, quickly made horror films like Fowler’s: A lack of pacing, subpar acting (with the possible exception of Landon, who does an affable if not amazing performance), cheap and repetitive scenery.
But despite these flaws, ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ also shows the occasional hint of competence and talent on Fowler’s part: The first “werewolf attack” is crafted rather effectively by Fowler. In lieu of some cheesy “horror music” or some other amateurish trope, Fowler lets the scene unroll in near silence, with only incidental sound effects (footsteps, snapping twigs, etc.) to be heard. This gives the scene a sense of realism that helps to build atmosphere and a slow swelling tension that ultimately makes the murder/death of the victim a genuine fright and shock to the audience.
Another well-crafted scene occurs later in the film, when a young woman is practicing gymnastics in the local high school. Again, Fowler builds the tension up beautifully, the climax occurring when the camera switches to the point-of-view of the girl (who is hanging upside down) and we the audience get our first true glimpse at Fowler’s werewolf. The image is jarring, the figure presented to us upside-down and in grotesque make-up causing one’s mind to reel for a moment, while Fowler flouts general horror expectations and presents his creature rather abruptly and at an angle that obscures its appearance for a moment, creating a genuine moment of uncanniness that might not terrify audiences, but at least jars them from their seat and captures their attention.
Ultimately, Gene Fowler Jr.’s ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ inhabits that cinematic grey zone between “good” and “bad”, that realm where films that are neither good enough to recommend nor awful enough to become infamous go to fall into obscurity, and to remain save the occasional glance from cinephiles of esoteric cinema. ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf’ might not be the best horror film, but compared to other schlock, its certainly much more competent and better put together.
Find the nearest Blockbuster (assuming they still exist) near your home so you can rent this film almost immediately. Or, if you prefer that movies came to you instead, set up a Netflix account and start your ordering as soon as possible.