There were plenty of cheesy movies made in the ’80s, but some of them still hold their charm. It seems strange today, when the likes of Twilight rule at the bookstores and in movie theatres, but back then the whole teen-monster meme was a long way off.
But two movies stand out, even if they don’t necessarily stand up today: Teen Wolf and The Lost Boys.
Teen Wolf had one thing going for it when it came out in 1985: Michael J. Fox’s ascendance. It was the filmmakers’ dumb luck that they had Teen Wolf in the can when the Family Ties star really hit the big time with Back To the Future, and that wasn’t lost on the designers of later posters for Teen Wolf, which proclaimed Fox was “back from the future” (huh?) in a new comedy. As a slogan, it may have sold movie tickets, but it’s a damning comparison to invite. While Back To the Future stands up after repeated viewings — it boasts immense attention to detail, great story and spot-on casting — Teen Wolf is an also-ran. If you didn’t see it then, watching it today likely won’t win you over. The effects are poor, the soundtrack is mostly awful, and there’s at least one “huh?” moment to do with the central conceit that, if you don’t just let it go and accept it, will ruin the movie. (More on that later.)
In the movie, Fox plays Scott Howard, a high school underdog whose basketball team sucks despite his best efforts on the court, and he’s ignored by the popular blonde girl and pushed around by her jock boyfriend. He starts noticing bizarre changes in himself, such as sprouting claws, fur, and fangs at awkward moments, which he tries to conceal. When he wolfs out in full, he finds out his dad is a werewolf too and had hoped Scott wouldn’t have the family curse.
That’s all fine, but when Scott turns into a wolfman in the middle of a basketball game, he suddenly becomes not only a star player but the big man on campus. (That’s the moment you have to swallow, by the way: despite a few seconds of fear when everyone sees what he’s become, it’s apparently forgotten as soon as he starts shooting baskets.)
Most of what saves the movie from being totally forgettable is the personal charm of Michael J. Fox, who makes the completely self-centred Scott likeable, and decent turns by some of the “where are they now?” cast. In particular, Scott’s father is played with an understated wit by James Hampton, and the thankless role of Boof, Scott’s childhood friend whom everyone but Scott can see carries a huge torch for him, is worth watching for Susan Ursitti’s I’m-creating-backstory-that-isn’t-in-the-script performance. On the other hand, I won’t say Popular Blonde Girl and Jerk Jock Boyfriend are even cardboard cutouts, as that would be insulting to cardboard.
Of course, in ABC afterschool special fashion, Scott learns he doesn’t need to be the wolf to be accepted, get the girl (thank God he wakes up and picks Boof), and, in the end, win the basketball game. Not the deepest story, and an obvious metaphor for puberty — but still worth watching, if only for the moment when Scott realizes that to buy alcohol without ID he just needs to flash his satanic-red eyes, growl, and say “I want… a keg… of beer.”
The Lost Boys
The Lost Boys, on the other hand, was definitely going for a high-budget look, and if its story made less sense than Teen Wolf‘s, it was actually trying to straddle a tougher divide between horror and comedy.
Summarizing the plot is actually tougher since it meanders all over the place and often breaks its own rules. In short, a divorcee (Dianne Wiest) and her two sons come to Santa Carla to stay with her father for the summer. The older son Michael (Jason Patric) gets mixed up with a local vampire gang thanks to the girl he starts chasing, Star (Jami Gertz). The younger son Sam (Corey Haim) falls in with the local comic shop entrepreneurs, the Frog Brothers, who are part-time vampire hunters. One of them is played by Corey Feldman, giving The Lost Boys the star power of two Coreys. As someone who lived through the ’80s, I have no idea why they were famous — it sure wasn’t for acting ability — but they’re occasionally funny in this movie.
The real standouts, though, on re-watching it, are Keifer Sutherland as David, charismatic leader of the vampire gang; Edward Hermann, the local man who seduces the divorcee mother; and, in what amounts to a cameo in which he steals every scene, Barnard Hughes as the crazy grandpa. His last line is easily the best in the entire movie.
Part of the problem is the plot seems to lose track of what Star is to the vampire gang — she doesn’t seem to be one of them, but recruits Michael to join them, and then helps him destroy them, but only after he becomes a half-vampire, and… yes, I can’t keep straight what her deal is even after having seen it a few times. Nor why the vamps would even be interested in Michael, since he clearly has a thing for Star, who is (maybe?) David’s main squeeze. Everyone else in the movie who crosses them is dragged off and killed.
But still. There are iconic moments such as the Frog Brothers’ house battle with the vampires and the clever reveal of the real villain of the piece, which neatly conforms to the rules of movie vampire lore in one “a-ha” moment.
The notion that the lost boys, of Peter Pan fame, fit the template for vampires (never grow old, never die) is a subtle one that I suspect was lost on 98% of this movie’s intended audience.
And, it must be said, for a schlock teen horror movie, it has one of the best soundtracks you’re likely to find, from the “Cry Little Sister” tune that was likely more popular than the movie when it came out, to the cover of “People Are Strange” by Echo and the Bunnymen, to a ton of stuff by INXS and Jimmy Barnes at the former’s creative and commercial peak.
Overall, the movie is marred by the two Coreys basically cashing in on their “it” status (long since gone, even if Haim hadn’t passed away in 2010) and a muddy, confusing middle. (For me, the hardest thing to swallow isn’t the vague vampire mythos but the scene where teens headbang to a light rock band with a singer who plays a saxophone. Come on.) But the malevolent charm of Sutherland’s vampire is enough to infuse the whole movie with real dread and when the humour works, it really works.
So, do either of them stand up? The Lost Boys would be a classic if it made a bit more sense; but it’s still worth a watch. Teen Wolf, on the other hand, was such a thin concept to begin with that its only redeeming features are Michael J. Fox and a few members of supporting cast, who really make you care what happens to Scott, Boof, and well-meaning werewolf dad. If you loved Back To the Future, watch this and be glad Teen Wolf wasn’t Fox’s only movie that summer.
P.S. Lest the title of this post be misleading, who do I think would win in a fight between Teen Wolf and the Lost Boys? Much as I hate to say it, David and his neanderthals would eat Scott’s lunch. They’re super-strong, they can fly, and they’ve got fangs. Scott has an impressive jump shot and fangs himself, but the only thing we see him rip up with his claws is other people’s clothing. Plus he’d be outnumbered. On the other hand, if he had a flying DeLorean and mad scientist sidekick, that might be a fair fight.
UPDATE: Clearly I am not the only one thinking about The Lost Boys. Over at Retro Critic, Razorhead Films happened to post a hindsight review as well. He’s a little kinder to Corey Haim than I was, but to each his own. You can read the review here.
SECOND UPDATE: For Razorhead’s new take on Teen Wolf, click here. Come on, Internet, this is becoming a meme!
THIRD UPDATE: If this all whets your appetite for ’80s teens-vs.-monsters mayhem, you need to read about Fabian Rangel Jr.’s Extinct. Details are at Werewolf News.
FOURTH UPDATE: While you’re at Werewolf News, do check out Craig J. Clark’s insightful take on why teen comedies are where the 1980s werewolf flick went to die.