And You Call Yourself a Scientist!

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I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

Director: Gene Fowler Jr
Starring: Michael Landon, Whit Bissell, Yvonne Lime, Barney Phillips, Joseph Mell
Screenplay: Ralph Thornton (Abel Kandel and Herman Cohen)

Synopsis: Trigger-tempered teenager Tony Rivers (Michael Landon) is constantly in fights. Detective Donovan (Barney Phillips), a local police officer, warns him that one day his behaviour will land him in serious trouble, and suggests that he sees Dr Alfred Brandon (Whit Bissell), a psychiatrist who works with the police. Tony angrily rejects the suggestion.

That night, Tony and his girlfriend, Arlene (Yvonne Lime), attend a Halloween party with their friends. One of the other teenagers plays a joke on Tony, sneaking up behind him and blowing a toy trumpet. Tony explodes, beating the boy savagely and when she tries to intervene, accidentally hitting Arlene. Appalled by what he has done, Tony agrees to see Dr Brandon. Dr Brandon promises to help Tony, but secretly he intends to use him to test his theory on man’s primitive instincts. He injects Tony with an experimental serum and places him under hypnosis.... Soon it appears that Dr Brandon has really helped Tony: his teachers comment on the improvement in his conduct. But something monstrous is roaming the woods at night, and before long a boy is dead....

Comments: Whit Bissell’s performance as Dr Alfred Brandon in I Was A Teenage Werewolf is probably the definitive depiction of a scientist on film - that is, he embodies every myth and misconception ever dreamed up by a screenwriter and swallowed by the public. (I could take this opportunity to point out that 98% of all "mad scientists" in movies are actually "mad doctors", but if I start on that subject, we’ll be here for a week.)

That film after film in the fifties depicted the repercussions of reckless experimentation is hardly surprising (although the fact that the same films often chose to glorify the military is grossly unfair - it wasn’t us in the Enola Gay!), and for every scientist presented as trying to do some good for humanity (whose experiments nevertheless usually had a disastrous outcome, like Leo G. Carroll’s in Tarantula (1955)), there were a dozen like Dr Brandon, pursuing his obsession with utter disregard for life or ethics or consequences. That the obsessions were generally ludicrous only served to underlie the fundamental premise that all scientists were basically mad.

As for Dr Brandon, his obsession’s a doozey. Mankind is on the brink of destroying itself, so he’s going to "hurl it back to its primitive roots". Didn't know that mankind was actually descended from wolves, did you? I guess Darwin forgot to mention it. But Dr Brandon knows, and to save us all he's going to regress us into our "real" natures. How precisely a world full of people behaving the way we see Tony Rivers behaving is a good thing remains unexplained, but Dr Brandon seems to feel the experiment is progressing well. (It must have been a great time to be a screenwriter: no worries about logic, or credibility, or realistic characterisation. Hey, the guy’s a scientist! It doesn’t have to make sense!)

Of course, all of this is based on the most charming of all assumptions made about scientists: they are willing to experiment on anyone - patients, friends, family, anyone - just as long as they can test their theory. (This little gem persisted well past the fifties - see, for instance, George Romero’s nasty Monkeyshines (1988)). One look at poor Tony Rivers is enough for Dr Brandon: within minutes he’s telling his spineless assistant to "Prepare the scopolamine!" (Although this line never fails to get a laugh, it is, oddly, the only scientifically accurate line in the whole film!)

Wimpy Hugo protests, but Dr Brandon rides roughshod over him with a flood of unintelligible gobbledygook about "unleashing the primitive instincts that lie within". He knows that Tony is the ideal subject because apart from having "the proper disturbed emotional background" he has "certain tell-tale marks on his body only I would recognise" (hmm - one is tempted to wonder how many teenaged boys’ bodies Dr Brandon has ‘examined’....). Sure, the experiment will probably cost Tony his life, but "what’s one life compared with such a triumph". And Dr Brandon injects his serum, having effectively signed his own death warrant.

It is no surprise whatsoever when transformed Tony kills his creator just before being gunned down by a cop, who gets to intone the inevitable closing line: "It is not for man to interfere in the ways of God". Indeed, so many cinematic scientists ended up destroyed by their own experiments that it was a mystery how there never seemed to be any shortage of them. The other great mystery, of course, is who exactly was paying for all of this? They must have been just a tad more generous with their funding in the fifties, and a tad less inquisitive about what the money was going to be spent on. (Can’t you just see Dr Brandon at his grant interview? "So, tell us about your project." "Well, I want to hurl mankind back to its primitive roots....")

Tony Rivers and his tell-tale marks represented a milestone in cinema history, although its extremely doubtful that the film’s makers realised it while it was in production. Nevertheless, when their cheap little exploitation picture became the surprise smash hit of 1957, AIP was quick to capitalise, and the major studios were not far behind. Astonishingly, I Was A Teenage Werewolf provoked the ire of politicians and moral crusaders alike, who accused the film of "promoting juvenile delinquency". One can only assume that - as is often the case with politicians and moral crusaders - they hadn’t actually seen the film they were attacking.

It is quite clear that at first AIP underestimated the cash crop their adolescent audiences represented. Later, when the money began pouring in, the executives pitched their films more and more to the teenagers, and cared less and less about upsetting the adults; but this early effort is not only a moral little film, it is populated with some of the best behaved teenagers and the most caring adults ever put on screen. Cops, teachers, parents - they only want what’s best for the kids. There’s even a subplot about the perils of parental neglect. As for the kids themselves, well, you should see what constitutes their idea of a hot party. (Warning: before you get to the good part of this film, you have to sit through some of the most painfully embarrassing teenage party scenes ever committed to film, which cause Tony’s girlfriend to announce that "I’ve never had so much fun!" - sad, but probably true).

As Tony, Michael Landon turns in a pretty good performance, although his acting is really irrelevant. In his jeans, high school jacket, and full werewolf regalia, dribbling toothpaste foam, Landon creates one of the most indelible science-fiction images. Sadly, though the film was his big break, he was not very fond of it, disowning it as quickly as possible. When AIP made their "Monster-thon" film, How To Make A Monster (1958), Landon refused to recreate his character, having by then gone on to bigger and better things (well, Bonanza, anyway), and it was not until quite late in his career that he began to shows signs of developing a sense of humour about his first starring role.

As for the rest of the cast, you’ll spot some familiar faces: Yvonne Lime, a long-term AIP resident who went onto the lead role in the screamingly funny High School Hellcats (1958); Vladimir Sokolov as "Pepi" the janitor, who knows all about werewolves from "the old country"; and Guy Williams, who was first Zorro, and then John Robinson. And of course, there’s Whit Bissell, who either really enjoyed his performance as loony Dr Brandon or really hated teenagers. At any rate, the very next year he was back in the mad scientist business, stitching adolescent corpses together in I Was A Teenage Frankenstein (1958).