Stephen King...enough said. He’s been a literary boogeyman in our lives for almost fifty years, and despite a roller coaster ride of addictions and close calls, he shows no signs of retiring. At his best, King can make you scared to look in a storm drain, and even at his worst, you’re still curious to know just how “off the rails” something can go.
However, King is just as much a part of movies as he is books. His work has been adapted since Carrie was first published in 1974, with studios practically going to war for the rights to his writings. Sometimes King himself will get hands-on with an adaptation, making sure it is to his liking. After his dislike of The Shining, King began his foray into screenwriting with Creepshow, proving he had skin in the game there as well. After penning two well received anthology films, King wrote his first full feature script in 1985, Silver Bullet, based on one of his most unorthodox novels, Cycle of the Werewolf. Get your Bingo cards ready and let’s dig in.
Like most King stories, Silver Bullet opens in a small town in Maine, where a series of grizzly deaths have caused unrest. It doesn’t help that this town only seems to have two officers who don’t do much policing. The murders play more as a backdrop as the film focuses on the dysfunctional relationship of the young, paraplegic protagonist, Marty, played by the late Corey Haim, and his older sister, Jane, played by Megan Follows. Jane sees Marty as a burden, whereas their parents see Marty as helpless and in need of protection, even though Marty seems to be more than capable of handling himself despite his handicap. We often see Marty out on his own cruising around in a custom motorized wheelchair built by his Uncle Red, who is played by a pre-accident Gary Busey. He appears as cheerful as can be. Aside from one scene towards the end, we never get an inkling that Marty is resentful of the hand he’s been dealt: other people just seem to think it for him.
With bodies piling up, including a friend of Marty’s, the town goes against the word of the police and the local reverend, and forms a vigilante mob to track the killer in the woods, where they end up massacred as well. Marty, who already suspects it’s a werewolf, is later confronted by the creature while launching fireworks off in the woods. He is able to blind it in one eye with a bottle-rocket in order to escape. Marty and Jane now suspect the monster is Reverend Lowe, played by Twin Peaks’ Everett McGill, leaving the two of them to convince his uncle that he’s telling the truth before the wolf comes hunting again.
From a casting standpoint, Silver Bullet boasts strong and memorable performances from all leads. Corey Haim is believable as a child throughout the film, conveying innocence but never coming off as annoying, and he brings more heart than usual to 80’s horror fair. Gary Busey is right at home playing the alcoholic man-child, Uncle Red, ad-libbing most of his dialogue. Busey and Haim have great chemistry on screen. They depict a believable bond between an impressionable kid and a man who’s never really grown up, but one who is more than willing to push his nephew’s independence by converting a wheelchair into a motorcycle (that just brings a smile to your face).
Megan Follows, despite being a major character, isn’t given much to work with in the first half, relegated mainly to being annoyed, but is able to come into her own later on. Finally, Everett McGill really shines as the Reverend Lowe, initially a comforting and unassuming presence, but by the end of the film is beyond intimidating, commanding more fear than when he is in werewolf form. It's honestly a shame that McGill retired in 1999, as the man has talent that really could have pushed him further.
Aside from the leads, however, acting from supporting characters is eerily disconnected from reality. Performances come off as both over the top, yet stilted, almost soap opera like. I’d attribute this to credited director, Dan Attias, being brought in after the departure of the film’s original director, Phantasm’s Don Coscarelli. This is the only feature film for the otherwise television director who may have had little time to prepare. Attias does give the film some stand out moments though, such as a chaotic one take of the mob vigilantes leaving a bar before the failed hunt, and a pretty strong monologue from a grieving father played by Kent Broadhurst.
Presentation-wise, Silver Bullet takes the concept of the werewolf film and restructures it as an 80’s slasher (they were the rage back then). Most of the kills in the first half are akin to a Friday the 13th film, getting an expendable character alone in a dark location before they meet a quick and gory demise. So, the plot hinges on the mystery of who the werewolf is, especially after Marty shoots one of its eyes out. The reveal of the reverend, however, is undercut by the fact that an impressive nightmare sequence basically gives it away. Early on, Reverend Lowe has a nightmare in which the members of his flock all turn into werewolves during a funeral he’s presenting and proceed to devour him before he wakes in a cold sweat. It’s honestly the best scene in the whole film, with its surreal angles and quick edits. But the scene just hands us the twist on a silver platter.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a werewolf film if we didn’t discuss the monster. Silver Bullet goes for the Jaws approach, opting to keep the werewolf hidden in the shadows, slowly revealing new details through close-up shots each time it appears. When we finally see it in full, it looks...just alright. King himself asked Carlo Rambaldi to make the werewolf “plain,” to go against the more ravenous werewolves that audiences were used to seeing. Honestly, it looks more like a bear than anything else. It’s a little lackluster, but the film makes up for it by giving two decent transformation scenes in the third act. Most impressive seeing McGill return to his human form after being killed off as the wolf hair and prosthetics retract inwards. This would be one of Rambaldi’s last credits as an effects artist before his retirement.
I can definitely appreciate Silver Bullet as a standout in the werewolf sub-genre, the underdog that it is. King shows promise of what is to come with both his screenwriting and later literary outputs. There are characteristics in Marty that fans will later find in the Losers Club from It. King does add some questionable elements too, such as Jane’s on and off narrating of the film. You forget that it’s there most of the time but the film would have been stronger without it. Silver Bullet is a film I can almost recommend to younger audiences, minor profanity aside. Find a copy and rediscover one of Stephen King’s early footnotes.
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