The King of Summer: Silver Bullet (1985)
Marty Coslaw is a mischievous young boy in Tarker’s Mills, Maine, in the 1970s. He teases his sister endlessly, pals around with fellow prankster Brady Kincaid, and has an innocent courtship with a girl in his class. In every way that counts, Marty (Corey Haim) is your average young boy growing up in small town America in 1985’s Silver Bullet.
Marty’s also got a totally bitchin’ motorized wheelchair/scooter, specially built for him by his wrench-cranking uncle Red (Gary Busey, somehow playing the voice of reason here). Seriously, the thing is rad as hell: chromed out, kickin’ engine with handlebar throttle and brakes. It’s clearly a labor of love from Uncle Red to his nephew, and Marty lives for the freedom it affords him.
The town is shown with every detail indicating that it’s the classic, small suburban town people dream about when they talk about “the good old days,” featuring a town fair, marching band, and speeches by town leaders in the park.
And then the town rail worker is found by the tracks, decapitated . A man-in-a-suit werewolf came up on him in the midnight fog and swiped his face off. But, since he was a drunk, and he was found lying across the tracks without his head, it’s ruled an accident. It’s not until a woman Marty's sister, Jane, spies arguing over an illegitimate pregnancy is found torn apart in her own bedroom that the town becomes aware of the monstrous killer in their midst.
From here, Silver Bullet becomes a game of cat and mouse, or wolf and schoolboy in this case. Marty seeks to find out who the werewolf is, in order to protect his town and himself. Meanwhile, the lycan carnage continues as the townspeople turn from paranoid to furious. The bodies continue piling up, torn apart, chewed and beaten by the feral hunter among them. It’s a real treat to watch a town that’s practically Bedford Falls turn into a mob of frightened and angry and on the warpath, futilely pushed back by the only voices of reason in the town: the sheriff, played with pitch perfect folksy charm by Terry O’Quinn (The Stepfather, LOST) and the town reverend, played with frantic concern by Everett McGill (Twin Peaks’s Big Ed Hurley, The People Under the Stairs).
That one of them is in fact the werewolf himself only makes the scene where the mob enacts its version of justice all the more self-serving on a rewatch. But that mob justice is short-lived as the moon rises, the man becomes beast, and the hunters become the hunted, killed with their own weaponry. Yes, this werewolf uses tools in his attacks. It’s pretty fun to see.
The film overall is a pretty low-budget affair, but one clearly committed to with love for the material and werewolves in general—I’ve gone to bat for werewolf stories before, and so I’m likely biased in favor of this film’s effort on display. Silver Bullet’s prosthetic work and man-in-a-suit design by Carlo Rambaldi originally caused some feuding behind the scenes, as producer Dino De Laurentis held up the production of the werewolf’s scenes demanding a redesign.
Original director Don Coscarelli (Phantasm), after shooting all the non-werewolf scenes first due to delays, resigned out of frustration due to the lack of clarity on the production. De Laurentis eventually ceded his ground with replacement director Daniel Attias, who wound up with sole credit on the film. The lack of focus behind the scenes translates somewhat to the finished film, in that the creature scenes feel slightly rushed and all too brief. The actor who played the human version of the werewolf was even tasked with donning the suit after De Laurentis objected to a dancer’s movements within the suit. No, I’m not spoiling this for you. Go watch the damn movie. The creature effects in the third act are on-par with anything in The Howling, for my money.
Silver Bullet also took some liberties from the source material, Stephen King's Cycle of the Werewolf. That King himself adapted the novella to screenplay makes the changes even more surprising, though some were understandably made to streamline the story. For example, the timeline of the film is far briefer than the novella—Cycle takes place nearly over a full year, where in Silver Bullet the timeframe is from May to Halloween. The novella facilitates its timeline by focusing solely on the moments where the werewolf would be active and transformed, during the full moon. Silver Bullet opens the drama up to the killings’ effect on Marty and his loved ones.
The novella is famous for its illustrations by renowned artist Bernie Wrightson, who just passed away this March. The detailed, gory art Wrightson provided in his collaboration with King caused King to flesh out his initial vignettes surrounding a calendar-style presentation into a full novel, though brief it was. If you can find this novella, by all means check it out. The story is comparable to the film adaptation, and the illustrations will stick with you—I haven’t read the novella in easily 20 years, but the image of the transformed werewolf tearing off a deputy’s face haunts me. I can still picture every piece of tendon and muscle pulled away from the bone beneath, even after all this time, and that’s entirely due to Wrightson’s sure hand in his art.
Silver Bullet has garnered a bit of cult status among horror fans and King fans overall, and not without reason. It’s a scary, heartfelt story that presents its audience with the best of King’s tendencies, and has a killer supporting cast to form its backbone. You can pretty clearly draw a line from this film and its source novella to projects like Stranger Things, as well as others. A faithful remake with better focus and less behind the scenes drama to knock it down could be a very good thing, but I will always hold this version of Silver Bullet/Cycle of the Werewolf dearly in my heart. Chances are you will, too.