MONSTER MONTH: Here Wolf, There Wolf, Werewolf

The short but prolific werewolf cycle of the early ’80s gave us classics The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Coming in under the radar is the underappreciated 1985 gem, SILVER BULLET, a fast-paced and immensely enjoyable monster thriller adapted by Stephen King from his own novella. In the summer of 1976, several residents of the small town of Tarker’s Mill are viciously murdered. The locals think a serial killer is responsible, and the authorities shut down the town, even cancelling the popular Fourth of July fireworks celebration.

The town becomes restless as the body count grows and no suspect is brought forward, until wheelchair-bound Marty (Corey Haim) has a close encounter with a large, hairy beast with sharp teeth. Marty believes a werewolf is on the prowl and tries to convince his loving but dysfunctional uncle, Red (Gary Busey), and big sister, Jane (Megan Follows), that they must find the person who’s transforming into the creature and kill them.

While it might lack the visual richness of Howling and polished trickery of American Werewolf, Silver Bullet is a solid film filled with wonderful characters and suspenseful situations. Busey and Haim have great chemistry and feel like genuine family, while Follows has enough spunk and energy to have been the next Jamie Lee Curtis. Director Dan Attias keeps the film moving at a tight pace and builds it up to an exciting, but brief, climax.

When it comes to satisfying endings, 1981’s THE HOWLING sure does give you your money’s worth. After receiving threatening phone calls, TV news reporter, Karen (Dee Wallace), goes undercover to find out if her stalker is the person responsible for a series of brutal murders in the area. When she’s attacked by a man named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who’s shot dead by police, famed psychiatrist, Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee), suggests Karen and her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), spend a week at his woodsy retreat, The Colony. Once there, they meet the doctor’s colorful patients, including leather-clad “nymphomaniac,” Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), whose got eyes for Bill and might be hiding a dangerous secret.

After several nights of strange noises, and following an animal attack on Bill, Karen discovers The Colony is actually a haven of werewolves, and home to Eddie, who’s still very much alive. Adapted from Gary Brandner’s book, screenwriters John Sayles and Terrence H. Winkless wisely injected the story with humor, and in doing so created a truly original werewolf flick. The film’s serious subject matter (attempted rape and PTSD) is nicely evened out with a jokey take on then-popular new age medicine and commune lifestyles. Wallace makes for a sympathetic heroine, but it’s Rob Bottin’s excellent make-up FX that is the real star; the werewolves are perhaps some of the scariest in horror history.

Oscar winner Rick Baker offered up his expertise for WOLF, but unlike An American Werewolf in London, the make-up FX in this 1994 film are merely background dressing. Jack Nicholson stars as mild mannered book editor, Will Randall, who’s bitten by a yellow-eyed wolf while driving through Vermont wilderness. A few days later, and after he’s demoted at work, Will undergoes a mysterious transformation which not only heightens his senses but changes his personality. After discovering his wife (Kate Nelligan) is sleeping with his coworker, Stewart (James Spader), who was offered Will’s position at work, Will forms his own publishing business and begins a romance with his former boss’s daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

It isn’t long until the animal comes completely out of Will as he’s chasing and snacking on deer. His aggressive nature also gets him his old job back, as well as revenge on Stewart, who may be hiding a secret of his own. When Will moves from killing animals to attacking humans, he tries to stop himself before he can’t return from his wolf persona at all.

Not a horror movie in the traditional sense, Wolf is more of a were-drama that’s concerned with character over fangs. Nicholson, with his brooding demeanor, is well cast as Will, as is Spader, who’s his usually slimy-but-charming self as Will’s nemesis. Pfeiffer has good chemistry with Nicholson, but Laura doesn’t have very much to do aside from being the love interest. There’s also a scene where Will seeks help from a worldly old scientist (Om Puri) that’s pure ham and feels unnecessary.

Although it looks great, Wolf is a disappointment. A good cast is wasted on rather lackluster writing and a sluggish pace, and Baker’s make-up effects (briefly seen during the final showdown) are not used to their full potential. Wolf is a drama without much drama, and a horror movie without much horror; it’s a werewolf movie for people who don’t watch werewolf movies. Look for David Schwimmer in a small role as a cop. | The Howling: ASilver Bullet: B+ Wolf: C

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