Friday, October 2, 2015

Movies I Love: Silver Bullet

by Patrick Bromley
Werewolves are my favorite movie monster. Despite having one of the worst werewolves of all time,  this is one of my very favorite werewolf movies.

Silver Bullet (aka Stephen King's Silver Bullet), the 1985 adaptation of Stephen King's novella Cycle of the Werewolf, is often lumped onto the junk pile of "bad" King movies. It's a reputation I suspect the movie earned early on because it felt to critics of the time like a cheap and gory knock-off of the more "respectable" King films of the early '80s like The Dead Zone or The Shining. The years have been good to it, though, and while it's certainly steeped in many of the conventions of '80s horror movies it has seen its legacy improve in the last 30 years. That makes me happy, because I really love it.

It's 1976 in the quiet town of Tarker's Mill. Marty and Jane Coslaw (Corey Haim and Megan Follows) are kid brother and sister, he a paraplegic and she irritated by a younger brother who she feels is spoiled and bratty. When a rash of violent murders breaks out in town, the police are left with no suspects and the townspeople turn to mob justice. While riding home in his custom wheelchair (nicknamed "Silver Bullet") built for him by his alcoholic fuckup uncle Red (Gary Busey), Marty comes face to face with the killer -- a werewolf. Only he and Jane believe that there's a monster in Tarker's Mill, so it's up to them to convince Uncle Red and put a stop to the werewolf before they become its next victims.
Silver Bullet is the first and last feature directed by Daniel Attias, a filmmaker who has done a lot of television work over the years. He wasn't the original director. Silver Bullet was once going to be made by the great Don Coscarelli, who had just worked with producer Dino De Laurentis on Phantasm II and was asked to step in to direct what was, at the time Coscarelli was hired, just a calendar with some pictures (it had not yet been adapted into the Cycle of the Werewolf novella). Coscarelli wrote a script, which he submitted to Stephen King, who then took a pass at it and, in Coscarelli's own words, fixed every one of the issues his original draft had faced. De Laurentis hated the King script, at which point Coscarelli realized he wouldn't be able to make the movie with the producer and left the project. Attias was hired and King's script (or another version thereof) was eventually used, as he's the only credited writer on the movie.

Attias does a good job. I'd be crazy not to dream of a world in which we got to actually see Coscarelli's version, but I can't fault Attias for being second choice, especially when he blends schmaltzy sentimentality and classic fog-on-the-moors horror in a way that very few horror movies of the decade do. This is a movie that ends with a freeze frame and a character telling her brother she loves him in narration. It's the kind of thing that probably gets a laugh nowadays, but I love its naked sincerity. I love the relationships between the characters just as much as I love the horror sequences that pull few punches. Like in a lot of Stephen King adaptations, a young kid is killed off. Call it cynically sensationalistic, but Silver Bullet then takes the time to show the boy's grieving father -- the death has impact and isn't just for shocks. That leads into another of the movie's highlight set pieces, in which the town priest (Everett McGill) has a nightmare that his entire congregation is turning into werewolves. It's a great reveal for what was previously a kind of whodunit, and I love that it gives Rev. Lowe an added dimension of being haunted without turning him into the usual tortured wolf man.
The finished film is a couple of different movies fighting with one another, which normally I would complain about but here works because each of them rounds out the other and makes Silver Bullet into the weird mix of classical character piece and exaggerated '80s-style horror that it winds up being. It's part family drama, part coming of age movie, part nostalgia piece, part violent monster movie. The scenes with the family are all wonderful; they feel lived in and have history with one another. There's no reason the movie has to stop so that Marty and Jane's mother Nan can have a conversation with Gary Busey's Uncle Red about their sibling relationship and her very real concerns about how much Marty looks up to his uncle, but the fact that it does gives the movie an emotional texture not found in many of its contemporaries. It also creates greater stakes later in the film; we don't want Uncle Red to die because we love him, but also because we understand what it would do to Marty. It's rare to be just as concerned about the emotional safety as we are of the physical safety of characters in a horror movie.

And then there is Gary Busey as Uncle Red, a wonderful character played wonderfully by an actor who is now little more than a reality show punchline. The story goes that Busey ad-libbed most of his own dialogue in Silver Bullet and that both King and Attias liked it more than what was scripted so it wound up in the finished film (which also explains how he ends up using the expression "faster than a virgin on prom night" both here and in Point Break). Given the brain-damaged kook that Busey has become, it's easy to forget that he was once a terrific actor. And because I've gotten so used to seeing him play villains and heavies and the voice of killer cookies, I can lose sight of the fact that he's capable of real warmth -- think The Buddy Holly Story or his work as Uncle Red. His relationship with Marty is the heart of the movie. It's a big heart.
The biggest flaw in Silver Bullet is its werewolf, which is a big problem when you're making a werewolf movie. The story of the monster, like the story of the film itself, is fascinating and fraught with problems. In early versions of the screenplay, the werewolf was supposed to have dialogue, which I think would have been a first for a live action horror movie. This idea was scrapped early on. It was also King's initial intent that the werewolf not really be seen outside of passing glimpses -- a claw here, a hairy arm there. Given what eventually would up on screen, this might have been the right approach (though few horror fans would likely have been satisfied by a monster movie in which the monster remains off camera). Carlo Rambaldi was hired to create the creature at the request of Stephen King, but producer Dino De Laurentis hated his designs and insisted they go back to the drawing board. Here's where things get a little dicier. Many accounts suggest that, with the start date looming, the film went into production and begin shooting all the non-werewolf stuff first (some have reported that this stuff was actually shot by Coscarelli, though the director himself has said he never made it out of the pre-production phase). With the film in production and no alternative to the Rambali design, De Laurentis capitulated and went with the werewolf they already had.

This might have been a mistake.

The werewolf that ends up on screen -- not a lot, though whether that's a function of the filmmakers sticking to King's original intent or a workaround to compensate for the terrible suit I cannot say -- is bad enough when viewed in full that I would argue it damages the legacy of the film. You cannot make a porn film and mess up the sex scenes, just as you should not make a werewolf movie and mess up the werewolf. It's a crime that was probably even less forgivable in 1985, coming as it did just a few years removed from both Rob Bottin's work on The Howling and (especially) Rick Baker's groundbreaking effects on An American Werewolf in London. Werewolves had been done too well and too recently for this garage sale bear suit to pass as anything but a blight on an otherwise terrific film.
I've made my peace with it, because failing to do so would prevent me from revisiting a movie I otherwise love. And Silver Bullet has a lot to love. It hasn't yet become widely accepted the way a lot of once-reviled horror films of the '80s have -- I still get sideways glances when I admit to being as big a fan of it as I am -- but that may be just a matter of time. It features some of the best work from both Busey and Corey Haim (RIP). It dates better than other movies of the same era (era), probably because it's a period film to begin with. Of course, maybe the terrible werewolf will always keep it from finding universal acclaim. It's all the same to me. This is a film I revisit nearly every October and one of my all time favorite second-tier King adaptations. It's like To Kill a Mockingbird, except with less racism and more wheelchairs and werewolves.

Silver Bullet is the kind of horror movie I think a lot of horror fans would categorize as a "guilty pleasure." I don't buy into that idea because I don't feel guilty for loving it. Bad werewolf or not, this movie is something special.

10 comments:

  1. I saw lots of werewolf movies over the years but I own only three: The howling, An american werewolf in London and Silver Bullet, so I can totally understand your love for this little underseen gem.
    I liked it in 85 when I first saw it in a theater and I still like it today. I even have to admit, that I saw it more often than Landis technical far superior American Werewolf.
    Sometimes movie love is a strange thing.

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    1. Very true. This movie is one of my guilty pleasures.

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  2. Patriock, love this essay. It's a film I have a lot of affection for despite it's flaws and you did a great job encapsulating why.

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  3. Anyone in the Denver/Littleton, CO area, the Mile High Horror Film Festival is showing a 35mm print of "Silver Bullet" tonight (Oct. 2) at the Alamo Drafthouse at 11:50pm. (http://drafthouse.com/movies/mhhff-2015-silver-bullet-35mm/denver).

    Sorry for the late info but I just found out. :-( The rest of the festival looks okay. (http://drafthouse.com/packages/MHHFF-2015-denver/denver)

    Can't get there myself. I've never seen the movie because I read Curse of the Werewolf by King and knew who the werewolf was within the second chapter....couldn't imagine that the movie would do better.

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    1. You knew who the werewolf was in the second "chapter"? By the second chapter I guess the February section, since a Cycle of the Werewolf is structured like a monthly calendar. Is the villain even mentioned in that Valentine's Day segment? I don't recall him being mentioned until Marty Coslaw is introduced, later in the book, around June-July. (Or the segment where Father Lowe has his nightmare.)

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  4. Nice - haven't seen this in a LONG time but I remember liking it a lot - the creature effects didn't bother me at the time and it probably didn't hurt that it stars both America's and Canada's sweethearts (Gary Busey and Megan Follows respectively). It's the kind of movie I've kinda forgotten to revisit but you've sold me on putting it on the short list.

    Heheh - "brain-damaged kook" - I come for the insightful film discussion, I stay for the political correctness!

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  5. There's something else in Silver Bullet I found off-putting -- minor as it is. The voice-over. One fault I find in a King screenplay, he maintains his literary approach way too much.

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  6. "ITS BIN A WHILE"

    I know I seen it, you've convinced me to want to see it again. I see if I can find a copy. Unfortunately this is one of the rare moments where I dont actually own this one on Vhs ;)

    Works well with wheelchair movies after watching Friday the 13th part 2 last night

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  7. I've always been a big fan of this film myself.

    Anytime Corey Haim, Gary Busey and "Anne of Green Gables" can share a frame together it's worthy. Plus you have Everett McGill from "Twin Peaks" and "The People Under the Stairs" in it too. Not to mention one of the truly empathetic uses of a disabled character in a horror coming of age tale.

    Yes, I remember the hate this movie got in the late 80s but at the time of its initial home video release, one review book, the Martin / Porter ones praised it with four stars and made me check it out.

    Sadly the director Daniel Attias is now remembered by many as the man who directed the 90210 Graduation episode and the father of a mass murderer who killed a bunch of people at UC Santa Barbara in 2001.

    He should have directed more films.

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