Saturday, July 7, 2007

An Unexpected Endorsement: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Haim & Busey


You’d be surprised how tough it was for Rob and I to choose three werewolf films for our July episode – especially given we were operating with the theme “good, bad, and ugly.” An American Werewolf in London was a no-brainer, as it’s certainly one of the best of the genre (and arguably the best in my opinion). But for the bad and the ugly . . . there are a LOT of bad werewolf films out there. The Howling series alone (after the original) is chock full of titles to choose from. However, being the kind sort of fellows we are, we wanted to select films that were bad but fun to watch. After all, we have to suffer through them as well : )

With that in mind, something interesting happened. We each managed to pick something the other hadn’t seen (which is very rare for us, believe me). Rob selected Bad Moon (the bad) and I went with Silver Bullet (the ugly) – yep, we have a great deal of faith in each other (in spite of the fact he was largely responsible for The Apple and I for Gymkata : ) Well, over the long holiday weekend I had an opportunity to watch both Bad Moon and Silver Bullet (which I hadn’t seen since opening day in 1985), and have to say they’re both very entertaining. I expected Bad Moon to be fairly decent based on what I’d read, but (going on my fuzzy memory) I was anticipating something truly awful with Silver Bullet. Instead, I was treated to a film that managed to surprise me at every turn - not with its standard werewolf plot, but in its outrageous execution.

Based on a novella (Cycle of the Werewolf) by Stephen King, Silver Bullet is a simple tale of a small town under siege by what else, a werewolf. As the body count rises, only a young boy (Corey Haim) who discovers the monster’s identity can bring an end to the killings. That’s the movie in a nutshell. Ho-hum, right? Wrong. The “magic” unfolded from the moment I pushed play on the remote . . .

First off, I immediately noticed that the film was shot in the anamorphic, widescreen aspect ratio of 2:35:1, usually reserved for epics and blockbusters. Now, I don’t like to be one of those people who go in pre-judging something based on surface characteristics, but I was not expecting “epic” out of Silver Bullet (not even in 1985). By choosing this format the director (whom I will speak of toward the end) is making a bold statement, in as much that he fancies himself able to fill every inch of screen space with important, visual information.

The next item that caught my eye as the titles came on the screen was the cast list. Sure I knew it starred Corey Haim and Gary Busey, but listen to some of the other names on the roster: Everett McGill (Dune, Twin Peaks), Terry O’ Quinn (Millennium, Lost), Bill Smitrovich (Millennium, Crime Story), and Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs). If you’re not familiar with those names, trust me you’ll recognize the faces. Already my hopes had risen just a bit.

My expectations continued to increase when I saw that the score was by Jay Chattaway. I’m not going to sit here and tell you Mr. Chattaway is John Williams, but his early career was spent scoring some great B-movie classics including: Maniac, Vigilante, Missing in Action (1 & 3), Invasion: U.S.A., and Maniac Cop (1 & 2). I can’t say for certain, but I would guess that Silver Bullet is his masterpiece. As the film starts he provides a nice John Carpenter-esque synthesizer score, and then goes on to do a number of themes. You get after-school special hokum, spaghetti western homage, cheesy military overture, quasi-Goblin moments, and so much more. It’s a true tour de force.

As if the above weren’t enough, the werewolf effects were credited to legendary effects master Carlo Rambaldi. What has the late Mr. Rambaldi done you may ask? Twitch of the Death Nerve (the inspiration for elements of Friday the 13th), Night of the Devils, Andy Warhol’s Dracula & Frankenstein, Deep Red, Alien, Conan The Barbarian, E. T., and Dune to mention but a few. Things just kept getting better.

Finally, the screenplay was by none other than Stephen King himself. Now this can be a good thing or a bad thing, as his movie efforts (as writer and director) have been hit or miss (with more in the miss column). I don’t know that King intentionally went for over-the-top camp here, but the dialogue is so ridiculous at times it’s hard to believe otherwise. I guarantee that there will be lines from this film that will become standard entries in my mental reference book from which I regularly draw. Truly the creativity behind such dreadful prose is nothing short of genius, and I mean that sincerely. You will laugh. You will cry. And to quote the film itself, “you will make lemonade in your pants.”

With an unexpected amount of optimism and good will generated by the opening credits, it was time to settle in for a ride on the Silver Bullet. With a 95 minute running time, the film wastes not a single second in getting down to business. The action starts with veteran character actor James Gammon (Cabin Boy) being decapitated (most unconvincingly) by the furry antagonist. The effect of Gammon’s flying head is so wildly cheesy, that it is nothing short of a shot across the bow letting brave viewers know what madness awaits. From this point forward we’re treated to:

*A church picnic introduction that is worthy of a David Lynch film.

*An after-school special type drama between Corey Haim and his teen sister (who sporadically narrates the film years later as an older woman), struggling to come to terms with each other.

*Gary Busey as Corey Haim’s loveable, alcoholic uncle. Trust me when I tell you this is Busey in full-on Busey mode, not Busey in Lethal Weapon-comeback fighting shape. Every preconceived notion you have about the man will only be reinforced by this performance. Great stuff!

*Lawrence Tierney going mano a mano with the werewolf, using a baseball bat called “The Peacemaker.”

*A surreal and oddly hilarious sequence featuring a church full of werewolves.

*Corey Haim in a turbo-charged wheelchair called, I kid you not, “The Silver Bullet.” Fire literally comes out of the exhaust pipes!! Any attempt at treating the character’s handicap in a serious fashion immediately goes out the window when we witness Haim in a Fast and the Furious style road duel with the villain’s Ford Crown Victoria.

*A montage in which the sister seeks out the killer’s true identity, that plays like a tribute to the films of Sergio Leone (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but just a tad bizarre in this particular film).

And that’s just a taste. Ultimately, the combination of so many offbeat elements makes for a rather fascinating, if disjointed experience. While I can’t say that Silver Bullet is a “great” film, it never fails to entertain and is constantly surprising. The story may be familiar, but stylistically one never knows what is coming next. I thought An American Werewolf in London would be the evening’s highlight, but this will come in a close second. A grudge match between quality (American Werewolf) and absurdity (Silver Bullet)! Seeing this on the big screen is an absolute must!

One final piece of trivia you might find interesting. After sitting through this surprisingly enjoyable film, I was curious to know what other work director Daniel Attias had to his credit (as the name didn’t ring any bells). From what I can tell, he’s never made another feature film, but has gone on to direct episodes for some of the coolest shows on television. A short list includes the following: Sledge Hammer!, Miami Vice, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr., Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Sopranos, Lost, Deadwood, and Entourage. Not a bad resume . . . and it all began with Silver Bullet!

6 comments:

John Kenneth Muir said...

Jim:

I love your fair-minded (and admittedly-surprised!) review of Silver Bullet.

I ended up giving the film three stars in Horror Films of the 1980s for many of the reasons you list here.

It isn't really that the film is "good" but it is surprisingly entertaining and oddly compelling. It will never make a "great" movie list - that's for dang sure - but the movie has some magic and nefarious alchemy that renders it special. And watchable.

I remember during shooting THB 2, some people leafed through my book and said I was nuts for giving the film 3 stars.

But now you know the sinister spell of Silver Bullet, my friend. Now you understand...

Great post! And I'm enjoying the hell out of your blog.

Best,
John

Jim Blanton said...

Hey John!
Thanks so much for your kind words, and for backing me on Silver Bullet! I couldn't remember how you'd reviewed the film, and was itching to get my hands on your book to see your reaction.

Having not seen Silver Bullet since the ripe old age of 13, I now think I was too young to appreciate the "nefarious alchemy," having been spoiled on grander movies at the time. Going into it this time, given the reputation of the principal folks involved, I wrongly assumed the worst. It just goes to show, you shouldn't judge a book (or film adaptation) by it's cover : )

Best, Jim

Pamela K. Kinney said...

Enjoyed your review and agree. But in my estimation of werewolf films I've seen the worse is that disgusting one called Beast of Bray Road, based on a legend of Wisconsin, but made into work of fiction. Rent that--you'll be willing to throw your remote at the TV screen in disgust.
Lucky for me I had a coupon for a free Blockbuster Favorite, so at least I didn't waste money, just a monthly coupon.
Pam

Jim Blanton said...

Oh wow, that does sound terrible! Plus there's something inherently wrong about a werewolf movie set in Wisconsin - it's not exotic enough (no offense to you folks from Wisconsin).

With remote throwing a likely outcome, I think I like my TV too much to take that plunge : ) Like you said, at least there was no monetary cost . . . your sanity and life moments that are impossible to recover are another story.

Pamela K. Kinney said...

Actually Wisconsin is famous of supernatural and UFO sightings. A fellow author from Schiffer Publishing did Monsters of Wisconsin. Gave me idea for second book with them being myths and legends of Virginia. But I knew for years of Wisconsin's weirdness. :-D

Jim Blanton said...

I stand corrected : ) I would've never guessed Wisconsin to be a hub for those sorts of things - now Virginia on the other hand . . .