By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
‘I’m a little too old to play the Hardy boys meet Reverend Werewolf!’
Let me say right up front I bloody love Silver Bullet!
Based on the Stephen King novella Cycle of the Werewolf which incidentally is King’s shortest book to date was renamed Silver Bullet for the screenplay adaptation. Telling the story of a small town of gripped in terror as something slaughters its residents, it for me stands up there with King’s best adaptations. Initially the townspeople think have a serial killer on their hands but none of them realise it’s a werewolf. It is only when the killings become more savage in nature that alarm bells go off. The only person that knows the real threat is a kid in a motorcycle wheelchair called Silver Bullet and his sister who resents being his carer.
For me Silver Bullet is the perfect balance of comedy and horror with a real solid human core. I love the fact the lead character is a disabled kid, Marty Coslaw played by the late Corey Haim because it’s a role model ahead of its time. His family is so relatable to audiences especially those who live with a loved one with a disability every day. His sister Jane (Megan Follows) is Marty’s unofficial carer, something that is very relatable these days to many. Jane resents the fact her parents see no wrong in Marty because he is disabled and that it’s her fault if he is late for dinner. Even when Marty is partly responsible for Jane falling and ripping her tights when his friend Brad throws a snake at her. It doesn’t matter that it is the boys’ fault; Jane’s mother, Nan, expects her to just suck it up. But we see the other side of the coin when Nan and Red argue over Marty and her treatment of him which reveals fears the kids would never be told. This only adds to the reality of the emotional core to the story. It’s clear Marty hates the fact he is disabled and the impact on his sister when he gives her money for new tights and watches sadly from the sidelines as other kids play soccer.
The movie is very much about the bond between brother and sister as adult Jane speaks in both the beginning and the end of the movie in voiceover. The normal sibling rivalry is amplified by Marty’s disability but it’s all put into perspective with the battle with the werewolf. It affirms their love for each other and that they will always be there for one another no matter what. Like the cycle of the wolf, siblings go through the same love hate battles generation after generation. red vocalises this beautifully in a quiet moment with Jane and Marty. This bond is also seen in the moment after Marty has been almost killed by the werewolf on the bridge while he is setting off fireworks. He tells Jane and she completely believes him. There is no doubt in her mind so it is up to her to find whoever has an eyepatch where Marty pierced the werewolf’s eye with a rocket. Only then can they end the town’s nightmare.
Another nice touch is that the only person that understands both Marty and Jane and can see what’s going on is their Uncle Red played by Gary Busey. Red loves his drink too much and bad women and is a pain in his sister’s side. She doesn’t like the way he treats Marty as if there is nothing wrong with him and Red puts her in her place highlighting the treatment that Jane sees on a daily basis. Only Red and Jane can see there is so much more to Marty than his disability. It’s actually a nice social commentary on how people look at someone with disability in general. One character sees them as all ending up on welfare and should be electrocuted. Indeed Jane only sees red as a chronic drunk which she doesn’t mean but says only to hurt Marty. In a way they come to learn there is more to the world than what they see every day and that is brought to the fore when people start dying. Silver Bullet ina way is a story about perception and not seeing the world for how it is.
The first death, a decapitation, is dismissed as an accident on the tracks. But then a young, single mother abandoned by the father of her baby is ripped apart in her bedroom as she prepares to commit suicide while a the cruel, drunken father of Marty’s friend and potential girlfriend, is impaled in his shed by the wolf. Brady, Marty’s best friend, Tammy, is also ripped apart adding a new emotional element to Marty’s quest as he was the last person to see Brady alive.
The entire town is gripped by terror resulting in lynch mobs spurred on by loud mouth citizen Andy. They have heard the howl of the wolf and there is a pervading sense of fear of something not natural lurking amid their normality. No one will openly say it is a monster except for Marty but they don’t need to. The question remains who is it? This is where I think they made a huge misstep with the reveal of the wolf.
As we know it is Reverend Lowe brilliantly played by Everett McGill. Lowe is tortured by his condition (It’s not my fault!) and beautifully plays into the idea that a man becomes wolfier the closer he gets to the full moon. As the movie progresses he is the mediator begging the folks to see sense and follow the will of God and not give in to violence but this changes when his secret is revealed. His attitude and demeanour become darker; much more evil especially in the scene where he tries to kill Marty on the bridge. As I mentioned earlier Jane tries to find the werewolf by going round the houses and businesses on a bottle drive. It is then she discovers Lowe with a bandage over his eye. However the impact of this is totally lost as previous to this we see Lowe suffer a nightmare where his entire congregation turns into werewolves. While it’s a great scene with a werewolf bursting out of a coffin, it tells us quite clearly who the wolf is, taking away the impact of Jane’s discovery. This to be fair is the only thing the movie screws up as the rest is a delicious dance between the lines of horror and comedy. The comedy is not the slapstick type but in fact is generated from the horror itself.
In the lynch party scene where the townsfolk going en masse to hunt the killer down, we see patrons of the bar in the fog draped woods where the wolf hunts them from below the blanket of fog. The bar owner, Owen Knopfler, being beaten to death by his baseball bat, the Peacekeeper, in funny in its execution as the visual of a wolf using a baseball bat is ludicrous enough. On the flipside when Lowe murders the Sheriff with the same baseball bat it is vicious and brutal again echoing the theme of the closer the man gets to the full moon the more the wolf’s killer nature takes over. When a bear trap catches one of their legs, the comedic efforts to get him free ease the tension of the scene because we know what’s coming. What adds to the fun in this scene is that none of the characters are butch hardmen but more along the lines of people you’d see in a sitcom. Tie that in with the distinct soundtrack and it works perfectly especially with the realisation the wolf has been right with them beneath the fog all the time. This false sense of laughing at horror is overturned when Marty is trapped on a covered bridge by Lowe. The tension is off the scale as Lowe viciously tries to run Marty down by smashing his car into the Silver Bullet. Lowe’s facial hair is thicker indicating the wolf is taking over. In a deep voice almost demonic, Lowe tells Marty all about what motivates him. Everyone that died was a sinner whom Lowe saved from eternal damnation which only shows that Lowe has cracked and the dark part of him is taking control now the full moon is close. There is no fun in this scene at all, just pure unadulterated terror. Lowe is intent on murdering Marty and he even begins to change. Marty cannot run and the Silver Bullet is out of gas. Only the timely arrival of a farmer saves him. Similarly to the first attack on Marty on another bridge as he sets off his fireworks. We only get glimpses of the wolf firing our imagination as to what it fully looks like. When Jane is trapped alone in the Reverend’s garage with him having discovered that Lowe is the wolf and the shattered Peacemaker her fear is palpable.
The battle is on as Marty must find a way to stop the wolf now he is a target. Of course it doesn’t help he riles Lowe by sending him notes telling him to kill himself. When Jane and Marty tell Red what they know he responds with my favourite line ever; ‘I’m a little too old to be playing the Hardy Boys meet Reverend Werewolf!!’
Red is as wily as he is loudmouthed. At first he doesn’t believe his niece and nephew until he finds paint from Lowe’s car on the Silver Buller exactly where Marty said Lowe tried to run him off the road. Jane’s words finally hit home for Red; ‘I believe in Marty. You used to believe in him too Uncle Red.’. Laying his trap, Red gets his sister and husband out of the way for the weekend and has a silver bullet made. I fell like there is an almost fairytale quality to the movie as Jane describes the bullet maker as an old world craftsman, a sort of wizard of weapons, They know Lowe is coming for them and are ready. What I really like is the fight is on a small scale. It is a family against a monster who must be defeated in their home, the only place they feel safe in. The tension is built one layer at a time when firstly the lights go out then Jane sees the wolf lurking in the window. Busey is great here as his trembling hands nearly drop the bullet. When the wolf comes exploding through the wall the wolf is revealed in its fullness. Now behind the scenes there was a battle to get rid of the wolf costume as the producer Dino de Laurentiis wanted rid of it but King and designer Carlo Rambaldi refused so it stayed. For me it is a very Goldilocks style wolf adding to the fairy tale quality of the story. I have to mention the effects here as Lowe transforms back into human form. It’s beautifully done and the classic last minute scare makes us jump.
The end scene of the Jane and Marty together is perfect. It’s not over indulgent or gooey. It a simple affirmation of the movie’s overall themes. Silver Bullet is a love letter to the bond between siblings that no matter what life throws at them no matter how bizarre, they will always have each other. Absolutely beautiful movie.