VHS MOVIE REVIEW : FULL MOON HIGH (1981)
I learned something new today: Larry Cohen is not funny. I mean, he’s funnier than AIDS, funnier than bedsores, maybe a little bit funnier than scurvy or gum infections or a grease fire in the kitchen, but that’s really about it. So when he somehow got it into his head that the way to cash in on An American Werewolf in London was to play up the comedy, and when he did so using almost exactly the same premise as would underlie Teen Wolf (rather horrid in its own right, as I recall) four years later… well, those of you who have wagered that I won’t have many positive things to say about Full Moon High are going to win that bet.
The setup is unexpected— I’ll give Full Moon High that much at least. It’s the late 1950’s (sometime between the fall of Joseph McCarthy and the election of John Kennedy, to judge by the photographs we’ll see displayed on the walls of the patriotically inclined at various points throughout the first act), and Full Moon High School senior Tony Walker (Adam Arkin, later of Halloween H20 and Lake Placid) is very excited about the upcoming game between his football team and Full Moon’s arch-rivals at Simpson High. Unfortunately, Tony’s father, Colonel William Walker (Ed McMahon, from Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, who also narrated Daughter of Horror), signed up with the CIA after retiring from the regular military, and he’s about to head off to Romania to pick up some secret documents on microfilm. This affects Tony because he is to be his dad’s cover story— nothing strange or suspicious about a little father-son vacation behind the Iron Curtain circa 1958, right? Colonel Walker assures the boy that they’ll be back home in time for the game against Simpson, but I think we all know this is going to be nothing like that simple.
Walker Sr. is one randy bastard, and he spends at least as much time wooing Romanian hookers as he does spying on the Communists. Naturally, that leaves Tony with many an hour to kill outside the hotel, as neither father nor son is interested in him being onsite for the old man’s after-hours amusements. On one such excursion of avoidance, Tony finds himself sharing a table at a swank restaurant with a local woman (Janet Villella) who asks to read his palms. She explains that palm-reading is an almost universally practiced skill in her country, for the Stalinists have banned most books, and people have to read something to entertain themselves. The woman seems to like Tony’s right palm okay, but the left is another story. If she (or the waiter assigned to their table, for that matter) is to be believed, Tony is going to live forever, never age, and roam the Earth until he gets tired of packing. Then he’s going to return home to fulfill his destiny, whatever that might be. Oh— and he should avoid making any commitments around the time of the full moon. Having delivered that cryptic pronouncement, the woman gets up and leaves the restaurant, presumably in search of company unmarred by “the Mark of the Pentagram.” Tony, for his part, gets lost on the way back to the hotel, and wanders out into the countryside. While futilely banging on doorways and hollering through windows in the hope of getting directions from the villagers, he is attacked by a werewolf. Imagine Rob Bottin trying to make The Howling’s wolf men on the effects budget for a Paul Naschy movie, and you’ll have some idea what this werewolf is like. (Curiously, Tony’s wolf-makeup, when we see it a few scenes down the line, will consist of little more than some pointy dentures and a pair of bushy mutton-chop sideburns.) Full Moon High diverges a bit from standard lycanthrope lore here, in that Tony acquires his curse through being fatally injured by the monster; none of the many people whom Tony will wound superficially over the next twenty-odd years suffer any lasting effects. Anyway, Tony is rather startled when he comes to and finds himself apparently unhurt despite what felt at the time like a pretty thorough mauling.
As it happens, Tony’s dad is done with his spying by the time the boy finds his way to the hotel, and the two of them board the next overnight flight back to the States. Yes— that does indeed mean that Tony undergoes his first transformation while onboard the plane. It’s alright, though, because the aircraft is being hijacked at the time by Cuban terrorists, and the hijackers insist upon blindfolding everyone in the passenger compartment. Thus nobody sees just what incapacitates the terrorists, and Tony is able to maintain his cover until sunrise by playing airsick and hiding in the toilet at the back of the cabin. His lycanthropy does cause him some problems at home, though. First off, it renders him too distractible to play football worth a shit, with the result that Coach Cleveland (Young Frankenstein’s Kenneth Mars) cuts him from the team right before the Big Game. Also, it creates certain identity issues for Tony when he finds himself growing a bunch of extra hair and going on uncontrollable rampages of biting cute girls on the ass every time the moon fills out. (“Werewolf Annoys Community!” and “Jack the Nipper Strikes Again!” trumpet the newspapers in one of Full Moon High’s few really successful gags.) The identity woes in turn cause major disruptions in Tony’s social life, leading him, among other things, to withdraw from his insufferable girlfriend, Jane (Roz Kelly, from New Year’s Evil and The Female Response). Meanwhile, his dad (with the epic cluelessness of so many 50’s media father-figures) has no idea that Tony is the neighborhood’s infamous ass-biting werewolf until the night when he catches the boy in mid-transformation— and even then, it takes him a good long while to figure it out. Colonel Walker flips out when he finally makes the connection, and goes scurrying for the basement bomb shelter. The evening ends in tragedy, for the elder Walker attempts to shoot Tony through the bomb shelter door, and the rifle bullet ricochets around inside the concrete bunker until it finally kills the colonel instead. Tony skips town right after the funeral, and commences roaming the Earth as per the Romanian fortune-teller’s prediction.
It takes him about 25 years to get sick of packing. (Appropriately enough for a Larry Cohen character, Tony comes to this realization somewhere along the Times Square stretch of 42nd Street.) As for that destiny he’s supposed to return home to fulfill, the big “Beat Simpson” banner hung across the façade of Full Moon High the next time he sees it gives Tony the idea that it is to take part in the modern-day equivalent of that game he never got to play those many years ago. The impression is reinforced when Tony learns that in all the time since Coach Cleveland gave him the boot, Full Moon has never once scored so much as a single touchdown against a team from Simpson High. And since Tony is, to all appearances, the same age as he was a quarter of a century ago, he can re-enroll posing as his own son without having to answer too many uncomfortable questions.
Things have changed a lot at the old school, of course. The physical plant is in terrible repair, transients sleep off their previous nights’ drunks on the front steps, and the faculty and staff find it next to impossible to do their jobs due to the ubiquity of drug use and gang violence among the student body. The newly hired Miss Montgomery (Elizabeth Hartman) in particular seems helpless in the face of her pupils’ delinquency. Also, Coach Cleveland is Principal Cleveland now. One thing that has not changed is Jane’s feelings for Tony, despite the fact that she’s been married for nearly two decades to his old pal, Flynn (Bill Kirchenbauer, of Project Shadowchaser III); when she learns about “Tony Walker Jr.” coming to town, she starts nosing after him with all of the irritating tenacity she directed at him during his original high school career. And when “Jack the Nipper” makes his inevitable reappearance come the next full moon, Jane is the only one in town to figure out the truth by herself— which only redoubles her determination to have an affair with the ostensible son of her old flame. Meanwhile, Tony attracts the interest of a girl named Ricky (Joanne Nail, from The Visitor and Switchblade Sisters), whose tolerant demeanor induces him to open up to her about his lycanthropy. (She initially thinks he’s talking about some very exotic form of S&M— Larry Cohen? Meet Laurel Hamilton. Laurel Hamilton? Meet Larry Cohen.) The real trouble in Tony’s life springs from yet a third woman, however. Evidently Miss Montgomery’s obvious congenital victimhood has the same effect on werewolves as it has on classrooms full of pot-smoking hoodlums, for when Tony finally gets around to attacking her, he does a hell of a lot more than nibble on her butt. Appalled at having killed someone (and evidently losing track of the decidedly temporary nature of any death he might inflict in wolf-form), Tony turns himself in to the authorities. Tony’s arrest gets the attention of famed psychiatrist Dr. Brand (Wait Until Dark’s Alan Arkin), who gets involved under the pretext of curing Tony’s delusions of lycanthropy, but really just wants to get his hands on the shape-shifting boy’s body to perform medical experiments. So: a love triangle, a murder prosecution, a big-game-hunting shrink, and a second werewolf due to rise from her grave at any moment. An awful lot of obstacles to overcome just to score one fucking touchdown, wouldn’t you say?
In terms of comedic sensibility, Full Moon High would like very badly to be Airplane! Alas, the execution falls a good deal short of that standard. Part of the problem is that it also kind of wants to be a Mel Brooks movie, and the two styles simply do not mesh at all. But mostly, Larry Cohen lacks the finely honed sense of the absurd that drove the best of the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker farces, while the cast (Alan Arkin excepted) never quite achieves the confident overbroadness that a movie like this one needs. Cohen’s sense of humor as indicated by Full Moon High often comes perilously close to Roger Corman’s as indicated by Gas-s-s-s, and while Full Moon High is in aggregate nowhere near as bad as that movie, the main thing stopping it from being so is that it has no comparably exaggerated sense of its own importance. Cohen, if nothing else, understood that he was making a corny, stupid trifle— in fact, if Full Moon High were even cornier and even stupider, it might have been just a little funnier, too. It would unquestionably have benefited from a few more actors with Alan Arkin’s combination of experience and shamelessness. Limp or wooden delivery (and Full Moon High contains plenty of both) is even more lethal to this sort of comedy than it is to varieties that have brains in their heads, and the younger, less experienced performers compound the problem by acting as if they were confused by what this movie was asking of them. I suppose there’s enough here that almost works to make it minimally comprehensible that somebody else would want to try the premise again with a bigger star and a bigger budget, but I’m not sure that qualifies as even faint praise.