Review by Mike Finkelstein
We don't often think of films as being time capsules. A good movie is meant to be timeless, to work not only when it came out but also for years and decades later. Sure, some amount of age is going to appear just as time moves forward and fashions change, music changes, and the cinematic process evolves. But a good film is able to transcend that, to shake off the rust of its era and be something more than just the decade it was filmed. The Breakfast Club is a dramedy rooted in its era but the story it tells, and its characters, become more than just the 1980s. The same can be said for the cheesy delights of The Lost Boys, which is both gloriously 1980s and yet also a really solid vampire film for any era. Not every film is able to pull off that feat.
1985's Silver Bullet is a film trapped in its own era. From its sets to its fashion, its music and its story, it feels less like a movie and more like a 1980s after school special about the dangers of trusting strangers. It's a werewolf flick that doesn't really dress like a horror movie. It's cheesy and low-budget in ways that don't actually help the movie. It's a film that can't escape the year it was created due to every detail of the production. Thus, it's fallen by the wayside, replaced by better werewolf films that were capable of escaping the era of their creation.
The film focuses on Marty Coslaw (Corey Haim, which should set off all your "this film is from the 1980s" warning alarms), a kid growing up in rural Tarker's Mills, Maine, with his sister Jane Coslaw (Megan Follows, of Anne of Green Gables) fame. Marty is a paraplegic, unable to move his legs at all. This makes him, as Megan puts it (in her regular narration during the film), a burden as his sister has to keep an eye on him at all times. It's not what Megan wants, it's what Marty needs. Marty, though, would love to just be allowed to be a kid, cruising around town in his gas-powered wheel chair (named "Silver Bullet") and hanging out with his uncle, Red (Gary Busey).
Things in town take a turn, though, as people suddenly start dying. At first it's thought the kills are just accidents, like people drunkenly falling asleep on the railroad tracks and losing their head. But then people start dying in their homes, obviously killed by a person, and the town freaks out. It's Marty, though, that realizes the truth. When he's out one night, setting off fireworks, a beast comes for him. It's hairy and ugly and mean, so Marty immediately shoots it in the eye with a bottle rocket before driving off. Marty is pretty sure it's a werewolf... he just has to convince anyone else of the truth.
From the moment the film starts you get hit int eh face from the 1980s. It's not just the fashion and set design, although those certainly feel dated at this point, but it's the way the film was produced. It looks and feels like an After School Special. It's the very plain filming, the close-ups shots of the characters, the static one-two shots as people talk. The cinematography for the film is unambitious, which doesn't work well for a film but would have been right at home for something that was made for TV in the era. This was a theatrical release but it doesn't really feel like it.
Not helping matters is the music. The sound design of this film is just awful, with tunes little better than musak playing through every scene. You get the vibe that these easy-listening instrumental tracks were meant to evoke the soft and sweet rural nature of the town, but it doesn't work. It this film were made today, these tracks would evoke the vibe of "these songs were free via the Creative Commons". It's the kind of music, once again, you'd get from 1980s TV special, not a film meant for the big screen.
The film is a product of its era, and that's a knock against it. But when it comes to the story, though, the film still fails to hit its mark. A big problem with this werewolf film is that it has very little concern for the werewolf. The movie takes the standard mold of, "we have to figure out who the werewolf is," a mystery that naturally suits this genre. However, the werewolf in the film isn't anyone directly connected to the kids. It's (spoilers for aged film) the local priest, Reverend Lowe (Everett McGill), a character we barely see and don't care about at all.
Now, in fairness to the film, there's a sub-plot about how all the victims of the werewolf are sinners and, by him killing them, he's actually freeing them of their sinful burden. This works for the first few killings -- a drunk, a potential suicide, an abusive husband -- but as the film goes on and the bodies pile up, that thread is lost. It makes sense as a plot line for a priest trying to struggle with what he's become, but it doesn't work when the werewolf evolves into a wanton killer. The film loses its own thread.
Maybe it could have stuck that storyline better if the kids had a connection to the priest in some way. If they were regular church-goers I could see the priest getting more development and, in turn, there being something of a personal connection to help us root his character in the lives of our leads. The only time we go into the church, though, is when a funeral is happening, and that keeps the priest at a reserve. His going evil and killing people (as is eventually revealed in the film) only serves to emphasize the unintentional "stranger danger" aspect of the film, making it feel like a PSA instead of a movie.
Not everything about the film is bad, though. I do like the leads -- Haim, Follows, and Busey -- who are all affable and charismatic. The fact that this film works at all is a testament to the lead actors having fun hanging out with each other on screen. And the film does at least nail its creature effects (for the era it came out in, anyway). There's some pretty good shifting effects, especially at the end of the movie, and that in turn heps lend the werewolf some creature credibility.
With that being said, this is still a pretty average film. It lacks the specific charms of Haim's other monster film from the 1980s, The Lost Boys, and it doesn't have enough fun with itself to make up for its obvious issues. When the film came out, in the 1980s, this was a likable little werewolf film that did okay at the Box Office. The years, though, have not been kind, only emphasizing its flaws in the process.