STEPHEN KING’S SILVER BULLET: If Only the Werewolf Was as Frightening as Gary Busey

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You’ve gotta respect the horror movies of the 1980’s. Not just the classics like The Thing, Evil Dead II, and An American Werewolf in London, but the ones people enjoy kicking around and dismissing as cheesy and campy. I have to ask, what the fuck’s wrong with being cheesy and campy? When these virtues are embraced with love rather than condemnation and are played straight by the cast outrageous concepts can spawn unforgettable films. You may not love them, but one lonely Saturday evening you may be scanning your DVD collection trying to decide on a good movie to watch, and while your mind (being the one that controls your taste level) will try to convince you to watch something classy like Bride of Frankenstein or The Haunting your heart will always cry out for something a little bit different.

Because deep down we’re all young at heart as Jimmy Durante once sung and one particular Saturday night the kid in me, exhausted after a hard week’s work, wanted to kick back and have a good time. What better flick to satisfy that urge than Stephen King’s Silver Bullet?

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In the summer of 1976 a series of brutal killings begins in the quiet town of Tarker’s Mill with the decapitation of railroad worker Arnie Westrum (James Gammon). The townspeople demand justice for these violent deaths but the sheriff Haller (Terry O’Quinn) has no idea where to begin because the killer never leaves any evidence behind. Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim), a local kid who was paralyzed from the waist down at an early age and is confined to a wheelchair that gets better gas mileage than my car, becomes more involved in the mayhem when his best friend Brady (Joe Wright) is claimed by the killer. One night Marty’s out shooting off some fireworks when a mysterious creature appears out of the forest and attacks him. Marty manages to get away unscathed after shooting a rocket in the beast’s left eye.

The next day he tells his sister Jane (Megan Follows), who has had her fill of Marty since she was forced by her parents to take more responsibility for her disabled brother, about the encounter and that the killer is a werewolf. Understandably Megan thinks Marty has lost it, as does their loving boozehound of an uncle Red (Gary Busey), but later as she’s out collecting cans and bottles for a church recycling drive Megan looks over many of the townsfolk for eye injuries and is disturbed to find only one of them has suffered one similar to the one Marty gave the wolf man: Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill), the spiritual leader of Tarker’s Mill. Only now the good reverend knows that his secret has been revealed and it’s only a matter of time before he has to kill the Coslaw children to keep that secret safe. With the full moon approaching and the reverend’s monstrous powers growing Marty and Jane are forced to make a stand on Halloween night with the help of a skeptical Uncle Red and a silver bullet molded out of her crucifix and his medallion.

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There’s no doubt about it: Silver Bullet is one fantastically fun film that only a great fool would bother to take seriously. From the moment the movie begins with James Gammon (Silverado) getting his block literally knocked off with a mighty swipe of the werewolf’s paw to the wall-smashing, Busey-throwing all-stops-out finale this movie is filled with moments of pure cinematic genius that film snobs have tended to overlook with utter disdain since the movie’s release in 1985. But then again at the time you could hardly blame them. Ever since his first novel Carrie was turned into a smash hit and an instant classic of modern horror in 1976 under the direction of Brian DePalma the vast majority of Stephen King’s novels and short stories have been adapted into films with varying degrees of success.

Some have been great (The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption), some have been good (Cujo, Salem’s Lot, Pet Semetary), some have been not so good (Children of the Corn, Thinner, Creepshow 2) and the rest have flat out sucked (Sleepwalkers, The Lawnmower Man). And I find it amazing that the cheesetastic Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick The Running Man was (partially) based on one of his novels, albeit one he wrote under his pseudonym Richard Bachman.

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Tarker’s Mill is a typical King small town. Even though older Jane, narrating the film as an older woman voiced by Tovah Feldshuh, describes it as the kind of town where everyone knows each other’s name and they look out for one another, there’s a great deal of darkness bubbling beneath the surface. The fearful townsfolk want to shun the rule of law and hunt down the killer over the objection of the besieged sheriff. A woman contemplates suicide when her lover refuses to take responsibility for impregnating her. This sure as shit isn’t Mayberry we’re dealing with here.

I may be overstating the “cinematic genius” thing a bit but when the kid in me gets excited the hyperbole runs rampant. In the case of Silver Bullet it’s mostly deserved. Daniel Attias has worked in television for the majority of his career directing episodes of many fine programs ranging from Sledge Hammer to The Wire and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but Silver Bullet remains his solitary feature directorial effort and that’s a shame because he does a damn solid job here. Working with cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi Attias gives this autumnal tale of lycanthropy run amok the bright, nostalgic look previously represented by the beautiful illustrations of Bernie Wrightson in King’s original novella “Cycle of the Werewolf”. It’s just a shame the werewolf of Silver Bullet doesn’t come within 100 miles of the terrifying monster designed by Wrightson, but we’ll get to that in a moment. By setting the story in the 1970’s the director also spares his audience from piping in cheeseball pop songs from the following decade. King wrote the screenplay himself based on his novella and it’s one of his finest (and few) hours as a screenwriter. He stays mostly true to the characters from “Cycle” even though they would have come across as two-dimensional if not for the actors cast in these integral roles.

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Before he faced off against vampires in The Lost Boys, first love in Lucas, and catastrophic career failure on a weekly basis on the A&E reality show he shared with the other Corey, the late Corey Haim actually showed promise as an actor here as Marty Coslaw, the young hero of Silver Bullet. He plays Marty as a kid who was dealt a bad hand early in life but never becomes a victim of his handicap or the circumstances that puts him in the killing path of the werewolf. Plus he rocks that motorized wheelchair like Dale Earnhardt! Megan Follows is given a slightly more difficult role to play, Marty’s older and overwhelmed sister Jane. Anybody who was the oldest child in their family and had to take on adult responsibilities early in life, as I was, can certainly relate to Jane’s plight. Follows makes Jane loving and sympathetic even in moments where she tends to lose her temper with Marty. But my personal favorite performance comes courtesy of the great Gary Busey as the coolest uncle a kid could have, Uncle Red. Any kid would be damn lucky to have a relative like him, a guy who can drink you under the table and still have the energy to tell some raunchy jokes and build you a wheelchair that can outrun a Mustang Shelby. It’s a character that may hit too close to home for Busey these days but it’s fun to watch the man work as he makes this boozing pussyhound who had been written off by world an unlikely hero.

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I’ve never seen Everett McGill playing anything close to a hero or even a nice guy except maybe in his work with David Lynch, so when he shows up playing a man of the cloth run for your fucking life! Tall, scowly, and possessing a voice you wouldn’t want to hear in the dark when you’re alone, McGill is one of the best go-to guys for playing cinematic heavies. As the haunted Reverend Lowe McGill’s performance begins as a sympathetic figure of pathos much like past wolf men of the big screen from Lon Cheney Jr. to Oliver Reed to David Naughton, but once Marty treats the good reverend’s beastly form to an impromptu eye exam with fireworks McGill brings on the badass. Wearing a stark black eyepatch for that extra menace, he snarls and stalks like the wolf in him doesn’t need a full moon to come out for a stroll. It’s a shame McGill’s career rarely ever reached the heights he achieved during the 1980’s. This is one actor who deserves a great comeback role. Watching Silver Bullet I had even more fun spotting some of Hollywood’s finest character actors playing the various townspeople of Tarker’s Mill such as Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs), Bill Smitrovich (Manhunter), Terry O’Quinn (“Lost”, The Stepfather), and William Newman (Funny Farm). I was even surprised to see James Baffico show up as the loutish father of Marty’s female friend who has an unfortunate meeting with the Reverend in his wolf guise. Baffico may be best known to horror fans as Wooley, the racist SWAT cop who goes trigger happy at the beginning of the original Dawn of the Dead. These days the man makes his living as a director of soap operas.

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Unfortunately the greatest flaw of Silver Bullet is what should have been one of its greatest strengths, the werewolf itself. Even with make-up effects maestro Carlo Rambaldi running the show the suit looks absolutely terrible. In fact the werewolf looks more like a grizzly bear standing upright, or an extra from Quest for Fire (which, ironically enough, starred Everett McGill). I suppose with not enough funds to create a frightening werewolf costume the filmmakers wisely chose to keep it in shadow or only show parts of it in close-up during the attack scenes. This proves to be effective for the most part, as it proved to be on movies like C.H.U.D. and Dog Soldiers. But when the werewolf is shown in full view albeit briefly during the finale Silver Bullet, which was already pistol-whipping credibility even for a 80’s horror movie, almost takes a headlong plunge into total insanity.

Even with that huge flaw I’ll always have my memories of Silver Bullet‘s sheer wonderment: the high-speed chase between Marty in his motorized wheelchair “Silver Bullet”, pimped out into a mean motherfuckin’ machine by Uncle Red, and Reverend Lowe in his car; the lynch mob hunting the werewolf in a misty swamp and getting picked off one by one, one poor sucker getting bludgeoned repeatedly by his own baseball bat; the reverend’s batshit nightmare where his entire congregation transforms into werewolves; the forging of the silver bullet, made by a man who knows its true purpose; and older Jane’s final narration, matched with a hauntingly melodic score composed by Jay Chattaway (Maniac), which still never fails to make me misty-eyed, “I love you too Marty. Good night.”

Stephen King’s Silver Bullet isn’t as scary as it could have been, but after more than two decades it remains a highly effective horror movie that wants nothing more than to entertain the hell out of us. And Holy Jumped Up Bald-Headed Jesus Palomino does it ever!

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One Response to “STEPHEN KING’S SILVER BULLET: If Only the Werewolf Was as Frightening as Gary Busey”

  1. Terrific review. Watched it with my nine-year-old last Halloween, his first real scary movie. As Corey fumbled the bullet at the end, my son began screaming “Shoot him! Shoot him!” It was a good choice for us, and – as you noted – except for the werewolf “effects,” a pretty good scary flick.

    Like

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