Thursday, June 10, 2021

Blast From The Past Movie Review: SILVER BULLET (1985)

When I was in middle school, I can vaguely recall that my school library (Dickerson Middle School) had a copy of Stephen King's illustrated novella Cycle of the Werewolf available for checkout. I think one had to have parental approval owing to the extremely violent illustrations, but I'm pretty sure I read it. When I was in high school, I remember taping the film adaptation Silver Bullet off UPN and the beginning at least being rather scary.

(Despite largely not being interested in horror, my mother seems to be aware of werewolf movies in general if not this one--she asked if it was the werewolf's heavy breathing that did it. I do remember the opening operates on the "Jaws principle" of not showing the monster. All you really see is the broad outline of the monster moving in the trees, all you hear is the breathing, etc.)

Well, the time came for Myopia Movies to do an episode on it as part of our Werewolf Month for Halloween. Here's the episode. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's 1976 in the town of Tarker's Mill, Maine. Although it's the spring and everybody is cheerful, the narrator reflects on this being when the horrors began. Said horrors start with a drunken railroad worker getting killed by something big and hairy, and every full moon the killings come again. The person who first figures out that the perpetrator is a werewolf is young Marty Coslow (Corey Haim), who is paraplegic and uses a wheelchair, and is soon followed by his older sister Jane (Megan Follows). Eventually, so does their comedically-alcoholic Uncle Red (Gary Busey).

But the werewolf knows they're onto them and the cat-and-mouse game begins...

The Good

*The acting is good. Haim and Follows come off as believable siblings (with Jane resenting having to look after the disabled Marty and her parents' obvious favoritism), while Busey comes off so well as the good-natured alcoholic uncle that some of the podcasters wondered if he were actually drunk on the set. Given Busey's issues with addiction, that wouldn't really be a shock. Everett McGill handles Reverend Lowe's intensity well--when he confronts two characters later in the film, he's creepy. And even though Robin Groves as Jane and Marty's mother Nan isn't in the film much, she does believably demonstrate her frustration with her brother who gets sloppy drunk in front of her young son and who lectures her about parenting her children when he clearly doesn't even have his own life together.

(His third wife has left him due to his drinking and he's picking up floozies in bars.)

*Making the protagonist of the story disabled is pretty innovative. Although Marty is a paraplegic and that makes his life more difficult, to quote The Gummi Bears, "Disabled does not mean unable." The kid has got quite a bit of upper-body strength for his age and thanks to Uncle Red, he has a combo go-cart/wheelchair that allows him to get around Tarker's Mill on his own rather than relying on people to take him in and out of their cars.

*They brought in Stephen King to write the screenplay. Although writing a novel and writing a film are two different skillsets, they overlap a lot better than directing a film (King directed Maximum Overdrive and did a legendarily bad job). And King knows that to work as a movie the story needs to be consolidated.

*There are only 13 full moons per year (it turns out there aren't two per month like I'd thought), so a realistic werewolf story (in which the full moon prompts the werewolf's transformation) would take place over a prolonged period. After all, a werewolf might not kill every month and death by werewolf might be mistaken for death by another cause--people think the town drunk was decapitated by a train. Cycle takes place over an entire year, but Silver Bullet takes place over a more condensed period of time--the first killing is in the spring (probably April or May) rather than January and the climactic battle with the werewolf is on Halloween, not New Year's Eve. Some of the novel's kills are eliminated (the herd of pigs) or simplified (the jackass father of a girl who's crushing on Marty). Plus I think they theorize that the werewolf is at their most deranged and inhuman at the full moon, but transforms more often.

*Although the kids think nobody will believe their idea about a werewolf and therefore they have to solve the problem themselves, the town sheriff is TVTropes Reasonable Authority Figure. He tries to warn the townsfolk off a vigilante hunt for what they think is a human serial killer (which could result in, say, lynching some drifter whom they mistake for the killer or the townsfolk shooting each other in the dark) and actually investigates when Red suggests a particular person. Given that this is a small town and everybody knows everybody, he's probably aware that Red is a drunk with questionable judgement but he gives his suspicions credit.

*Although it is common for Hollywood to malign small-town religious types as uneducated rubes or dangerous nuts, the portrayal of Christianity in the town is respectful even if it is oversimplified. Marty and Jane are Catholic and participate in charitable work overseen by the Church of Christ's Lowe (implying harmonious Catholic-Protestant relations, something that's not a given in 1976), the town's Church of Christ is well-attended, there does not appear to be any racism directed at the town's black residents, and with a few exceptions everybody is broadly decent to each other. One character shows signs of religious-crazy, but they might be suffering a prolonged mental-emotional breakdown rather than simply being a wolf in sheep's clothing or a dangerous fanatic.

The Bad

*The mighty Daniel described this film as "the non-union Mexican equivalent to American Werewolf in London" and he's kind of right. The movie's transformation sequences look like they're going for the same style, but the filmmakers didn't have the money or the skill to pull it off. I refer to the werewolf in the episode as "the bear-wolf" because that's what it kind of looks like. Even though especially early on they try to keep its appearances to a minimum a la Jaws, it's still pretty obviously an actor in a suit that resembles a skinnier Gmork from The Never-Ending Story.

*It's not as spooky/scary as I remember it. To be fair, part of that was because I was seeing it with other people (who were talking) rather than alone, but it seems more like a murder mystery with a werewolf rather than a horror-horror film. And we figure out pretty soon whom the werewolf is, so it's not even really mysterious--it's more "who's going to get whom first."

*The movie is narrated by one of the characters looking back on the events as an adult. That means we know that this character at least survived, so they're never really in danger. Plus it came off to me like The Waltons, in which the character "John Boy," now a prominent writer, tells each episode's story as an extended flashback to his youth.

*Stephen King, who grew up as a Methodist but now comes off as something like a Deist and whose daughter is a Unitarian minister, has a much more nuanced and accurate depiction of religion in the novel than in the film. In the novel they differentiate between Marty and his family (Catholics) and Reverend Lowe (Baptist) and how they don't ordinarily interact with each other. However, although Marty and his sister are Catholic (Marty's St. Christopher Medal and Jane's crucifix are important to the plot), everybody seems to attend Lowe's Church of Christ. Lowe dresses like a Catholic or Anglican priest even though the Church of Christ is much less formal, to say nothing of it being Protestant. He also claims suicide is the worst sin, which is historically something emphasized more by Catholics (see Aquinas's notion that suicide is unforgivable because you cannot repent of it). Lowe is also young and good-looking but isn't married, something you'd see more with Catholics than Protestants. Given how King wrote both the novel and the film, I'm wondering how he got this wrong. They could have included an elderly Catholic priest in the opening scene at the luncheon and depicted the two working together on the charity fundraiser, with Lowe doing most of the work due to his comparative vigor.

*How in control of its actions is the werewolf? In beast-mode it demonstrates high-level intelligence by cutting power lines, disarming an individual victim before killing them, ambushing armed hunters rather than just running at them, and is capable of using weapons. However, in human form the werewolf has nightmares about their actions and begs God for it to stop, seems to be trying to justify their werewolf actions after-the-fact rather than necessarily reveling in them, and may have been trying to keep themselves from killing people by locking themselves in their garage. In the novel the conflict and the werewolf's progressing insanity are much clearer, with the werewolf at times going out of its way to avoid people and the final confrontation with Marty is the only time they try to eliminate someone who knows too much.

*The passage of time is a bit fuzzy. Although there are a couple times in the narration where it's stated that the killing came with the last full moon of the spring, a month before school let out, that's easy to miss. It would've been clearer if the scene where we first meet Marty and Jane takes place at a church Easter luncheon rather than just some random community event. If school lets out in May, the first killing would be sometime in April and then you could have Easter afterward. Or if Easter doesn't work due to always taking place after the full moon, maybe make it a Memorial Day event? In Portland at least, schools end for students in June, not May, so Memorial Day would be before the end of the school year

*Kent Broadhurst, who plays the father of Marty's murdered friend Brady, simply cannot pull off the man's grief. Given his role in the story--his speech to the sheriff encourages the townsfolk to go hunting the werewolf on their own against the sheriff's orders--that's kind of a problem. Given his extensive work in theater, I'm wondering how that happened.

The Verdict

A good rental, but I wouldn't buy it. 7.0 out of 10. If you want to hear us discuss (and make fun of) the film, here's the episode.