Tony Rivers is a teenager who has a real problem with anger. He's always ready for a fight and explodes at even the slightest provocation. A sequence of unfortunate events lead him to seek help with a psychotherapist, who turns out to be a mad scientist obsessed with the possibilities of reverting man to his animal state. After a few sessions which seem to be helping, brutal animal-like killings begin to occur in the town and Tony fears that he has become ... a werewolf!
Although it was made for an extremely low budget by a brand-new production company called American International Pictures, this movie became very successful very quickly. Whether or not somebody actually sat down and figured out that teenagers should be the target audience for movie theatres now that the older folk stayed at home to watch TV is uncertain, but it was definitely a winning formula. It was made for just $82 thousand and shot in a week, and ended up making over $2 million (the tenth highest grossing movie over the year). Of course, the authority figures at the time were quick to damn the movie, saying it was psychologically damaging the kids who watched it. What a bunch of squares.
The werewolf aspect here is a metaphor for common teenage mood swings, with the anger of Tony being eventually channeled into the beast. There are hints of a darker subtext, particularly in a scene where he watches an attractive, partially-clad female gymnast doing her moves, right before changing into the wolf and attacking her. Overall the movie fails to notice the other similarities between the werewolf myth and adolescence, at least not to the same extent as "Ginger Snaps" or even "Teen Wolf". It tries very hard to be hip to the teenagers of that time, with fifties slang and a completely out-of-place extended music number and dance sequence thrown in. Unfortunately, it isn't really as thrilling or as fun as it really should be in places ... it's quite slow moving, takes a long time to get started and a lot of the scenes in the second half of the movie seem thrown together and lacking in narrative flow. Obviously it isn't perfect (it was given the "Mystery Science Theatre" treatment), but hey -- it's a B-movie.
Michael Landon is a real star in this movie, giving a performance that is both intense and convincing. Rather than setting his sights on movies, from here he went on to become a popular face on television, with major roles in series such as "Bonanza" (for over a decade), "Highway to Heaven", and later starring in "Little House on the Prairie". Nobody else on the cast really stands out, although everyone is competent. Tony's girlfriend is played by Yvonne Lime, who was actually dating Elvis while this movie was being made (how cool can you get?).
The noteable writing team here, although originally credited as "Ralph Thornton", were in fact Herman Cohen and Aben Kandel who also wrote the sequels "I Was A Teenage Frankenstein" and "How To Make A Monster", then credited as Kenneth Langtry. Aben Kandel also did some earlier uncredited work on the "Werewolf Of London" screenplay. Unfortunately none of these movies were particularly strong in terms of story or dialogue, but nevertheless they did contribute a great deal to werewolf movie history. Director Gene Fowler Jr made his career in B-movie horrors and westerns, with this being his most well-known work (although "I Married A Monster from Outer Space" has to rank highly).
Werewolf movie fans really have to see this movie, not only because it was so popular and so influential, but because it was one of the most interesting werewolf movies of it's time.
While Universal's werewolf movies always had lycanthropy being passed on through the bite of the werewolf, other studios generally had other ideas. It was usually some form of mad science or a family inheritance, and with "I Was A Teenage Werewolf" they've gone with the mad science angle but done it in an original way. The werewolf transformation is triggered through hypnosis (see top photo), which somehow revives a dormant part of Tony's brain, taking him back to a primitive state (because apparently humans evolved from wolves ... scientifically this should really have been "I Was A Teenage Apeman").
Tony doesn't appear to have any control over who he kills in wolf form, he simply tends to go for easy targets or whoever happens to be there when he changes. There's one scene where he has a fight with a dog (see third photo down) which is rather unconvincing -- check out the dog's wagging tail. However, he does have the good sense to hide from the police, and the doctor notes that he has been given the "cunning of an animal" as well as other useful attributes which enable him to rip people to shreds.
The makeup is quite good considering the time period and the budget of the movie, and they've gone for a kind of slick, stylised werewolf that kind of matches Michael Landon's own appearance in a good way. The teeth are a bit over-the-top and vampire-like, and he does tend to drool an awful lot (see bottom photo), but ultimately it's a pretty cool werewolf. Michael Landon's performance as the wolf is pretty good, and he uses his eyes to great effect as obviously he can't really show that much emotion on a face covered with hair.
The transformation scenes are very well done. They've used crossfades as you'd expect, but they made the image all distorted and wavy which ultimately makes it a lot more convincing and surreal (see second photo down). There are two such scenes in the movie.