Before Alcide Herveaux, before Tyler Lockwood, even before Jacob Black, there was another hunky young werewolf that all the girls wanted to date – Scott Howard of 1985’s Teen Wolf. This campy indie comedy from director Rod Daniel coasted to unlikely success through its association with another Michael J. Fox hit, Back to the Future.
Michael J. Fox was a hot commodity in the mid-1980’s. Then in his early twenties, he was already a household name thanks to the success of Family Ties, the second most popular sitcom in the country in 1984 just behind The Cosby Show. Fox’s character, the conservative, Nixon-loving Alex P. Keaton, quickly became the most beloved character on the show thanks largely to Fox’s boyish charm and extreme likability. However, it was the back-to-back releases of Back to the Future and Teen Wolf that vaulted him to superstardom.
What Is the Original ‘Teen Wolf’ Movie About?
1985’s Teen Wolf bears little resemblance in plot or tone to its 2010s counterpart beyond a few standard werewolf and teen drama tropes. Scott is a high schooler who inherits his lycanthropy from his father, and the two Howard men are the only supernatural beings to appear in the film. Turning into a werewolf gives him heightened senses and athletic ability, not to mention a lot of body hair, but that’s about it–no bloodlust, no aggressive behavior, no urge to go rampaging through the night or howl at the moon.
Scott is accompanied on his adventures by his childhood friend Boof (Susan Ursitti), who secretly has a crush on him, and his best friend Stiles (Jerry Levine), a loud, obnoxious life of the party wannabe who wears t-shirts that sport such witticisms as “Life sucks then you die” and “What are you looking at dicknose.”
‘Teen Wolf’ and ‘Back to the Future’ Were Always Closely Linked
Teen Wolf actually shares some significant plot points with Back to the Future: in both, Fox plays a high schooler who’s unhappy with his ordinary, uneventful life; he’s harassed by a bullying principal who targets him because he doesn’t like the teen’s family; and his life is suddenly turned upside down due to fantastical events outside of his control. Scott Howard is also characterized nearly identically to Marty McFly – sweet, funny, and perhaps a bit of a slacker, but overall a good kid.
Back to the Future and Teen Wolf were filmed over a tight six-month window alongside Family Ties. Teen Wolf was shot in November and December 1984 during a break from Ties necessitated by Meredith Baxter-Birney’s maternity leave, while BttF was shot from January to April 1985 after Fox was cast to replace Eric Stoltz (whose serious method acting was never the right fit) as Marty McFly. Family Ties was still filming during that time, creating a grueling schedule for Fox, who spent his days on the set of Ties and evenings filming BttF, often not getting home until the early hours of the morning.
Werewolf stories were at the height of their popularity in the early 1980s, with 1981 seeing the release of both The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller debuting in December 1983. Nevertheless, Teen Wolf was not exactly poised for success. For starters, it was independently financed by an extremely minor studio, Atlantic Entertainment, on a tiny budget of just over $1 million which allowed for no special effects beyond Fox’s relatively minimalist wolf makeup and prosthetics.
‘Teen Wolf’ Nearly Tanked Before It Was Even Shot
What’s worse, the film almost tanked before it was even shot. Teen Wolf is as much a sports movie as it is a werewolf movie, the story of a hopelessly bad high school basketball team that is lifted out of despair by the sudden appearance of a single exceptionally talented player, in this case, a werewolf. The climax of the movie is the final game, a test of Scott’s integrity which hinges on his choice to play as himself rather than the wolf; of course, he and his team of un-athletic misfits improbably win the championship. But, as it happened, Michael J. Fox was abysmally bad at basketball. Even after an intensive round of personalized training, the star could barely make a shot, forcing the producers to hire a real Loyola University basketball player to act as a double for Fox in the scenes in which he plays basketball as the wolf.
On top of all this, the movie was also hamstrung by bad early reviews, with Variety describing it as “a decent idea yielding the least imaginative results conceivable” and The New York Times’ Vincent Canby calling it “aggressively boring.” Taking all of these factors into consideration, Teen Wolf seemed like it was headed to box office failure.
How ‘Back to the Future’ Saved ‘Teen Wolf’
It was an astute decision on the part of Atlantic Entertainment, however, that prevented Teen Wolf from becoming a flop. When they learned about Fox’s casting in the big budget, high profile Back to the Future, they decided to release Teen Wolf after BttF, even though Teen Wolf was completed earlier, so they could take advantage of Fox’s growing stardom. BttF was released July 3, 1985, and Teen Wolf just seven weeks later on August 23, 1985.
“We rode the Michael J. Fox wave,” producer Scott Rosenfelt told Yahoo Entertainment in 2020. “I think we would have done all right anyway, but having Back to the Future open right before us propelled Teen Wolf into studio numbers.” BttF was still number one at the box office when Teen Wolf premiered, and the latter film slid neatly into the number two spot behind it. The posters and marketing for Teen Wolf featured Fox prominently, and it was undoubtedly his appeal and popularity that got audiences into the theater. The indie ultimately grossed over $30 million at the domestic box office, finishing at a respectable spot as the 23rd highest grossing film for 1985. Back to the Future, of course, took the top spot.
For a goofy, low budget teen comedy with a corny premise and below average critical reception, the legacy of Teen Wolf has been impressive. It spawned an even cornier sequel in Teen Wolf Too, where a young Jason Bateman takes the Howard name and wolf curse to college and becomes a wrestling star, as well as an animated series that ran for two seasons on CBS. Following that was the hit MTV series that ran for six seasons from 2011 to 2017, culminating in the new movie out now. Cute teenage werewolves and the girls who want to date them, it turns out, are a tale as old as time.