For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
If Stephen King was the real voice of horror in the 1980s, you can forgive most of us for not recognizing his Silver Bullet as one of the seminal entries in his oeuvre.
Only King could create a gory werewolf yarn with a schmaltzy heart, and somehow through his process, he manages to pull it off as an imperfect, but often fun, entry. It was his second time writing a screenplay; the first was Stephen King’s Cat’s Eye, another minor but undeniably enjoyable piece featuring an early Drew Barrymore performance. In Silver Bullet, King captures the two things for which he’s best known — small-town angst and terror.
For a film paced briskly at 95 minutes, it crams a lot of subtext into that hour-and-a-half, highlighting a variety of small-town relationships, prejudices and pitfalls, working in family jealousy, religion, alcoholism and wistful recollection, along with the coolest wheelchair in cinematic history and all while a lycanthrope terrorizes the town.
Tarker’s Mills is a burg in Maine that reeks of small-town hubris, shown through the eyes of Jane Coslaw (Megan Follows), a teen girl who feels, perhaps like many young women at this age, put upon by her family — specifically her paraplegic brother, Marty (Corey Haim). Jane is a typical teenage girl who resents having to take care of her brother, who isn’t a bad kid but has friends who tease Jane.
It’s something of a movie-of-the-week narrative choice, as Marty’s disability is on full display, particularly with Jane’s resentment coming into play. But it’s also a bit ahead of its time; the film establishes more about Marty than his disability, and his friends and others also seem to accept it without treating Marty differently.
Marty and Jane’s Uncle Red (Gary Busey) is a ne’er-do-well working on yet another divorce, but he’s close with the kids. Red is a drunk and a bit of a scoundrel but comes around to have barbecues, play some cards and tell some stories, and is rewarded with Marty’s eternal admiration.
Red obviously cares deeply about the kids, and particularly bonds with Marty, gambling with baseball cards, singing off-color songs and basically being a less-than-great role model. He gifts Marty both incarnations of the “Silver Bullet”— first as just a motorized wheelchair and later as a full-fledged motorcycle / wheelchair hybrid. And Red’s wit and willingness to say silly and ridiculous things makes him stand out.
Red’s relationship with the children is the most prominent one in the film, which is sort of an incongruous narrative choice. Jane narrates, but Silver Bullet becomes told through Marty’s eyes, perhaps because of Haim’s rising stardom. He’d move on to Lucas the following year, and in the next three would become a bona fide star, with License to Drive, The Lost Boys, Watchers and Dream a Little Dream cementing his status as a Teen Beat matinee idol.
Beyond Busey and Haim bringing their charisma, the rest of the cast is surprisingly strong, with character actors like Everett McGill (a horror-movie staple for years to come), Bill Smitrovich, Lawrence Tierney and Terry O’Quinn lending stability. They’re the denizens of a place where, as Jane says, “everyone cares about each other.” But as small towns truly tend to be, Tarker’s Mills is a bubbling cauldron of cruelty.
A young woman is callously tossed aside as she reveals her pregnancy to her lover. And after a series of brutal murders, the town begins to panic and its people grow increasingly hostile to their rather ineffective sheriff (O’Quinn). As the bodies pile up, so do the questions … like “Is the culprit a werewolf?”
The film’s most chilling moment concerns Marty’s friend Brady, who dies at the wolf’s hands. O’Quinn’s sheriff holds the kite we’d seen Brady flying earlier — his eyes wide in shock, a splash of blood coating the kite. Brady’s death changes Marty, making the serial murders personal for him. After surviving his own attack and wounding the beast with fireworks, Marty sets out with Jane to prove the killer is a lycan and kill it. The problem is that Uncle Red doesn’t believe them, but he humors them to the extent an adult can humor a child with an idea of questionable sanity. But as they close in and learn the wolf’s identity, a showdown becomes inevitable, leading to an intense confrontation between the wolf, Red, Marty and Jane.
This story is often interesting and affecting, but the freshman directorial effort of Daniel Attias and the editing of Daniel Loewenthal is often reductive to the final product. The rhythm is often uneven and jarring, with quick cuts and little time to get to know many of the characters. The denouement is oddly, and especially, rushed, and many times the killings come with a fast flash to the next scene. Attias would have plenty of time to improve his craft, though, and would go on to be a longtime television director, with episodes of Miami Vice, Beverly Hills 90210, Northern Exposure, Six Feet Under and many other series over the past 30 years.
Also apparently lost in editing is the “one-night-only” nature of werewolf lore — with attacks coming at the full moon. The film’s own marketing even mentions that the monster only comes once a month, but you wouldn’t know by the film’s scattershot structure, which makes it seem as if nightly murders are occurring. It also makes it all the more puzzling as to why the townsfolk don’t start getting nervous earlier. It’s a missed opportunity to build tension and develop characters.
The cinematography by Armando Nannuzzi also often betrays staged sets in a way familiar to films from the early- to mid-1980s, particularly in a scene where a posse searches for the wolf. It results in a hilariously bad sequence that would nevertheless be recreated in dozens of moves in the years to come.
For all of its flaws, Silver Bullet is something of an undeservedly forgotten entry in the Stephen King lexicon — wobbly in spots but also way ahead of its time and worthy of a revisit.