American International Pictures put out some of the very best horror and science fiction movies of the 1950s. James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff knew their stuff when it came to marketing. They knew that their target audience were teenagers and as such made films geared toward them on a date night. They were also one of the first film companies to package their own double features to be shown at both drive-ins and regular theatres. Their marketing genius created very profitable films on miniscule budgets; films that have stood the test of time and are still so much fun to watch today.
I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF starred Michael Landon and was released in 1957. Despite the low budget, the special makeup effects, created by Philip Scheer, created one of the very best wolf man characters, second probably only to Lon Chaney JR’s Wolf Man from the Universal Films. The film was directed by Gene Fowler, JR. who also directed another 50s classic, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (see my Film Book of Fear of this film HERE).
Our movie opens at Rockdale Highschool.There is a fight going on between two of the teens, Tony (Michael Landon) and Jimmy (Charles Wilcox). Tony has anger issues and is easily set off with fits of violence, even with his friends. The fight is a very physical with pretty good choreography. The police arrive and break it up. After making them shake hands and apologize Tony is lectured about the amount of fights he has been in. Officer Donovan (Barney Philips) suggests that he sees a psychologist, Dr. Brandon (Whit Bissell). Tony refuses the help and Donovan tells him that this is the last time that he will be able to cover for him when he gets into fights.
Tony then meets up with his girlfriend Arlene (Yvonne Lime) and tries to explain what is going on, expressing concern that he doesn’t know why he reacts so quickly and violently. He tells her about Doctor Brandon saying he is not going to see him. Arlene pleads with him and he starts to give in, saying that he is going to do it his way.
When Tony arrives home his father discusses his fighting as well, saying that the principal had called. He then explains that she said it was Tony’s fault. You can visibly see his blood start to boil though he manages to keep it somewhat in check for his father, whom you can see he cares about greatly.
That evening, Tony picks up Arlene to go to a Halloween party. He goes in to see her parents and they lecture him as well. Arlene again brings up him seeing Dr. Brandon and he gets mad yet again.
When they arrive at the party everyone is dancing and having a good time. As was common with many of these films, there is a cheesy musical number performed by one of the kids. It’s interesting that they have the music to this song on a record but no vocals by this guy, even though it sounds like him really singing.
After the performance the gang tries to scare one of the girls (it is Halloween after all). Tony then plays a trick on Vic (Ken Miller), who sang the song. He opens a door into a side room and a bucket of water is dumped on his head, much to the delight of everyone watching. Vic then gets his revenge by blowing a horn into Tony’s ear and Tony immediately punches him and starts beating him up. Arlene tries to pull him off and gets hit by accident. When he realizes what he has done, he realizes that he has definitely gone too far and really does need help
We then cut to Tony being examined by Dr. Brandon, who says everything is normal. The next step is hypnosis, to find out what is going on in his mind. He is given a mild sedative to relax him. While waiting for Tony to relax, Dr. Brandon prepares to inject Tony with a scopolamine serum to aid in his transformation…he is now an experiment!
The plan is that through hypnosis Tony will be regressed back to a more primitive time revealing any savage instincts he has inside of him. Brandon is hoping that between the hypnosis and by injecting Tony, a transformation will start to take place. During the regression Tony recounts an incident when he was twelve playing on the beach with a bunch of other kids. One of the kids takes one of his toys and runs away and Tony chases him, beating him up as well.
Two days later Tony is back with another session. He is brought back even further. He doesn’t recognize where he is saying only that it is cold and dark. It’s obvious that Dr. Brandon feels he was a vicious animal in the past.
At another get together, Tony is obviously agitated and takes Arlene home early. One of their friends, Frank, ends up walking home by himself. He keeps hearing the sound of footsteps. HE is being stalked. After yelling out to see who is there he starts to run for his life. He is then killed by something we do not see. The body, when found, has claw marks to his throat and fang marks on his body. The police want to keep a lid on it and when one of the officers goes to lock up the crime scene photos, the janitor asks if he can look at the pictures, as he knew the boy and his father. After responding in fright, he says that he was killed by a werewolf.
The next day everyone is reading about the murder in the newspaper. Tony goes in for his next session with Dr. Brandon. Tony wants to confess something to him but the doctor says he will bring it out during hypnosis.
Tony then meets with the principal to discuss his improvement. Meanwhile, Theresa is in the gym practicing her gymnastics. The principal tells Tony that she has noticed great improvements with him and that if he keeps on the same track, she is going to recommend him for an honor certificate, recommending him to the state college. When Tony leaves he passes the gym and watches Theresa practicing. As he is staring, he moves to a wall where one of the class bells is mounted. It goes off angering Tony and he starts to transform.
The transformation is typical for movies of this time, though a little quicker. Tony, as the werewolf, kills Theresa after chasing her around the gym. It’s a very physical scene and somewhat brutal for the time. People run in after hearing the screams, noticing that the werewolf was wearing Tony’s letterman jacket. The police are called.
Tony is positively identified by multiple witnesses. The werewolf is then shown running through the woods and the police try to put a plan into place. A posse is formed to hunt him down. Dr. Brandon is interrogated by the police but says that the sighting is mass hysteria and that he cannot reveal anything he learned working with Tony due to doctor/patient confidentiality.
The posse, complete with torches, is dispatched with the goal to bring Tony in alive. Killing him will only be a last resort and if he attacks. A German Shephard finds Tony first and attacks him but the dog is killed. The sounds of the dog draw the posse closer but they have no luck finding him in the dark.
As day breaks, Tony has transformed back with the police still on his tail. Tony manages his way to town and calls Arlene. When he hears her voice he cannot say anything and hangs up. He is recognized and the police are called. Meanwhile Tony goes to see Dr. Brandon.
Dr. Brandon’s plan is to regress Tony again, getting him to transform in front of him where it can be photographed, proving he is successful with his theory. Brandon’s assistant is quickly killed just before he destroys the lab and kills Dr. Brandon. Just then the police show up and they shoot him, killing him. In death he turns back into Tony.
This film truly showed what American International Pictures was capable of. The acting is strong, not often seen in low budget films. It is played seriously and the results are both terrifying and fun. I would love to know the reactions of the teenagers when they saw this during its original run. The movie was shot in seven days with a reported budget of $82,000. It made over $2,000,000 at the box office…not a bad profit for the time!
Originally this film was released as a double feature with another of my favorite films, INVASION OF THE SAUCER-MEN (see my Film Book of Fear coverage HERE). Though they had nothing to do with each other besides having the same film company producing them, it had to have been a fun double feature. Both films run about 74 minutes and as such, they are fast-paced with little film wasted on things not important to the story.
Unfortunately, this film is not available in the digital format except for in bootleg form. Most of the bootlegs are recorded from the only official release, on VHS, from the 90s. This film is such a classic and so deserves to be released on Blu-ray. Though I do not condone the buying of bootlegs, the fact that this film will probably never be released on Blu-ray leaves film fans with little choice in the matter. The reason for this is that Susan Nicholson Hofheinz, ex-wife of the late James Nicholson, who owns the rights to this and many other AIP classic films, refuses to let them see the light of day. Such a shame.
Don’t forget to check out my FILM BOOK OF FEAR series!