DAY 11. THE OLD WAY. Watch a classic from 1959 or before.
Herman Cohen started his climb up the show business ladder from the lowest rung, working as a gofer and usher at Detroit’s Dexter Theater at the tender age of 12. By 18, he’d be the manager. His career would take him from being the sales manager for Columbia’s Detroit region to their Hollywood publicity department and finally making his own films.
His greatest success came in the 1950’s with this film — which he wrote and produced for American International — which earned $2 million dollars on a $100,000 budget (approximately $18 million on a $900,000 budget when adjusted for today’s inflation). He was also behind the films Craze, Trog and Berserk!
Back in 1957, when this film was made, the idea of a teenager becoming a monster was shocking to audiences. Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff claimed that he received plenty of guff for exploiting this idea. In fact, this is the first of many I Was a Teenage movies, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
It’s also the first role for Michael Landon, who would go on to enjoy a long and fruitful Hollywood career with three landmark series on his resume: Bonanza, Little House on the Prarie and Highway to Heaven. When I was a kid, I was often afraid of the photo of the werewolf in this movie and my mother would say, “It’s just Michael Landon. You shouldn’t be afraid.” Also, as a youngster, if I ever went to another kid’s home and they were fans of Little House on the Prarie’s adventures of the Ingalls family, I’d instantly judge them as boring and want to go home.
Here he plays Tony Rivers, a troubled teenager to say the least. Unlike most 1950’s fare that portrays its protagonist as noble, we’re shown that Tony is a rough character right from the beginning. He doesn’t just rail against authority, he hates everyone. And he’s not all that forthright about it. In a fistfight with another classmate, he goes so far as to throw dirt in the man’s face and try to kill him with a shovel instead of just using his fists. His love of violence and hatred for his fellow man stands in dramatic contrast to his pretty boy looks.
Barney Phillips, who was also Sergeant Ed Jacobs on Dragnet, plays Detective Donovan, a cop who feels bad for Tony and tries to intervene on his behalf several times. After all, Tony grew up without a mom and his dad’s probably a drunk.
Yvonne Lime, who would move on from acting to becoming a noted philanthropist with her husband, plays his girlfriend Arlene. While her parents don’t seem to enjoy the cut of Tony’d jib, she’s in pure love with him, believing in him no matter what.
That said, the real horror starts at a haunted house party. After an extended dance sequence where Vic and his girl sing along to a record — amazingly, this is announced as a big deal and I can’t imagine attending a party where the highlight is some guy playing bongos and lipsynching to a 45 — Tony flips out and nearly kills the man for surprising him from behind. I mean, everyone was pranking one another to an inordinate degree and only Tony tried to outright murder Vic. Look — I hated Vic after a minute, so I get it, Tony. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to spend time with him on an extended basis.
Don’t believe me? Just watch these antics and tell me you don’t wish you could go full lycanthrope and strike them all down.
However, Tony’s rage ends up knocking down his girlfriend, so he volunteers to meet with hypnotist Dr. Alfred Brandon. He’s played by Whit Bissell, who would play a psychologist in not only this film, but in its follow-up, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. He also had the same occupation in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
This being the 50’s, the doctor has to be a quack. He’s really only interested in experimenting on Tony, regressing him to his most primal state.
After another party at the haunted house — this is made a major point yet we never see a single ghost — Tony drives Arlene home and Frank, one of their friends, is mauled and killed. As the cops debate the autopsy, Pepi the janitor (Vladimir Sokoloff, a Russian actor playing a Carpathian, so this isn’t whitewashing as much as its Hollywood not really even knowing at this point what ethnicity is. In fact, Sokoloff would play 35 different nationalities in his career, including people from Greece, China, Spain, Mexico and so many more) tells them all the truth: these are the marks of a werewolf!
Tony feels like there’s something wrong with himself, but the principal is so happy with his progress that she’s recommending him to State College. One would assume that the marks on his permanent record have been removed.
As he leaves her office, he notices Theresa practicing her gymnastics. This drives his teenage hormones into overdrive and he responds by going full werewolf and killing her, which is about the best translation for toxic masculinity that 1957 can muster. Just seeing the comely form of Dawn Richard (Playboy Playmate of the Month for May 1957) as she stretches out is all it takes. That said — her sexuality had to be somewhat shocking for the puritanical Baby Boom era. Therefore, she had to be destroyed.
Tony’s recognized by his jacket and goes on the run. He calls Arlene for help and she can only listen, unable to reply. And a visit to Dr. Brandon only leads to the man using our protagonist and filming his transformation, at which point Tony kills everyone. The cops are forced to gun him down — silver bullets are unnecessary when you have good old fashioned American steel — and that’s all she wrote.
One of those cops — they opine that man shouldn’t mess in the affairs of God — is Guy Williams, who would soon be swashbuckling in Zorro and sailing through the galaxy in Lost In Space.
Less than four months after the release of this film, AIP would release two movies that are pretty much the same story: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein and Blood of Dracula, which is even more of a remake, just with a female lead and doctor. It’s such a paint by numbers recreation that there’s even another dance number thrown in, references to Carpathia, dialogue lifted nearly line by line and an observer who knows that it’s a vampire when no one else will believe them.
I watched this movie on the very same day I rewatched An American Werewolf In London and it’s stunning to see the different ways that they interpret not only being a werewolf, but the transformation itself. Instead of the pain that 1981’s Rick Baker effects depict, all we see here is a slow dissolve of Tony getting a furry face. But it works — for so often, this was how American audiences saw werewolves.