Monday Movie: Full Moon High, by David Bax
This article originally ran as part of a Home Video Hovel review.
Four years before being a werewolf made Michael J. Fox good at basketball, being a werewolf made Adam Arkin good at football. The sports angle was a 1980s add-on but both Teen Wolf and Larry Cohen’s 1981 film Full Moon High (out now from Shout! Factory) were paying direct homage to 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. The results are less violent in both new versions; Arkin’s Tony merely bites people instead of killing them while Fox’s wolf craved popularity, not flesh. And Cohen also throws in eternal youth, a trait not generally applied to lycanthropy (the Underworld movies notwithstanding). But while Teen Wolf‘s updates to the 1957 iteration were mostly cosmetic and commercial, Full Moon High directly addresses the time that has passed and how it has changed us.
Tony gets bitten while visiting Romania with his father (Ed McMahon), a buffoonish CIA operative. Upon returning to his small town high school life, his attempts to resume normalcy fail in light of his transformations into a hairy creature with an unhealthy appetite. Once his father dies (in a cartoonishly dark and hilarious scene), he packs up and leaves, spending twenty years wandering the world before returning un-aged, and reenrolling in high school by pretending to be his own son. Except now he’s a relic of the past in the then-present day.
So Full Moon High‘s werewolf premise is really just a long way to go to end up with a Rip Van Winkle-style fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s not horror, then; clearly, none of that is supposed to taken seriously. Arkin’s natural drollness is put to good use in this respect, with his hangdog reactions to the supernatural constantly undercutting the stakes, an approach that increases exponentially when Arkin’s real life father, Alan Arkin, shows up as a psychologist late in the movie. The rest of the humor is a saucy satire, offering a side by side comparison of the relative, imagined innocence of the late 1950s rise of teenage culture to the swinging, cocaine-dusted hedonism of the just ended 1970s, using the same characters to represent both.
Now, almost double the amount of time Tony spent away from home has passed since the release of Full Moon High and some of the material has aged even less poorly than his polyester-draped, spouse-swapping former classmates. Homophobic jokes abound and Kenneth Mars’ role as a predatory high school gym teacher is particularly uncomfortable to endure given recent events. There’s also some all but explicit racism, with the downfall of Tony’s old school attributed by one teacher to busing. These things are difficult to dismiss and no one could be blamed for not being able to do so. But, at Full Moon High‘s core is Cohen’s shambolic genre piss-taking. Somehow, irony always seems to age well.