Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Guns Don't Kill Werewolves, Silver Bullets Do


In the late '70s/early '80s, the movie adaptations of Stephen King's novels were prestigious projects, handled by world-class filmmakers - Brian DePalma on Carrie (1976), Stanley Kubrick on The Shining (1980), David Cronenberg on The Dead Zone (1983), and John Carpenter on Christine (1983). Even the TV miniseries of Salem's Lot (1979) had Tobe Hooper calling the shots. These adaptations may not have always been completely satisfying to fans of the books (although in the case of Kurbrick's The Shining, it became accepted as a classic over time), but at least the talent was there. By the height of King's popularity in the mid-'80s, though, it seemed like the movies were just being mechanically cranked out - just as King's critics had begun to accuse his books of being. For an author to be so prolific, critics said, there was a danger of King becoming a brand name first and a writer second.

While that can be debated, in the case of the 1983 novella Cycle of the Werewolf, those critics may have had a point. This was a project that began as a werewolf-themed calendar for which King was called on to provide chapters for that evolved past the parameters of that original job into a slim book. As literary works go, it seemed like little more than an excuse to put King's name on another cover - although the book did make for an attractive buy for horror fans thanks to the illustrations provided by famed artist Berni Wrightson (Swamp Thing). With such a short story to tell and with Wrightson's numerous illustrations offering a visual guide, at least the odds of a successful movie adaptation (due to be renamed Silver Bullet) looked promising - despite the questionable merits of the book.

Produced by Dino De Laurentiis (who had good luck once in adapting King with 1983's The Dead Zone but never again - eventually helping King take a torch to his own movie career by convincing the author to direct 1986's Maximum Overdrive) and with a screenplay by King himself (who has consistently been a poor translator of his own work), Silver Bullet (1985) proved to be a disappointment. While Wrightson's interpretation of King's words had suggested a potent cross between Norman Rockwell and E.C. Comics, the movie was as bland in its atmosphere as a run of the mill TV production. Given that, it's ironic (or perhaps telling) that this turned out to be the sole feature film from director Daniel Attias, who would go on to a successful career directing television. More problematic for Silver Bullet was that the special effects by Carlo Rambaldi (of E.T. and Alien) were shooting blanks. FX geniuses Rick Baker and Rob Bottin had so recently stepped up the game in regards to transformation FX and werewolf design - in 1981's An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, respectively - that Rambaldi's work in Silver Bullet looked cheap and outdated in comparison.

Still, this tale of the residents of the small town of Tarker's Mills being stalked by a wolf in their fold does have a sterling cast to its credit. You've got Gary Busey as the lovable booze hound Uncle Red, there's Terry O'Quinn as Sheiff Joe Haller, Lawrence Tierney as bat-wielding bar owner Owen Knopfler, and Everett McGill as pastor Lester Lowe. And among these heavy hitters, '80s teen favorite Corey Haim manages to be ingratiating as Marty, the crippled kid with the pimped-out wheelchair nicknamed 'Silver Bullet.'

While most werewolf movies make no secret about which character is the werewolf and, in fact, usually center the movie on the protagonist's tormented battle with their bestial nature, Silver Bullet joins Amicus' fondly remembered The Beast Must Die (1974) in having the identity of its werewolf remain a mystery for most of the movie. While that mystery is about as deep as "who cut the cheese?" it does gives Silver Bullet a little something different to play with.

What Silver Bullet really could've used, though, isn't so much a better werewolf design or a smarter mystery to solve (although neither of those things would've hurt to have been improved on) but a far better climax. Had the movie gone out on a stronger note, it might've saved the entire film. When the climax of your werewolf movie involves the characters hoping that the werewolf is dumb enough to come to their house and attack them and having a silver bullet ready to shoot him with, that's pretty weak. It's such a weak climax, in fact, that King and Attias have to throw in some contrived suspense by having Busey's fed-up-with-fairy-tales Uncle Red take the bullet out of the gun just before the werewolf plows through the wall, leading to a mad scramble for the bullet. It's an ending that, with all the desperate fumbling on the part of the characters, shows King and Attias trying hard to make something out of nothing.

Among the several changes King made to his novella, I mostly wonder why Silver Bullet was turned into a period piece, with the film taking place in 1976 instead of Cycle's contemporary setting (in the novella's October chapter, Marty goes trick or treating in a Don Post Yoda mask). Had they gone further back, to the '50s, that might've been a good excuse to turn the movie into the adult remembrances of its protagonists as in the nostalgic Stand By Me (1986) but 1976 wasn't even ten years past when Silver Bullet came out. And while the movie is narrated from the present day perspective of Marty's sister Jane (played by Megan Follows in the past, with the adult voice over provided by Tovah Feldshuh), there's no impetus given for Jane's recollection of the events.

Today, of course, there's good reason for fans to recall Silver Bullet with 2010 marking the silver anniversary of its release. While it may not have aged into a classic, it does offer the pleasure of seeing Gary Busey in one of the warmest and liveliest performances of his career and that alone makes Silver Bullet into something golden.


10 comments:

Bob Ignizio said...

While not a great movie, I do have fond memories of this one. Mainly I think that's because this was one of the first R-rated horror movies I went to see in a theater. I remember when my friend and I went to buy our tickets, the ticket booth employee looked at us and discerned immediately that we were not old enough. But rather than turn us away, she asked, "are you going to have nightmares if you see this?" We assured her we would be fine, and that was good enough.

Jeff Allard said...

I know that I'd have better feelings for this movie had I been just a year or two younger when it came out. In '85, though, I was just starting to become more critical of horror movies and this came off as lacking to me. I like Silver Bullet a lot better now than I used to - I just can't claim it to be a favorite.

Planet of Terror said...

I agree, the climax ultimately failed but overall, I think its an underappreciated classic. I wanted that Pimp My Ride wheelchair when I was a kid.

Great post Jeff.

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks, PoT - there's a lot of love for Silver Bullet out there!

J.D. said...

I share your mixed feelings on this one. I haven't watched it in ages but remember not being too wowed by it. And you're right that King should stay away from adapting any more of his own works. Although, I do have a soft spot for the original mini-series he wrote, STORM OF THE CENTURY. That one certainly has its moments.

Jeff Allard said...

I love Storm of the Century, too. Maybe the fact that it was an original screenplay and not an adaptation made the difference. Great miniseries - so brutal!

senski said...

To take a slightly different tack, isn't that a sleek one-sheet? So subtle and understated - you wouldn't be able to tell what it was from across the theater lobby, you'd have to walk up to read it. Even King's name doesn't scream at you. Pretty classy for such a pulpy film.

Jeff Allard said...

Funny you should mention the poster, Senski. When I first posted this, I originally went with a screen grab from the movie but reconsidered and removed it in favor of the poster, because it's such a great one-sheet. Definitely a sharp piece of work!

Carl (ILHM) said...

I have a soft spot for this one as well, it is so typically 80s with Haim and Busey (not to mention the rocket chair). Been meaning to get back to this one for quite some time!

Jeff Allard said...

It's definitely a 'comfort food' kind of movie. I'm surprised that given its following that the DVD release - at least in the US - is so barebones.