I Was a Teenage Werewolf is a notable film for several reasons. The most cited one it that it introduced America to a young actor named Michael Landon, who was actually 20 at the time, making the title a bit of a misnomer. The movie also played a pivotal role in the remarkable history of the B-film studio American International Pictures. An enormous hit, it not only revitalized the small studio that made it, but spawned a new genre of teen-oriented films, and helped save the entire Hollywood film industry, which was rapidly losing its audience to television. Finally, despite the fantastic nature of its plot, it is also a fairly good high school film.
American International Pictures (AIP) was founded in 1955 by James H. Nicholson, who had worked in film and TV, but only in a sales capacity, and Samuel Z. Arkoff, an entertainment lawyer. Although neither of them had no experience actually producing any films, they decided that that is what they should be doing. They also had no money, not scripts, no directors and no actors. They meet a young man named Roger Corman who had just produced his second film, a low-budget drag strip flick called The Fast and the Furious (1955). The two businessmen convinced Corman to let them borrow prints of his film for 30 days, in exchange for being able to direct his three films of his own, for a budget of $60,000 each. Arkoff got on the bus and by the end of 30 days, was able to raise the $180,000 needed to fund the Corman films. Between this humble beginning and selling off the business in 1979, Arkoff and Nicholson produced over 500 films, more than David O. Selznik, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner combined.
1955, the Hollywood film industry had largely been decimated by the new threat of television. The major studios cut back production of cheaper films to focus on big-budget Cinemascope productions with big-name stars. AIP came at just the right time to fill the gap, producing sensationalistic horror and sci-fi films such as It Conquered the World (1956) and The She-Creature (1956) and exploitation flicks like Girls in Prison (1956) and Runaway Daughters (1956). Teenage audience had been ignored by both the major film studios and television. Arkoff later recalled that “even the great Walt Disney considered that childhood continued up until the age of marriage,” meaning that there was entertainment for children, and for adults, but for nothing in between. Seeing dollar signs, AIP started making rock n’ roll pictures such as Shake, Rattle & Rock! (1956) and Rock All Night (1957).
In 1957, they combined two of their most successful genres, the teen picture and the horror film. Production started under the title Teenage Werewolf. James Nicholson always preached that since an exploitation picture does not have star names to put on a poster, the title was everything, and he added the “I Was a…” to the title. Producer Herbert Cohen recalled that even before the film was released, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Bob Hope and other comics were poking fun at the title on TV, making for huge publicity that AIP would have never been able to pay for. Produced in two weeks for less than $100,000, the film went on to make $2 million in its first month of release. Distributors were crying for more of the same, and Blood of Dracula (1956), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957) and Teenage Cave Man (1958) soon followed. All told, AIP produced an astounding 50 films in 1958.
The reason for the film’s runaway success was that it showed teen audiences that it understood what they were thinking, and the same time showing them what they aspired to be. Landon plays Tony Rivers, a troubled angry young man, very much in the mold of James Dean’s character in Rebel Without a Cause (1995). Unlike Rebel, Teenage Werewolf is not a cautionary tale of youth gone wild, but is sympathetic to the title character. The police, his father, his girlfriend’s father are all telling Tony that he has to control his angry streak and bow to authority, to which the boy rolls his eyes and moans that everyone is on his back. When his girlfriend’s father invites him in for a friendly chat, he shouts the man down. Tony turns into a werewolf not because he was bit by an ur-wolf, as is usually the case, but because he was cheated by an adult. Wanting to control his emotions for the sake of his girl, Tony goes to a psychologist employing hypnotism and other innovative methods. The scientist finds Tony to be the perfect specimen for his experiment of making man regress to his primordial state. Just how his hypnotism and injections are able to transform Tony into a werewolf is never full explained, and it doesn’t really matter. The rest of the movie is really about which of the adults are going to sell him out or not, as Tony desperately tries to bring himself under control. The one adult he has managed to connect with, a school guidance counselor, becomes the one to tell the police that Tony is the werewolf.
The party scene, in which Tony and the gang play practical jokes on each other a “haunted house” to hold a Halloween party looks pretty hokey today, but at the time, the film was showing American teenagers an image of what they wanted to be, playing the bongos, talking in language that their parents would never understand, singing rock and roll hits, and generally having fun away from parental supervision.
AIP quickly followed the success of I Was a Teenage Werewolf with The Blood of Dracula, which reportedly has a plot so similar, with a female in the lead, that it could have been called “I Was a Teenage Vampire.” In the early ‘60s, AIP would transition to making beach party films with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. By this time, the major studio had followed suit, and teenagers had become Hollywood’s main target demographic. AIP later moved on to LSD and biker films, then Blaxploitation, continuing their trend of finding new demographics practically before they emerged.