Rando! Full Moon High (1981)
Welcome to the latest entry in Rando! It’s the infrequently updated column that gives me an excuse to write about whatever I want as long as it qualifies, in even the vaguest theoretical sense, as “Rando!” Yes, nothing can ever be too rando for Rando! And if I decide to write about something egregiously non-rando like Terms of Endearment? That would be rando in its own right.
Today I woke up feeling all kinds of Rando. And also a little bit Minnesota. A little depressed, a little directionless, a little rudderless. Energy level holding steady at Jeb Bush levels. So while the responsible part of my brain and my Patch Adams clipboard both insisted that I should do another Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 article to help work through my backlog and maintain interest in the site and career-sustaining column my wandering muse vaguely hungered for something a little more random.
So I went and looked through my DVD and Blu-Ray collection—physical media 4 life!—and looked for a weird, random movie to fit my weird, random mood. I found it in a would-be cult movie I had been eyeing ever since the shiny Scream Factory Blu-Ray arrived in my mailbox, a wacky 1981 horror comedy from legendary cult auteur Larry Cohen (Bone, It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q) about a dopey high school football player who goes to Romania while it was still locked away behind the iron curtain and gets bitten by a werewolf.
The luckless lycanthrope travels the world feeding his hunger before he decides to return to his hometown two decades later, having not aged even a single day to help his high school football team score a touchdown against their hated rivals.
Full Moon High’s cast is a trash culture aficionado’s dream. Adam Arkin, whom I will always have a soft spot for thanks to his wonderful turn as a Rabbi in A Serious Man, stars as as Tony Walker, a football player with a lot of animal magnetism. Adam’s father Alan costars in the flashy, attention-grabbing role of Dr. Brand, a famous psychiatrist whose controversial specialty involves insulting and shaming clients into doing his bidding. Ed McMahon, meanwhile, lends invaluable support as Colonel William P. Walker, Arkin’s dad, a flag-waving, womanizing hyper-patriot.
As if that was not impressive enough for a modestly budgeted teen sex horror comedy, the cast also includes the great Kenneth Mars as a neckerchief-loving high school football coach turned principal whose sexual attraction to his teenaged students and players (he’s known as Coach Grab Ass for reasons that quickly become apparent) is treated as a bad-taste running gag and nothing more.
A pre-Karate Kid Pat Morita plays a locksmith! Bob Saget plays a high school football player turned sportscaster! And Oscar-nominated A Patch of Blue star Elizabeth Hartman costars as a woman whose fear of being sexual assaulted by her students is similarly played for chuckles.
Even for a lowbrow, scatological comedy from 1981, Full Moon High is awash in gay panic jokes and gags rooted in the notion that sexual assault is inherently hilarious. And if you combine gay panic and sexual assault gags? Let’s just say there’s a dropped-soap-in-a-group-shower joke in the first ten minutes that goes a long way towards setting the tone.
Seemingly everybody in Full Moon High wants to have sex with Tony. Male or female, teacher or student, middle-aged or adolescent, everybody wants to jump Tony’s bones. Tony is relatively asexual. He lives in mortal fear that he will tear some poor woman to shreds while in werewolf form but that doesn’t keep everybody in the film from lusting after him and his sinewy buttocks and tight, muscular calves. Christ, now they’ve even got me doing it!
Tonally, Full Moon High reminded me a lot of Airplane in its fourth wall-breaking, quantity-above-quality, kitchen sink, anything-for-a-laugh aesthetic. But Airplane! had not been released when Full Moon High was filmed in California and New Jersey in 1979. Full Moon High similarly anticipates Teen Wolf in combining teen sex comedy, werewolves and high school athletics. But where athletics are central to Rod Daniel’s timeless 1985 generational touchstone, they feel incidental to Full Moon High. Heck, being an inhuman monster with supernatural speed and power and sharp claws that can tear through human flesh like butter only really benefits our protagonist at the very end of the film, and in a particularly inspired twist, turning into a werewolf doesn’t actually win the game for Tony’s team. No, it merely allows them to not get shut out completely, like they usually do.
Full Moon High is WACKY and scatological and smutty from start to finish but it’s also unexpectedly satirical, or rather the satirical elements would come as a surprise from a genre filmmaker without Cohen’s famous flair for dark comedy and satire. So the gay panic-infused sex comedy and horror comedy shenanigans share room with satirical jabs at extremism on both sides of the ideological divide at the center of the Cold War.
There’s something inspired and subversive about casting a human cartoon mascot for the tackiest, most mercenary elements of capitalism like Ed McMahon as an uber-patriot whose conviction that the damn Commies turned his all-American son into a werewolf turns out to be true.
In Romania, Tony gets his fortune read by a woman who insists that since the Communists have banned so many books, the populace is reduced to reading palms and hands for entertainment. This isn’t Top Secret! but at its best Full Moon High has the same naughty-nice, anarchic, go-for-broke spirit as the Zucker Brothers’ early classics and Mel Brooks’ affable mid-period mediocrities.
Full Moon High tosses out so many jokes and gigs and bits of comical business that the law of averages dictates that at least a few of them will land. So while Cohen’s lupine romp isn’t exactly funny, unlike Airplane or Rock n’ Roll High School I definitely chuckled at bits like the Priest overseeing the funeral of Ed McMahon’s character telling the assembled mourners, “We are here to say farewell to this dead person” or a newspaper headline reading “Werewolf Annoys Community.”
Tony feels so terrible about killing his own father in werewolf mode that after he commits patricide he roams the world as a wolfman without a country, a monster who never ages and can never settle down. He’s seemingly cursed to perambulate about the world an outcast until he returns home in order to realize some unfinished business involving his high school football team and their hated rivals.
Tony hasn’t changed at all, physically or otherwise, when he returns to his old stomping grounds at Full Moon High. But the world has changed dramatically around him in his absence. His high school has gone from Grease to disco-era decadence. To put things in Dazed & Confused terms, what Tony doesn't like about these high school girls is that they get older while he always stays the same age.
Whenever I see a movie involving a rivalry between competing high school athletic teams, it invariably raises the same question for me. That question is of course who the fuck cares? That holds true here but I think it’s safe to say that Cohen and his exceedingly game cast care as little about the big game as I do.
I was a little reluctant to watch Full Moon High because I figured that if a movie with so many attention-grabbing, cult-friendly elements doesn’t attract much attention, or win much of a cult, that must be because it was terrible. If people weren’t talking about Full Moon High, I figured that was because it’s not worth talking about.
That’s not necessarily the case here. I wasn’t looking for greatness from Cohen’s goofy, furry sex comedy. I just wanted something to distract me for ninety minutes from life’s unrelenting ugliness. I was in a Full Moon High kind of mood and it turned out that an agreeable mediocrity like this was exactly what I needed.
To put things in We Hate Movies terms, it’s a quintessential hangover movie, a lightweight, decidedly non-scary romp that asks absolutely nothing of audiences and has the good judgment to never take itself seriously.
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