By the time Stephen King released CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF in 1983, he had already released two other novels that same year, CHRISTINE and PET SEMETARY, which have all but largely overshadowed his experimental werewolf tale. By that point in his career, he had come off of the well-received EC Comics-esque anthology film for Warner Brothers — CREEPSHOW, directed by his pal, George A. Romero, from his own screenplay. Since his novels and short stories were being eaten up by every producer who had dollar signs in their eyes, CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF became SILVER BULLET and began filming in 1984 with PHANTASM director Don Coscarelli helming the monster movie, and in its cast a slew of character actors like Terry O’Quinn, Gary Busey, Bill Smitrovich, Everett McGill, Lawrence Tierney, and in the lead role, young teen heartthrob, Corey Haim. Its score was composed by Jay Chattaway, who at that time had done the gnarly, skin-crawling music for William Lustig’s slasher holocaust feature, MANIAC, in 1980. Troubles with the werewolf suit created by famed, controversial effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, who had worked with King and SILVER BULLET producer Dino De Laurentiis on CAT’S EYE, caused Coscarelli to abandon ship and was replaced by television director Daniel Attias in his only feature-film directing gig. SILVER BULLET was released in October 1985, by Paramount Pictures, exactly one year to the month from when it started production, netting a twelve million box office to its seven million dollar budget, making it a moderate success. So, flip your calendars to spring of 1976 as Brett Gallman and Nathan Smith take you through their thoughts on SILVER BULLET, thirty-five years later.
Nathan S: I grew up in the nineties, and that was the decade where you couldn’t flip a channel or go to a video store without seeing an adaption of Stephen King’s material. It was like an overpopulation of Gremlins. Sometimes, you’d get the cutesy, better adaptations and other times, you’d get the wonky, ugly ones. Around the time I turned ten, so 1995, I had started reading his books, and was happy to watch the various miniseries, like THE SHINING, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, and THE LANGOLIERS that were cropping up on ABC as a way of seeing just what was different. Turns out, it was a lot. It meant that the name recognition was there though, so one night, on a local channel, KDAF 33, I saw the film and naturally, it terrified me. Werewolf features always did. I revisited it often, maybe more so than THE HOWLING and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, primarily I think because I could relate to the folksy way the tale was spun. Again, it’s like HALLOWEEN – I can relate to growing up in a small town and adding a monster to the menu meant I would more than likely devour it first. I want to talk about the film’s plot, what works and what doesn’t, but I’m curious to learn what your history is with SILVER BULLET.
Brett G: My earliest memory of SILVER BULLET also involves television. Cable was never available in my (extremely) rural area growing up, and satellite TV wasn’t affordable until the mid-’90s, when I first encountered SILVER BULLET thanks to my dad. I owe a lot of my fascination with this genre to him. He’s the one who introduced me to the Universal horrors, not to mention Freddy and Jason, and there’s no telling how many SILVER BULLETs there were: movies we just happened to land on while channel surfing during any random evening. Memory’s a tricky thing, but I seem to remember he’d already seen this one and hyped it up a bit before we watched it. Since King was already a known commodity for me by this time, I likely didn’t need much convincing. Of course, in true King fashion, this thing scared the hell out of me, too, especially the climactic scene where the werewolf lays siege on the Coslaw house. Tarker’s Mills is one of those classic King slices of small town Americana, but the Coslaws live on its outskirts, and that desolate countryside looks so much like where I grew up. It wasn’t hard to imagine a werewolf emerging from woods just behind my house, and something about the dead-of-night isolation of that climax really unnerved me. Between this, PET SEMATARY, and IT, it’s a wonder I’m not sending Stephen King a bunch of therapy bills. because he certainly helped to orchestrate some of the scariest moments of my childhood before I ever cracked open one of his books in middle school.
Let’s talk about the plot, particularly about how strange the film is structured: it’s part monster movie, part wistful coming-of-age story, part werewolf whodunit. Does it all come together for you? I have to admit, this is one that’s only clicked for me recently in this respect.
Nathan S: For me, it’s a three-strip movie that never knows how to quite congeal. As a coming of age tale, I think SILVER BULLET succeeds largely because of the relationship between the brother and sister – their little moment where Marty comes in and pays for Jane’s pantyhose that were ruined by his friend’s prank. It’s sweet and true to how brothers and sisters really interact with each other. Yeah, they tussle and talk crap to each other, but at the end of the day, they do love each other. It’s Jane who first believes Marty when he says that strange things are afoot in Tarker’s Mills and she stays by his side, right until the very end when he vanquishes the beast. On that note, while I can appreciate the thought that the narration throughout the film, enhances it as a Stephen King special, it’s also flawed, because we’re seeing events that older Jane (let’s call her O.J) could have no knowledge of – the details in the murders and the Reverend’s dream, but it’s especially egregious at the end when O.J tells Marty she loves him and then tells the audience good night. Two things: one, it’s odd that the film breaks the fourth wall at its end to have her tell the audience good night. I’m not sure why King thought it was a good idea, but it has no impact, lands with a thud and makes me roll my eyes. Why? The second, as a writer, you should not be letting the voiceover carry them emotional climax of your story. We shouldn’t hear Tovah Feldshuh tell Marty that she loves him — we should see Megan Follows do it. What a terrific way to shift the way the story began. They’re sniping at each other when the film starts and now that they’ve been through a shared traumatic experience, they love each other all the more. It’s not a fatal flaw for the film, but one that dampens the impact at the end.
As a monster movie, it works quite well, feeling a lot like a Eurohorror slasher film, especially in its wonderful score by Jay Chattaway – the kind of overly Americanized films that Italians were making in Florida in the 1980s – stuff from Claudio Fragrasso or Umberto Lenzi, where the acting is so campy (think about the kid’s dad seeing his son’s body on the gazebo) or the stiffness of the dialogue (the scene where Red gets the bullet from the armorer practically feels like it was ghostwritten by Dario Argento). The gore is aplenty and never disappointing – as we discussed, how many films give you a decapitation right out of the gate. As a whodunit, though? It fails tremendously, because it never really offers any suspects until after the fireworks scene (which is still scary as hell) where Marty maims the monster. Correct me if I’m wrong, but CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF doesn’t play it as a whodunit – you pretty much know that Reverend Lowe is the beast straight away. Personally, I’m happy when the revelation happens because then it gives Everett McGill a lot more to do, and he is phenomenally menacing until the credits roll. I wish that King had decided to play it where you knew the wolf was the Reverend the whole time, because it would lend so much more suspense to the non-monster scenes. I’m even curious whether or not he thought of it as a whodunit, or he just got bored with playing coy and said to himself, “Fuck it, Stevie, just tell them who it is.”
Brett, I’d love to hear your thoughts on all that I’ve just spilled, but I know you and I have a lot of discussion on the Uncle Red character, played by Gary Busey.
Brett G.: I’ve always seen this one as three movies in one, too: part monster movie, part coming-of-age tale, and very small part whodunit — -f you can call it that. Because you’re right: there’s maybe a faint pretense of a mystery angle in the sense that the werewolf’s identity is technically hidden at first. But it’s not like the script goes out of its way to really play up the mystery in the way of clues or red herrings before randomly revealing that it’s Reverend Lowe about halfway through the movie. I always found this to be a strange structure that might be trying too hard to be faithful to CYCLE OF THE WEREWOLF: it seems to me the adaptation might be more effective and cinematic if the audience discovered this alongside Marty. Instead, this nightmare sequence almost hints that we’re going to have a dual narrative, with the tortured priest battling with these primal urges and the innocent kid who’s out to discover him. However, we definitely don’t get the former, which is kind of a shame since McGill is such a great performer and it’d be kind of cool to see him do the tortured wolf man bit. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still fun to see him play an unrepentant, sinister monster — it’s just that I always wonder if the story could be more nuanced and complex if Lowe was more consumed by guilt, which the nightmare suggests.
But even if it’s not the most thematically or narratively complex, SILVER BULLET definitely works as a monster movie. I’ve sensed a Euro flavor to it in the past, but you’re right: it’s very specifically that sort of mid-to-late-’80s Italian horror we started to get at the end of that cycle, when the gore and atmospheric flourishes became even more paramount than they were during Eurohorror’s glory days. The Lowe nightmare sequence is an especially great freak-out that would have been right at home in one of those movies, between its frenzied pacing, weird lensing, and outrageous imagery. I’ve always felt SILVER BULLET works pretty damn well as a monster movie — there’s ample carnage appearing early and often, yes, but it’s also done with flair. The scene where the werewolf stalks and slashes Stella to death in her own room is tremendous, with the atmospheric lighting and thunder and those prowling point-of-view shots before Attias creates the impression of this poor girl being ripped to shreds. As a kid, this was obviously the stuff I gravitated towards: as scary as it was, it was almost a cool, fun kind of scary that I craved from monster movies.
Of course, the coming-of-age stuff is something I naturally didn’t appreciate as much until I got older. Even though I could sense that SILVER BULLET was trying to do something more than just settling for being a cool monster movie, I don’t think I could really articulate why it made this one a better movie. In fact, I don’t know if I would have considered this one an all-time favorite growing up because I didn’t quite “get” all of the non-werewolf stuff. There’s a noticeable stretch where SILVER BULLET slows down to take in the family dynamics with Red and Coslaws that doesn’t quite play well when you’re eleven or twelve and just want to see the werewolf. But when you’re in your thirties, this shit hits a little bit differently because you realize the role nostalgia plays in the story.
To this day, I still have trouble articulating the way King intertwines nostalgia and horror to create this weird, bittersweet feeling that lands somewhere between wistful and melancholy. SILVER BULLET really captures it, whatever it is: somehow, this was both the best time and worst time of Marty’s life all at once. To borrow a sentiment from STAND BY ME, you never have the kind of times you have when you’re twelve years old, and somehow, even all of the bad shit Marty and Jane go through in this movie seems almost wistful. A lot of that does have to do with Busey’s indelible turn as Red, the ultimate cool uncle that all of us hopes to have. I kind of had an uncle like him, but I’d have to say he was more scary than cool half the time. But Red’s definitely the character that makes this all work: the weird choice to have Jane narrate notwithstanding, SILVER BULLET is ultimately the story of Marty and this roughneck uncle who helped him kill a werewolf. It sounds like something out of a fairy tale, and it’s almost presented in those terms during the climactic Halloween night showdown.
This used to be the part of SILVER BULLET that scared me the most, but something about the moment before the werewolf descends on the house — when Marty, Jane, and Red are dozing off to sleep as the TV station signs off — seems so cozy and comforting now. Maybe I just miss being young and doing this sort of thing myself—I don’t know how many times I’d stay up deep into the night with my brother and my cousin watching movies, so it reminds me a little bit of that. I also just think the insistence that it all turns out okay is appealing, too: again, a lot of terrible stuff happens in SILVER BULLET, but the story also has an unwavering optimism and faith in someone like Red. He’s definitely a scoundrel, and getting older and having a child of my own makes me see him in a different light at times — if one of my relatives put my kid in danger like Red does with Marty, we’d have some words. And yet, there’s no doubt this guy loves these kids in a way that maybe only a fuck-up uncle can. Without Red (and Busey’s performance especially), I don’t think SILVER BULLET would be nearly as affecting. It’d just be a cool werewolf movie, which was enough when I was younger; now, I’m happy I’ve come around to see that there’s more to it than that.
Nathan S: I’ve got an uncle I care for deeply, but for the longest time, he didn’t have his shit together. It hurt me to see him go through some of these dark periods. He was a massive part of my childhood, I would be so happy to spend weekends with him and he would rent horror movies for me from Kroger’s (FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 was a first-time watch with him). I think he doted over me so much because I was one of the connections to his brother, my dad, who died in 1987. I bring this up because I think a lot about Red and Marty’s relationship. The movie doesn’t say it, nor does the source material, but I’ve written it into my head canon that Red may have been responsible in some way for Marty’s accident, and that leads him to want to do more for the kid, to be in his life, but in that classic, misguided uncle way – where they drink a little too many beers and let their mouth run like it’s in a marathon because they want to be your friend and not another adult guardian. Around the periphery of the tale, we see that Red is having more than a few hard nights, like waking up in bed with a random woman and a giant bottle of Wild Turkey next to the bed. You’re right though, as a parent, Red is completely irresponsible with Marty – building him the Silver Bullet and giving him fireworks – though at least it does save his life during the fireworks scene. Gary Busey is such a perfect scoundrel here, and is one of those actors that feels at home playing an uncle.
The ending scene is always a pitch-perfect moment to wrap up the feature. It’s Halloween, the whole family has fallen asleep around the television in this wood-paneled house – the whole chunk feels so adequately redolent of what I remember the ‘eighties to be, to tie it back to your thoughts on how King pumps this thing full of past nostalgia. I wish there was a little more suspense prior to the werewolf bursting in to attack the family, but once the bad beast is in the house, it’s tangling with Busey, throwing him into every piece of breakable furniture in the house and the kids scrambling to nab that single monster-killing bullet out of the air vent. It’s tense, and it scared the hell out me as a kid, but revisiting it, I don’t feel any worry that the trio will die. Still, it’s a great capper with Marty blasting Lowe right in the eye with the bullet and stopping Tarker’s Mills’ nightmare once and for all.
As we wrap up, I want to talk about some of the character actors propping up the edges of the film and delve into SILVER BULLET’s legacy all these years later.
Brett G.: I’d never really considered the extent of the backstory with Red. It’s obvious he’s recovering from some kind of past trauma, and, whether it involves Marty or not, it really colors the character in a distinctive way. Red is obviously just trying to do his best to overcome whatever it is, and, if nothing else, he seems to see Marty as a chance at redemption. SILVER BULLET could almost be a story of redemption, I guess — here’s a guy who’s fucked up all the time but does this one good thing in protecting these kids, which is another angle I never quite noticed when I was younger, when I saw the movie as being exclusively about the kids. But that’s another one of those nice things about SILVER BULLET: things don’t just turn out okay for the kids, but for Uncle Red, too.
There’s also something that feels lived-in about this vague but crucial backstory, something that’s a hallmark of any great King work. His characters and settings feel authentic and alive, and SILVER BULLET is no different thinks to an assortment of great character actors revolving through its door. In addition to Busey and McGill, guys like Terry O’Quinn, Lawrence Tierney (whose “Peacemaker” has surely broken up many a bar fight), and Kent Broadhurst establish the communal feeling to Tarker’s Mills: this place really does feel like a close-knit community, where a rash of murders would totally upend everyone’s way of life and inspire a frenzied mob. In a lot of ways, this setting and these characters bolster that kind of Anytown, USA kind of Americana that King’s work often thrives on. I also recognize this kind of small town from my childhood, and I think that’s why SILVER BULLET always resonated with me a little bit. There’s this kind of Podunk folktale quality to it that I love—you can almost imagine the legend of the wolf man in Tarker’s Mills being passed around neighboring towns, county to county before it became statewide lore.
As for the legacy of SILVER BULLET, I’ve come to enjoy it more each time I watch it as an adult. At some point in my late teens and into my twenties, I dismissed it as solid but unremarkable, especially in terms of the King canon. But something about it has resonated more as I’ve gotten older, probably because I appreciate the coming-of-age dynamic more than I ever did before. Watching the Scream Factory release earlier this year really hammered home how much I enjoy it these days: I’m so glad whenever they release something like this and I end up liking the movie even more than I did before. That release also seems to speak to the increased popularity of SILVER BULLET these days: it wasn’t much of a critical or box office hit in its day and has been in the shadow of the era’s more prominent King adaptations. Of course, it feels like everything gets re-litigated and eventually finds an audience, which is what’s so great about cult fandom sometimes. By and large, we’re willing to give everything a fair shake, and I’m glad SILVER BULLET seems to be getting it now.
What’s your take on this one, especially in terms of King adaptations? I don’t put it among the absolute best of the best, but it’s only a notch below at this point — and, who knows, it might even make it to that upper echelon in the future.
Nathan S: There are so many “hey, that guy” actors in this film. There’s Terry O’Quinn, whom I dearly love on Millennium as the sheriff who meets a grisly end and he fits so well in the folksy, small-town law enforcement character that King always does so well, like Alan Pangborn as an example. It’s a small moment but there’s a bit where he curses out someone on the phone and his deputy mentions that he probably shouldn’t have done that – O’Quinn mutters that the other party had already hung up when he said it. Great character beat. The other townspeople adequately fit their “rabble rabble” shitkicking vigilante personas like Smitrovich, who I grew up watching on Life Goes On and Broadhurst as the dead kid’s father, who here I find to be a touch too melodramatic (and funny enough, I saw him in THE DARK HALF as the ill-fated photographer that George Stark murders – Ka is a wheel). And man, I cannot help but chuckle as Lawrence Tierney grumbles through his Brooklyn accent and persona – I mean, we’re talking about a guy who frightened the entire case of Seinfeld – but he’s supposed to be a bar owner in a small New England town! He’s almost a teddy bear here, and he gives us the unique moment of seeing a werewolf bludgeon someone with a baseball bat.
We’re now thirty-five years out from SILVER BULLET’s theatrical premiere and not a week goes by where I don’t see people sharing their love for this film, especially since the loaded Scream Factory Blu-ray came out a while back. There was even a mild argument about whether or not it was better than THE HOWLING or AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. The answer to that debate is probably an argument for the ages, but it’s how we get to the answer that’s more important. It’s about what the movie means to you, and to me, SILVER BULLET is about growing up. Not to lapse into redundancy from my introductory paragraph, but when you relate to something on a deeply nostalgic or personal level, you lean towards favoring it more. It’s part of who we are. The idea of where it ranks in terms of King adaptations is probably fairly high and the reason why is that like all great adaptations of his works, it’s about memory. Maybe we didn’t fight actual creatures, but we fought monsters in one way or the other, and the warmth that falls in-between the trauma is what we build into our character. Any good novel or adaptation of Stephen King’s work knows that it’s not about how you fight monsters, it’s about who you fought them with.
Tags: Armando Nannuzzi, Bill Smitrovich, Carlo Rambaldi, Corey Haim, Daniel Attias, David Hart, Dino De Laurentiis, Everett McGill, Gary Busey, Horror, James Gammon, Jay Chattaway, Kent Broadhurst, Lawrence Tierney, Megan Follows, Stephen King, Terry O'Quinn, The 1980s, Tovah Feldshuh, Werewolves