Silver Bullet (1985)
Studio: Scream Factory
Release date: December 11th, 2019
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Werewolf tales inherently tackle dichotomies: the split between man and beast, between order and chaos, between the id and the superego. I suppose it’s fitting, then, that Silver Bullet has always felt a little schizophrenic to me. In the echelon of Stephen King adaptations, I’ve often pegged it as one of the more entertaining but ultimately trivial entries. It’s a lot of fun but doesn’t exactly carry the weight of the absolute greats, mostly because it fidgets around and can’t settle on what type of movie it wants to be. Is it (like so many King stories are) a half-wistful, half-terrifying tale of childhood trauma? Is it (like so many werewolf stories are), a melodramatic psycho-drama about someone torn apart by bestial urges beyond their control? Or is it (like so many monster movies are) just an excuse to watch a huge beast rip people limb-from-limb?
Silver Bullet is all of these things, but its heart is most often invested in the latter. After all, it takes less than five minutes for our unseen creature to separate a man’s head from his bodies in a gruesome scene that the townspeople of Tarker’s Mill dismiss as an accident. Arnie Westrum was the town drunk, after all, and it seems like he had a bad encounter with the train when it rumbled through. Such was the beginning of the horrifying summer of ’76, when bicentennial celebrations were overshadowed by a rash of gruesome deaths. Narrating these events as a young woman is Jane Coslaw (Megan Follows), though she’s not our protagonist. Instead, it’s her paralytic kid brother Marty (Corey Haim) who finds himself convinced a werewolf is committing these horrific murders. Neither his big sister nor his thrive-divorced, often-boozing Uncle Red (Gary Busey) believe his wild claims, at least until it becomes obvious that something is amiss with the town reverend (Everett McGill).
Viewers, too, are let in on this secret in a surprising turn of events. For all the world, Silver Bullet seems like it’s going to be a whodunnit werewolf movie (shades of The Beast Must Die), only for King to give up the ghost about mid-way through the movie with a dream sequence. In one of the more inspired scenes, we watch the town’s latest funeral crumble under the weight of nightmare logic. The parishioners--most of whom have formed a town mob to hunt down the killer--look on with sinister intent as Reverend Lowe offers ominous “words of comfort” that reference beasts lurking in the midst. Before long, those eyes begin to glow with an otherworldly menace, as the entire congregation becomes a pack of wolves, hooting and howling until Lowe wakes up in a cold sweat, imploring the lord to “let it end.” It’s one of the very few scenes that feels downright inspired; where Daniel Attias’s direction is mostly workmanlike and functional, this scene throbs with the gel-colored delirium of Eurohorror.
You also might expect this sequence to turn the film on its head and point it in a different direction. Now that the werewolf’s identity is no longer a mystery, it’s fair to assume it’ll become usual wolfman fare, with a tortured protagonist trying to reckon with the guttural, animal instincts urging him to kill. Having a reverend do so feels like it would be especially inspired because it’s hard to imagine a more pronounced split than the one between a man of the cloth and a bloodthirsty beast. King carefully arranges these pieces, putting them into place for what should be a compelling character study--and then he yanks the tablecloth from right beneath them before completely upending the table altogether once Silver Bullet degenerates into a schlocky (but admittedly rousing) monster movie.
It turns out that Reverend Lowe isn’t tortured at all about his fate, especially once he realizes that Marty is onto him. Whatever anxiety he may have about the unholy acts he carries out by the light of the full moon seem to dissipate in broad daylight when he tries to run down the poor kid with his car. He’s completely unrepentant here, insisting that Marty must die because he’s doing the lord’s work. Again, there’s some interesting psychology at work here that could make for a much more thematically complex, character-driven story, but nobody seems too keen on pursuing this thread, so we’re treated to a decent--if not abrupt and slightly underwhelming--climax where Marty, Jane, and Red must fend off the beast on Halloween night.
Even if Silver Bullet never feels like it coalesces enough to ascend to true greatness, it certainly has enough fun bits scattered in throughout, whether it’s in the form of a colorful cast full of terrific character actors (McGill is joined by Terry O’Quinn, Lawrence Tiereny, and Kent Broadhurst), or in the form of the film’s various violent outbursts. Carlo Rambaldi’s talents are put to fine use here with some outstanding gore effects, and Attias stages a few killer scenes. One finds the werewolf prowling about a house, stalking a pregnant, suicidal woman before bursting into her room and ripping her to shreds. The vigilante mob’s later attempt to exact “private justice” ends in a bloodbath that finds the creature brandishing Tiereny’s own baseball bat (dubbed “The Peacemaker”) against him. Another one is arguably the film’s standout scene, where Marty first encounters the werewolf and only manages to escape thanks to a well-time firework, an exciting burst of action that’s quite frankly more rousing than anything that happens during the climax.
The movie also nails the two most pivotal characters in Marty and Red, whose relationship underpins all of the carnage and makes Silver Bullet feel like it’s more than just a schlocky monster movie. While the skittish script underserves these characters on the page, Haim and Busey inhabit them with a sweetness that perfectly captures the weird wholesomeness that often lurks beneath King’s horror. Each of them just feels like a classic King archetype: Haim is the wide-eyed, outcast kid desperate to prove his wild story about the werewolf priest is absolutely true, while Busey is the alcoholic louse with a heart of gold who gets to play hero. Busey is especially magnetic here, as he harnesses that “irresponsible but undoubtably cool uncle” energy to great effect, and there’s something charming about the little makeshift family that forms between him, his niece, and his nephew (the Coslaw parents are remarkably absent for much of the film, or at least feel that way). Even if the final showdown with the werewolf is abrupt and anticlimactic, the setting is at least a poignant, intimate embodiment of King’s preoccupation with the everyman under siege by dark forces.
Any good King adaptation catches at least a glimmer of that warped Americana, and Silver Bullet captures it ever so often but especially towards the end. The older I get, the more I see the moment just before the climax as oddly cozy and nostalgic as the trio doze off deep into Halloween night, almost as if this were just a really weird sleepover and not a life-or-death confrontation with a werewolf. Once you cut through all the noise (and there’s a considerable amount of it), this quiet little shot of a family passed out in front of a TV as a station signs off (a notion that becomes more quaint with each passing year now that nothing ever signs or logs off) kind of emerges as the crucial image of Silver Bullet: a fond memory dangling on the precipice of an absolute horror that must be confronted and defeated. That’s often the essence of King, and even if Silver Bullet doesn’t consistently capture it, it’s fitting that this one, fleeing moment is powerful enough to bring the entire film into focus. It only takes one silver bullet, after all.
Silver Bullet feels like one of those movies that should have been on Region A Blu-ray ages ago. For whatever reason, though, Paramount has been reluctant to upgrade certain genre titles to the format, including a sizeable swath of King adaptations. As such, the decision to finally open their vaults to Scream Factory coincides perfectly with the author’s recent resurgence back into the mainstream, and Silver Bullet represents the first of what is hopefully several more King adaptations hailing from the Paramount banner. The leap to high-def is a solid one: nothing indicates that this is a new scan, but Paramount was historically one of the absolute best at remastering their films for DVD, so this transfer looks terrific. Likewise, the DTS-MA mono track solidly preserves the film’s theatrical exhibition, and I found the soundscape to be unexpectedly robust considering the source.
Your excitement for the supplements will vary depending on your familiarity with Umbrella’s Australian Blu-ray release, which represented a huge upgrade over the virtually bare-bones Paramount DVD from 2002. Those extras boasted a commentary track from Attias, isolated score selections, and an interview with composer Jay Chattaway. Two separate interviews with McGill and special effects coordinators Matthew Mungle and Michael McCraken also make their way over. The new material includes a commentary track with producer Martha Di Laurentiis, plus a pair of interviews featuring Broadhearst and editor Daniel Lowenthal. Scream’s various assortment of TV spots, trailers, and stills rounds out a fairly solid disc. Sure, you’d like to see something involving Busey, or perhaps even some kind of archival material featuring Haim, but these are forgivable omissions, all things considered. It should also be noted that Scream’s newly commissioned artwork can be reversed to the original theatrical one-sheet, though either of these options is a huge improvement over the hideous junk Paramount used for its various DVD releases.
Again, the appeal here is finally getting Silver Bullet on Blu-ray at all because it’s felt like such a bizarre holdout all these years. Likewise, it’s strange that the likes of The Dead Zone, Graveyard Shift, and Tales from the Darkside are still MIA, but it seems likely that Scream Factory will scoop these up soon enough. With Pet Sematary II already on the way later this month, it seems like the label is leaving no stone unturned, meaning fans still have plenty to anticipate nearly 15 years since Blu-ray's inception. Sure, it's great that the last decade uncovered a bunch of obscure, hidden gems on the format, but this collaboration between Paramount and Scream Factory is a reminder that we still have some big names still out there, waiting for their due.
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