I don't remember exactly how old I was, although I do know it was some time from middle-school to early high school, but I do have a pretty vivid memory of the first time I became aware of this little gem of a movie. After spending one Friday evening with my uncle and grandmother, I walked back over to my aunt's house and as I came in, I saw her live-in boyfriend watching some movie where two kids and a guy were in a house and were unknowingly being stalked by someone or something outside. Upon seeing the shot of the "bad guy" watching the house and hearing his deep breathing, I figured it was something like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees but, when I asked my aunt's boyfriend about it, he told me that it was actually a werewolf. I wasn't sure if I believed him at first since I'd never seen a movie where a werewolf methodically stalks someone the way this one apparently was but I quickly realized that he was right when the thing burst through the wall of the living room and attacked. That climax was pretty exciting, and it was quite eerie to see the werewolf slowly change back into who he really was after he was killed, but after that quick glimpse of its ending, I didn't think much about Silver Bullet for a while, even though I did see more pieces of it on TV here and there afterward. The sad truth is that this was before I had learned to form my own opinions and so, since I read that the general critical reaction to the movie was fairly ho-hum, I would always say that I felt the same way about it whenever I was asked. It wasn't until I bought the movie on DVD just on a lark when I was 16, which was after I had learned to stop going by what the masses felt, that I began to really appreciate this movie for what it is. As it stands now, I feel that this is a very well-made, well-acted, entertaining, and unjustly underrated werewolf movie. While there are also certainly many, many better Stephen King adaptations out there as well, I think this movie should get more credit on that score too, especially since King himself wrote the screenplay and nicely streamlined the story of the novella that the film is based on. It may not be a classic but it still deserves a lot more attention than it gets and, to me, is a perfect example of a movie that fares better being a fixture on television where it can more easily reach a wider range of people than at the theater, much like Tremors.
It's 1976 and for the small town of Tarker's Mills, one full moon night in May is about to kick off a long period of absolute terror when railroad worker Arnie Westrum is decapitated by a monstrous creature. Although his death is initially ruled an accident due to his history of chronic drinking, it soon becomes apparent that's not the case when a depressed, pregnant woman who's about to commit suicide due to being unmarried is brutally slaughtered when the beast breaks into her bedroom one stormy night, a murder that is quickly followed up by two more, the latter of which is a young boy. The town is soon gripped with fear and the citizens begin obeying a strict curfew imposed by the sheriff, while a local gun shop owner who's fed up with the authorities' inability to do anything forms a vigilante group to hunt the killer down, which proves disastrous when the monster ambushes them in the woods and manages to kill several of them. In the midst of all this carnage is the story of the Coslaw family, which consists of parents Nan and Bob, teenage daughter Jane, and her 11-year old, disabled brother Marty. Jane and Marty's relationship is quite strained since the former is always being forced to watch and take care of her brother and tires of her parents always taking his side, no matter what he does, because of his disability. Marty, in turn, really looks up to his uncle Red, who is often on thin ice with Nan due to his constant drinking and less than stable lifestyle, which has now resulted in three divorces, with her fearing that Marty is one day going to give up, just as Red has. All of this family drama comes to a head when, one night, Marty sneaks out of the house and uses the Silver Bullet, an engine-powered wheelchair that his uncle built for him, to go into the woods to shoot some fireworks Red also gave him. It's then that Marty, who had suspected that the killings were the work of something inhuman, meets the monster face-to-face and learns that it's indeed a werewolf. He barely manages to escape by shooting a rocket into the monster's left eye and after telling Jane what had happened, she soon discovers the werewolf's true identity when she goes around town, collecting cans and bottles for a church drive. Realizing that no adults will believe them, the two kids must come up with a way to defend themselves before the werewolf, who is aware that they know who he is, hunts them down.
Silver Bullet was initially meant to be directed by Don Coscarelli, the cult filmmaker behind the Phantasm movies, but after creative differences between him and producer Dino De Laurentiis, he pulled out of the project and was replaced by TV director Dan Attias. However, from what I've read, it seems like material that Coscarelli shot may have ended up in the film since production began without the look of the werewolf having been decided on and, according to Wikipedia, Coscarelli left after shooting the stuff that didn't involve the monster since by that point, he was unsure what was going to happen with the film. That would logically mean that by the time Attias was brought on to replace him, all he had to shoot was the stuff with the werewolf but that's apparently not the case since Attias has talked about working with both Stephen King and Gary Busey on the dialogue scenes involving Uncle Red, where Busey ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue. In the end, I'm not at all clear on what exactly happened behind-the-scenes and since there's no making of documentary on the movie's DVD (there's not even a freaking trailer), all I have to go by is information on sites like Wikipedia and IMDB, which aren't always accurate. For sake of argument, let's just say that Coscarelli was originally meant to direct but was replaced by Attias, savvy? In any case, this remains the only theatrical movie that Attias has ever directed; otherwise, he's stuck to directing a lot of television, having been involved with numerous shows since the 80's like Miami Vice, 21 Jump Street, Beverly Hills, 90210, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, and Six Feet Under, just to name a few. I always wondered why he never did another movie after Silver Bullet since I felt he did a really good job both with the character scenes (again, if he did indeed direct the majority of them, as we're assuming) and the stuff involving the werewolf but, after reading up on it, I wonder if the reason is simply because he's more at home doing TV and that he only stepped into this film because he was the only person they could get to replace Coscarelli at the time.
Upon rewatching this film again in order to do this review, I hit upon some interesting things about it that I had never thought of before, aspects that make it rather unique amongst both other werewolf movies and horror movies in general. For one, this is one of the few werewolf stories that I can think of that is actually set in America, let alone rural America. If you think about it, most movies like this are set in Europe, specifically the UK, with the werewolf prowling around the fog-shrouded moors or in the dark, fairy tale-like woods, but here, we have a werewolf story that takes place in a typical, small American hamlet where everybody knows each other and are mostly good old blue collar, working class people. As a result, and this is not at all meant as a knock against those other werewolf movies, Silver Bullet is a bit easier to relate to than other films of this type. For another, usually your main character in these movies is the very person who becomes the werewolf and you're watching them trying to deal with this horrible curse that's been placed upon them but here, your main characters are those who are being terrorized by its actions, with the werewolf's true identity not being revealed until quite a ways into the film. Other than maybe Dog Soldiers, I can't think of another werewolf film that took an approach similar to this. And finally, this movie has a feeling about it that you don't find in a lot of horror movies, especially those made today. While this is certainly a movie you wouldn't want to show to a little kid since it has a fair amount of gory violence, freaky images, and foul language that warrant its R-rating, it also has a sense of innocence about it due to the fact that the main character is a young boy. Amidst all of the blood and carnage are scenes that kind of capture the feeling of childhood, like when Marty is having fun with his friends, zooming down the road on his motorized wheelchair, and sneaking off into the woods to light some fireworks. It also kind of says something that it's a little kid who turns out to be right about the killer's identity while everyone else would scoff at the idea and ultimately has to be the one to confront the monster at the end. In fact, in spite of the gruesome killings, the film's tone never gets too dark and even the werewolf scenes, while certainly filmed to be suspenseful and scary, are not as out and out frightening and horrific as they could be. It's an interesting way of doing a horror movie that you don't see that often, especially nowadays when horror films are often as grim as you can get.
I didn't even know that Terry O'Quinn was in this movie until I watched it again for this review (I think the reason is the last time I watched it, which was a while ago, I didn't know who he was) but, regardless, he plays the beleaguered Sheriff Joe Haller who does all that he can to maintain order in Tarker's Mills as the body count rises and the townspeople become more and more hysterical but it soon gets out of hand when, after he's unable to prevent the death of young Brady Kincaid, a vigilante group is formed that Haller is unable to stop. Haller, like everyone else, scoffs at the idea that Reverend Lowe is a werewolf but he soon afterward learns the hard way when he sneaks into Lowe's garage and he turns into the monster right in front of him and kills him. In addition to Haller, you have his deputy, Pete Maxwell (David Hart), who, like his superior, does what he can to help maintain order and often gets into arguments with Andy Fairton (Bill Smitrovich), a loud-mouth gun store owner who is constantly talking crap about Haller's inability to do anything to catch the killer. He and Maxwell almost come to blows at one point over the issue and Andy is also the one who forms the vigilante posse, determined to do Haller's job for him. Normally, Andy would be that really unlikable character whom you can't wait to get killed but, personally, he's in so little of the movie and doesn't do anything worse than run his mouth that I can easily overlook him. He's hardly the most despicable character that Stephen King has ever conjured up. In any case, what ultimately prevents Haller from breaking up the lynch mob is a really strong berating he gets from Brady's grief-stricken father, Herb (Kent Broadhurst). This guy doesn't have a lot of screentime but his performance is so emotionally gut-wrenching that he doesn't need anymore. The scene where he sees his son's mutilated body and screams at the top of his lungs is very powerful and so is the scene where he angrily tells Haller that he has no idea what the words "grief stricken" and "upset" mean, going on to blast him for lecturing them about "private justice", suggesting that he go out to the cemetery, dig up what's left of Brady, and tell him about it. This immediately stops Haller from breaking up the lynch mob and he just stands there, unable to speak, as everyone heads out. Some other notable characters in the film include Owen Knopfler (Lawrence Tierney), the local bar owner who uses a baseball bat called the Peacemaker whenever things get out of hand at his bar and is ultimately beaten to death with it by the werewolf; veteran actor James Gammon as Arnie Westrum, the werewolf's first victim who gets decapitated by him while working on the train tracks; Brady (Joe Wright), Marty's prank-pulling friend who gets torn apart by the werewolf; Tammy (Heather Simmons), Marty's young girlfriend and her mean, beer-drinking father (James A. Baffico) who gets killed by the werewolf in his shed; and Nan (Robin Groves), Marty and Jane's mother who is perhaps a little overprotective of Marty due to his disability and often treats Jane unfairly as a result.
Back when I said that this film, despite how gory it does get, has a feeling of innocence and of childhood about it, one of the aspects that contributes to that feeling is the music score by Ray Chattaway. While he certainly writes a lot of creepy, suspenseful music for the horror scenes, including a menacing theme for when Jane discovers that Reverend Lowe is the werewolf and a very eerie piece for when the werewolf is turning back into Lowe after being killed that has the sound of soft wolf howls accompanying it, a lot of the music is stuff you'd expect to hear in a family-oriented movie. The film has an upbeat theme song called Joyride that's written by Chattaway and plays over the ending credits but is also used as an instrumental theme for the movie, played in a whimsical way over the opening credits or faster and more exciting when Marty takes off in the new, pumped up version of the Silver Bullet that Uncle Red builds for him. The song itself is, admitted, a little schmaltzy and when I first heard it, I wasn't crazy about it since I didn't think that horror movies should have this kind of music, but I've warmed up to it over time and I think it helps make the movie distinctive. Even the music that plays during the climactic battle with the werewolf is more exciting than it is scary and it reinforces something that you already knew: these kids, despite what's going on, are going to make it and kill this monster. But, again, this score does help the movie stand out amongst its peers.