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Mcgill, Pare And Fox: Three Eighties Werewolves Weigh In

 

Based on the Stephen King novella “Cycle of the Werewolf”, Silver Bullet (1985) is an enjoyable eighties entry in the post-Howling period, however the film could have been far more interesting and poetic if director Daniel Attias was keenly interested in – and invested in – dealing with issues concerning morality that Stephen King sets up in his screenplay. There is a juicy subtext in the film where characters deemed “unfit” and “un-Christian” suffer the fate of being mauled and brutally slaughtered by the local small-town werewolf. For example, the chronic drunk is killed firstly, then the adulteress pregnant woman considering suicide is attacked and so forth. The werewolf’s chosen victims are “sinners” and this factor should have been developed and would have acted as “Our town’s long nightmare…” that the narrator of the film, Jane (a voice over provided by Tovar Feldshuh), sets up. The idea of small town secrecy is something writer Stephen King enjoys tapping into (the vampire infested “Salem’s Lot”, the telekinetic path of destruction as seen in “Carrie” and so forth), and Silver Bullet uses this “Peyton Place” sensibility as best it can.

The picturesque set-ups and the low-key Americana are established nicely and elegantly, however the werewolf design by Carlo Rimbaldi is more bear than lycanthrope which lets the successful aspects of the film down. But the film is engaging and has moments of ingenuity. There are even some appealing aspects to the look of the core werewolf, especially in moments where he leaps and lunges at his victims. The violence in the film is entertaining, and definitely a response to audiences who were used to seeing graphic depictions of gore in the slasher boom of the early eighties, and this is something aesthetically appealing when set against the quaint presentation of American small towns.

Silver Bullet (1985)

Character-wise, the film is primarily a child-centric Nancy Drew-style horror story with a strained sibling rivalry at the core. Young Jane (Megan Follows) is saddled with looking after her crippled brother Marty (Corey Haim) who she eventually forms a loving bond with during a werewolf hunt. Countering the complicated relationship shared between brother and sister is Marty’s connection to his heavy drinking Uncle Red (Gary Busey) who is fundamentally a good man, but a flawed one. In Silver Bullet, Stephen King presents us with characters who are tainted by personal afflictions and insecurities, but are rooted in deep decency, and he also delivers his werewolf as the supposedly “good” Reverend Lester Loeb (Everett McGill), a werewolf who upholds a moral judgement. It is a recurring element in King’s writing to give his religious or morally “righteous” characters a demented monstrous edge – Margaret White in “Carrie”, the faithless Father Callahan in “Salem’s Lot”, the religious cult of youngsters in “Children of the Corn” et al. King’s screenplay is elegant and moving, and when the drunken Uncle Red redeems himself and helps assist in taking on the malevolent werewolf, it is pure E.C. Comics fun. Matching the great writing is Gary Busey’s terrific performance which is in fact a very pure performance, something as meticulously handled as his Oscar nominated performance in The Buddy Holly Story (1978).

Silver Bullet (1985)

Although the film has uneven direction and moments of stale stagnancy, there are some terrific set pieces and thematic ingredients that power the piece such as the townsfolk arguing and ganging up against the werewolf, the sharp detailing of working class stigma, the violence of the human condition and ultimately riding high is King’s love for children as heroes with the unlikely heroics of Marty and Jane as the core of the story. The tenderness of childhood presented by Stephen King, makes this prolific horror writer one of the most sensitive of story constructors, and the naturalism of human melodrama shines through and delivers all the right punches for his werewolf outing. A clear example of this is the scene where Marty’s mother and Red have a heated argument – this is good writing and, as aforementioned, a presentation of honest performances at their best.

The curfew that sends the town into becoming a paranoid entity, the vigilantism and private justice system and the dream sequence where the guilt-ridden Reverend sees his church congregation transform into werewolves is all inspired brilliance. In response to the latter of these markings, the Reverend’s neurosis, anguish and disorientating terror during the dream sequence is realized and made all the more tragic, “The face of the beast always becomes known…” says the Reverend, and this is the recurring truth behind the façade that Silver Bullet presents. The full moon as a prompt for psychotic behaviour and the moments in the misty woodlands where a lynch mob are slaughtered by the werewolf are all gothic additions stitched into the fabric of what truly is a Norman Rockwell bound monster story.

Bad Moon (1996)

The entertaining Bad Moon (1996) may read like a made for television movie, but it is a stylish and visually inspired romp that comes from an incredibly well written and poignant novel from the early nineties. “Thor”, a book by author Wayne Smith, is primarily told through the perspective of the titular character – a dog. Thor is a devoted German Shepherd who protects his human family from a werewolf, and the clincher is that said werewolf is a relation to his “pack”.  An interesting angle here is that Thor wishes to distinguish whether or not this lycan-relative is misunderstood, non-threatening and a possible positive addition to the “pack”. However, it is proven that the werewolf is indeed a monstrous cretin that will kill the people Thor loves, sending this intelligent and perceptive pooch into hyper-protection mode. The film (adapted by writer/director Eric Red) makes some liberal changes from the book such as shrinking Thor’s family of five to two: a single mother and lawyer Janet Harrison (Mariel Hemingway) and her young son Brett (Mason Gamble), but keeps the core narrative element of Thor the dog being cluey as well as acting as a catalyst to most of the action of the film.

In Smith’s book, Thor’s compassion for his family is thoroughly detailed and his confusion in regards to the werewolf (who in human form is respected by the human family he protects) is constructed in a bright and intriguing fashion – here in Bad Moon, these bookish elements are near non-existent, but this does not mean the film misses the point. The animal acting of the canine co-star playing Thor is outstanding and drives a direct impact. The film pits werewolf against family dog and the results are gripping and dramatic. In many regards, it is as if Bad Moon would have been written by Lillie Hayward (a screenwriter known primarily for her work in dog-centric cinema as well as lycanthropic outings) if she were still alive in the mid-nineties. The nineties was fundamentally a decade painted up by various cultural movements and one of the most influential and dominant in regards to youth subculture was the grunge explosion that originated in the Pacific Northwest. Cities such as Seattle in Washington State and Portland in Oregon and surrounding areas, spawned a unique sound and style that eventually made an imprint into the film culture.

Bad Blood (1996)

Grunge cinema was born at the end of the eighties and flourished throughout the nineties, and although most of the films were teen-centric comedies or twenty-something romantic dramas, a great portion of these testaments to the alienated and disenfranchised angst-riddled slacker generation were thrillers. Films such as Pump Up The Volume (1990), Fear (1996) and Poison Ivy (1992) featured troubled sociopaths who would share box office takings with left over slasher superstars Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees fronting endless sequels such as Wes Craven’s Nightmare (1994) and Jason Goes To Hell: The Final Friday (1993). These unstable Pacific Northwest dwelling suburbanites would cause trouble in picturesque lush green surroundings that made for perfect locales for werewolves during the decade and Bad Moon uses the forestry of this part of North America beautifully. The film boasts some gorgeous areal and helicopter shots of grandiose mountain tops, pine trees that stretch out to the clear blue sky and majestic rivers and vast green shrubbery that coats the rich, wet earth.

The film is unapologetically violent and features some terrific gore-soaked moments, and for some reason the bloodshed comes as a surprise. The reason as to why the scenes depicting Marjorie’s (Johanna Marlowe) death in the opening scene with her shredded corpse hanging off tree branches – and with a severely mutilated Michael Pare in the closing moments – are shocking is because the film doesn’t seem to be coming from a place of splatter – instead Bad Moon is cemented in family melodrama. This is the heart of the piece: it is a film about an estranged man trying to reconnect with the only family that he has. Michael Pare’s performance is nuanced, thoughtful and nicely conceived; he is an actor who understands great pacing and dualism incredibly well. Pare injects his character Ted with strained frustration and quiet loneliness. In The Howling (1981), Karen White (Dee Wallace) is sent to a community of werewolves where she develops a growing fear of being “inducted”, whereas in Bad Moon, Ted is a rogue werewolf who wishes to reconnect with his human family only to have that jeopardised as he is turned into a werewolf. Ted struggles to control and deny his lycanthropy, which is something that the film does with magnetic vivacity, both thematically and in tangible terms and this is something that The Howling invests in through inversion – Karen resists the culture of lycanthropy, while Ted in Bad Moon has it forced upon him and dictate the outcome.  

Bad Moon (1996)

The film strikes a chord with Universal’s classic Werewolf of London (1935) which opens in Tibet and has the first werewolf attack the protagonist who will deal with their lycanthropy for the rest of the picture. Werewolf of London features in Bad Moon when young Brett is watching it on television (during breakfast of all times), and his Uncle Ted scoffs at the sequence where Henry Hull transforms in dissolves as he walks behind various pillars.

The werewolf design in Bad Moon is impressive and resembles an Eastern Timber wolf with his snarling snout, shaggy grey coat and erect ears. The animatronics and puppetry used in the film are great and the man-in-suit addition is beautifully handled, and a perfect extension to Pare’s terrific performance as a man who completely loses himself to his violent animal nature.

Teen Wolf (1985)

There is a moment in Teen Wolf where the protagonist’s basketball coach misinterprets the “changes” he mentions with puberty, and this is something that the werewolf film is capable of commenting on. The sprouting of hair, the painful transformation and the realization of coming into a different state is completely reflective of the transition into adolescence. This eighties cult favorite, made right at the height of the teen sex comedy boom as well as the coming-of-age youth blockbusters (made popular by film maker John Hughes), tells the story of Scott Howard (Michael J. Fox) who is a downtrodden Charlie Brown-type, plagued by mediocrity and small town blues. He is in his high school’s basketball team which are constantly at a loss and he seems slightly out of step with his friends. When he finally embraces his lycanthropy, Scott becomes popular and much loved by his peers.  Pamela (Lorie Griffin), the pretty but superficial girl that Scott has a crush on, begins to “see” him and even seduces him, while his opportunistic friend Stiles (Jerry Levine) capitalizes on his friend’s difference. Turning lycanthropy into a popularity booster and a commodity (complete with t-shirts) is something that The Howling shies away from, in that Doctor George Waggner (Patrick McNee) says that “we need this shelter to hatch our plan” – meaning that his werewolf community The Colony acts as a secret sect that keeps it’s residents out of view of the mainstream, before they can control their animalism and re-enter “civilized society”. In Teen Wolf, Scott’s werewolf state is much loved by the inner-community (the high school students) until his popularity starts to annoy some of them. “The werewolf is a part of you, but that doesn’t change what you have inside” says Scott’s lycanthropic father and this rings similar to Dr. George Waggner from The Howling in that he understands the true nature of the self and the relationship the core being has with the animal inside. Change is something that Scott wants. He tells his best friend (and eventual girlfriend) Boof (Susan Ursitti) that he wants change, and that he doesn’t want to “end up working in the hardware store” that his dad runs – a maudlin sensibility runs through the film, and a palpable testimony of longing for more.

Teen Wolf (1985

Surprisingly the film is touching and has a mournful under current, and this is all thanks to Fox’s sensitive portrayal of someone just trying to navigate through the wilderness of adolescence. Identity crisis is the fundamental narrative crux here in Teen Wolf, and when he accepts himself outside of being the wolf, we are on his side as the film catapults into a feel-good 80s triumph of the spirit number. The film inspired a cartoon series (1986-1987) and then a sexed up television series (2011-). The animated series, featuring Linda Woolverton as one of it’s head writers (who is invested in delivering social commentary in her work), dealt with powerful topics such as disability rights, prejudice, teen peer pressure, bullying and cultural stereotypes. As far as the correlation between the 80s film Teen Wolf and animation goes, there must be something said of the werewolf design for Michael J. Fox in that it looks remarkably like Wolfie from the Filmation series Groovie Ghoulies (1970). Fox’s werewolf has a cousin in the body of fellow sitcom star Justin Bateman who starred in Teen Wolf Too (1987), an atrocity with some of the worst werewolf make-up ever put to screen, does nothing new or inventive with cinematic lycanthropy. The film also features a ludicrous “cramming studies” montage that is painful and embarrassing.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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