Silver Bullet (Dan Attias, 1985)
Stephen King’s original 1983 Cycle of the Werewolf, from which he then went almost immediately on to adapt a screenplay from, with a revised film title (referencing an unnecessary additional device in the film – one of King’s weaknesses has always been his reliance on clunky obvious devices) is really a long short story (or as the film credits refer to it, ‘Based on the novellete’!) that came wrapped in an attractive, glossy-paper package, presented with the highlight of a series of wonderfully moody drawings by the late great Bernie Wrightson (forever a personal hero to me, as the original creator and template-setter for a character that would grow even more legendary once Alan Moore was through with him; namely, Swamp Thing), with Wrightson’s illustrations contrasting sparse black and white rural landscapes (with each presenting a seasonal perspective of a new month, as King’s tale is broken into twelve entries over a year, attuned towards the werewolf’s lunar-oriented violent rampages) with shockingly vibrant, color-drenched, (and oft bloody) depictions of the lycanthrope having his way on some latest unsuspecting townsfolk or another.
Pulling the decades-old, still-shiny (those heavier stock pages hold up, don’t they?) first edition from my shelf, with the book having been procured at a local mall bookshop via five-finger discount (a substantial discount I proudly proclaim every one of the numerous hardcover Stephen King book aligning my shelves came with as well, each from some over-priced corporate bookstore that I was more than happy to apply the discount to), and diving in for a fairly quick re-read, I was reminded that King’s ambition with his werewolf project (as I’m sure the decided collaboration with Wrightson was early in the process) was not some new, or ground-breaking, take on the werewolf (it isn’t); no, it’s a nostalgic pastiche, an evocation, of small town life, failings and all (amongst some juicily enjoyable nasty violent bits, naturally – I haven’t read him in awhile, but I can tell you this — it wasn’t a Stephen King story back then without at least a little relishing in the gory good stuff!).
From the drunken train flagman Arnie, so comfortable in his simple needs he barely registers his loneliness, to the delusional overweight Stella fantasizing a movie star will one day sweep her off her feet, to the rugged long-time local café owner Arnie and his buddy the werewolf-disbelieving (until it’s too late, that is) Constable Neery, to Reverend Lester Lowe feverishly dreaming anxiety-ridden visions of congregations mid-sermon turning into werewolves (hhmmmm… very interesting), to the unfortunate Coslaw family, trying a bit too hard to put the happiest of faces on the plight of having a paraplegic son Marty, King creates a portrait of a place (the fictional New England town of Tarker’s Mills), and a time (one year) when calamity struck in the form of the arrival of a terrible murderer (a werewolf). In other words, Cycle of the Werewolf (as on the nose as it is, I love that title) is heavy on evocation, and on mood… and light on story.
With the adaptation, naturally needing to fill in a lot more detail and provide a greater narrative through-line (unless they were gonna go all experimental art film on us, which, hey could have been very cool with the right cinematic players – and, alas, would have excluded the author himself — and likely would have led producer Dino De Laurentiis to blowing a head gasket), the film (and King’s script) managed to imbue the cinematic Tarker’s Mills with that nice evocative sense of small town life, admirably keeping some of the pastiche quality of his book intact (as much as possible anyway), with nicely created colorful side characters (the better to violently kill them, naturally).
A bit less successful is the increased Young Adult-style approach to the proceedings. Following the aforementioned wheelchair bound Marty Coslaw, the nominal hero of the book (and I mean nominal as he only first appears halfway through the book – the July entry – and is featured in a total of three of the monthly entries in total), played by the cute (if chipmunk-looking, as my daughter pointed out) Corey Haim (not yet known as one half of the tragic Two Coreys, Haim and Feldman, child actors used up and abused by Hollywood, helping lead to Haim’s eventual death from drug abuse at age 38) his slightly older sister Jane (Megan Follows) — her one note role as the bitchy sister, ever resentful that her brother gets everything he wants out of pity, expanded now to Marty’s eventual confidante (with their arc being to admit they actually care for each other… blecch!), believing him when he says he was attacked by the beast (warding it off by blinding it in one eye with a Fourth of July firework) — and also Uncle Red, the alcoholic reprobate of the family, played by the dishevelled, assuredly actually inebriated Gary Busey, while the dynamics amongst them work well enough (they’re all engaging performers), some really goofy, family friendly elements get thrown in the mix – most unfortunate of all, the titular ‘Silver Bullet’ itself, the name ol’ crazy Uncle Red gives to the souped-up hot-rod of a wheelchair he’s built for the kid (one that seems to drive about as fast as a motorcycle, driven by a kid who isn’t even old enough for a learner’s permit – no wonder mom hates him! – and that we’re supposed to believe is sheer coincidence that it has associations with how to kill a werewolf).
Inexplicably, perhaps in deference to the amazing game-changing werewolf transformations done just a few years earlier in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (as well as to a lesser, though still really effective, extent in Joe Dante’s The Howling King and director Attias decided (in the face of the understandably furious protests of De Laurentiis, especially as they had genius FX monster-maker Carlo Rambaldi on the job!) to downplay the ‘monstrousness’ of the werewolf, making it look kinda like… well, as my daughter remarked, a bear (and not even a particularly scary one). A strange decision to say the least. As underwhelming as the werewolf is, though, they still manage some decent transformation bits (and the ‘final’ one into human form at the film’s conclusion is effectively ghoulish).
It’s a slightly uneasy mix of more Young Adult burgeoning teen fare (something King introduced in the previous film, Cat’s Eye, as well, which he also wrote the script for) with a good ol’ nasty, hard R monster flick… and, yet, still has more than enough effective elements, such as Everett McGill (who should be forever known to all of you as ‘Big’ Ed Hurley in a show you should know without me telling you) as that weirdo Reverend Lowe living on the edge of town who suddenly shows up one day suspiciously wearing an eyepatch. And the cinematic representation of his werewolf-congregation dream straight from the book is a serious hoot, pointing out that director Attias did a good job all the way around with the film (his first, no less, before heading off for a long, still ongoing career directing television).
Silver Bullet is an unpretentious, unapologetic 80’s werewolf film (why, it even has infamous old tough guy actor Lawrence Tierney, veteran of many a legendary 1950’s noir film, hobbling about as a local barman carrying a bat with ‘Peacemaker’ ironically scrawled on it). There’s no bother with creating any lore on how the curse happened, or how it’s spread (the creature just is in the film, while in the book there’s a hint of some wilted flowers that might have led to the ‘disease’… but even that leaves much to be explained). It kinda has the feel of a
Howling sequel; a good one, that is, and there aren’t many of those (trust me, I’ve seen every one of them!). And my kid dug it too.