Many, many years before I discovered ‘An American Werewolf in London’ and ‘The Howling’, ‘Silver Bullet’ was my first foray into Werewolf fiction. My parents owned the VHS of this movie, and it was watched often. As a kid, this movie scared the shit out of me and thrilled me at the same time, and I absolutely loved it.
Based on the equally awesome and experimental novelette ‘Cycle of the Werewolf’ written by the legendary Stephen King, with illustrations by the late, great, Bernie Wrightson, ‘Silver Bullet’ is set in Tarker’s Mills, a small town in Maine that is being terrorized by a werewolf. Caught in the cross-hairs of the lycanthrope is the young, crippled Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim), who miraculously escapes from the clutches of the beast, and along with his older sister Jane (Megan Follows) and his drunken Uncle Red (Gary Busey), attempts to uncover the identity of the shape-shifting beast that stalks the townsfolk once a month during the lunar cycle.
What really made this terrifying to me as a kid was the atmosphere and overall sense of dread that I feel this film successfully accomplished. Enhancing this is the score from Jay Chattaway, at least in the scenes with the lurking werewolf. The score itself is sometimes unsettling and very effective, adding to the horror visuals. To this day I still find the werewolf sequences to be well choreographed and suspenseful, and the score is a big part of that.
One thing that I love about this movie is the cast: Gary Busey, Corey Haim, Megan Follows and Terry O’Quinn are all pretty convincing as their characters – and I say this with a heavy emphasis on Gary Busey, who has always been an amusing and entertaining actor to me. There is something about his presence in any film that has me grinning, and growing up with films like ‘Lethal Weapon’, ‘Predator 2’, ‘Surviving the Game’ and ‘Silver Bullet’, I’ve been a fan of his for a long time. But the one actor who I feel really shines in this is Everett McGill in his portrayal of Reverend Lowe. Between this and ‘The People Under the Stairs’, McGill makes for a wonderfully intense villain, and I personally feel that he is an underrated actor.
While ‘Silver Bullet’ may not be one of my top favorite Werewolf movies, it does sit at #9 in my top twenty-five list, and is the one that first sparked my love for these types of films. My love of this movie isn’t purely based around the nostalgia of watching it at a young age, though; in my own opinion, it’s actually an entertaining film from start to finish, and I have yet to grow tired of watching it. The only real negative I can think of for this movie is the look of the creature. I’m not quite a big fan of the Werewolf design, but then again, I’ve seen worse. Way worse.
I’ve known since I was a child that the movie had been based on a story by Stephen King, and for many years I had mistakenly believed that it was based on a novel, perhaps one at standard Stephen King length, and titled ‘Silver Bullet’. I discovered my inaccuracies during my teenage years, back when I was reading nothing but King novels, as I had gone to a local library to search for this particular book. As I scanned through the fiction section, I had found what I was looking for. It was a little thin in comparison to most of King’s works, but there it was: Silver Bullet by Stephen King. I pulled it out without glancing into it and checked it out of the library. The edition I checked out, and eventually came to own, was a Signet movie tie-in edition printed in 1985 with the movie’s title on the front cover and spine. This edition features a (then) newly typed foreword from King himself, as well as the novelette, plus promotional pictures from the movie, and an early draft of King’s screenplay. The most shocking to me was the length of the actual story itself.
I was actually caught off guard by what this really was after years of assumptions, but I absolutely loved the experience of discovering it in its true form. At the point I started reading this I had known the movie like the back of my hand, and yet as I read it, I found that I knew very little about what it was and how it was structured. According to King’s foreword, this unique approach to storytelling first came about from a pitch he drunkenly accepted at a horror convention in the early 80’s in which it was suggested that King should develop a story calendar with artist Bernie Wrightson providing the art. King had initially been working on it off and on, pushing it to the side often, but being a man determined to keep his word, he sought to see it through, even if he wasn’t really into it. It was when he got to the July segment, when he started to write about Marty Coslaw, that King found the element that sparked his interest in the project. King then made the call to move away from the calendar idea, and to pursue this as a novelette instead, which would allow him some more freedom to develop the story without being as restricted in word count and length.
‘Cycle of the Werewolf’ isn’t your traditional piece of fiction, as it’s broken up into twelve segments, relatively short in length and accompanied by some bad-ass Wrightson art, that chronicles each monthly Werewolf attack in Tarker’s Mills, beginning in January and ending in December. This isn’t your traditional, clear cut story with a defined protagonist and story arc from beginning to end. Marty Coslaw is mentioned in an earlier segment, but doesn’t fully come into the picture until well past the half-way point, and is written away, living with an Aunt and Uncle in Vermont for the two following segments. For the most part this is an anthology tale, with each segment following whichever unlucky son of a bitch who is targeted by the werewolf during the full moon, and eventually Marty re-enters the picture for the conclusion.
In a way, the novelette felt like it was the treatment or outline, and the movie was the fleshed out final draft. There are tons of major differences between the novelette and movie, and it was a joy to discover these. Not just with changes to character names – for example, in the novelette Marty’s sister is named Katie, and his Uncle is named Al, where in the film they are Jane and Red – but also with changes to characters roles and relationships. In the original story, while there are hints that Katie cares for her little brother, she’s a minor character who comes off as an asshole – where in the movie, Jane begins as the character as described from the novelette, but evolves into a major supporting character who stands by her brother. Another example of this is Uncle Al, who’s disappointingly less like Gary Busey than I wanted from the character, and only agrees to get silver bullets made after being guilt tripped by Marty; in fact, even in the December segment, Uncle Al doesn’t really do anything, but in the movie Red is featured much more frequently, and while remaining doubtful, he is utilized as a major supporting character.
Other characters like Stella, Milt and Brady were changed for the movie, but in ways that I felt helped the overall narrative by having them relate to the bigger picture. In the novelette, Stella was a young woman desperate for love on Valentines Day, whereas in the film she was a pregnant, scared and suicidal young woman, which ultimately gives some weight to why she was targeted by Lowe. In the novelette, Milt was the local librarian with a secret home life that included beating his wife and hooking up with prostitutes in a nearby town, whereas in the movie, he was the trashy, seemingly abusive father to Marty’s love interest, which, coupled with the change of making Brady as Marty’s best friend, added to Marty’s personal vendetta against the beast.
The biggest change is the treatment of Reverend Lowe; for most of the printed story he’s actually unaware that he is the beast, explained away mostly as the character suppressing the evidence of the truth, until Marty’s discovery and letters forces him to confront that truth. In the novelette, Lowe is unable to remember anything that happens while in his other, more primal, form. As such, he has no recollection of the incident on the fourth of July, and is unaware of who rendered him blind in one eye and is sending him hate mail. The incident with Marty was left out of the local tabloids, and with his desire to avoid small town gossip, Lowe is clueless – that is until Marty begins to sign each letter with his real name. In the movie, Lowe seems to know exactly what happened on the fourth, and is tipped off to Marty’s knowledge of his true self after an encounter with a terrified Jane.
In the novelette, there is a town-wide lynch mob gathering together to hunt the beast, but this doesn’t happen until the November section, in which Lowe tries to play it smart by leaving town for the night, but finds himself at the same motel as Milt. This doesn’t play out the same in the movie, as Lowe tries to plead for his fellow citizens to not seek the beast, but remains in town and eventually takes out more than half of this lynch mob.
Ultimately, the movie is the better version, but I absolutely love the experience of having two different versions of this one story. This isn’t just some random screenwriter adapting the source material, and it’s certainly not Stephen King trying to condense one of his average 800-1,000+ page novels into an hour and a half film; here King is taking one of his thinnest stories and adding to it; improving upon his original story by adding some extra meat to the story and developing the characters. I love that the movie brings Jane and Red front and center as supporting characters. There’s just something about the family bond between these three characters that makes the movie engaging to me. The novelette, on the other hand, has some fantastic and bad-ass art and great atmosphere, and I’m kind of torn as I liked Lowe’s story better in the novelette, but on the other hand, Everett McGill leaves a lasting impression with this version of the character.
I love having the choice between the anthology version of the story and the linear version, and since both are written by Stephen King, I appreciate them both for their differences.
What do you think? Do you prefer the novelette over the movie? Or vice versa?