Silver Bullet is easily one of the most underrated adaptations of the author’s work. There are those who saw the movie when they were younger and list it not only as a favorite adaptation, but a favorite werewolf movie. But it never had the audience of classics like The Shining, Stand by Me or even TV adaptations like IT. In the pantheon of the author’s representation in cinema, Silver Bullet is largely forgotten. And that’s too bad, because even if the effects stumble in places, there’s a lot to love about this movie.
It adheres to a lot of Stephen King tropes. It’s set in a small town. The protagonist is a child. The boy knows about the monster terrorizing the town and can’t get anyone else except his sister—who he doesn’t get along with very well—and his uncle—who he idolizes—to believe him. There are some unique traits. First and foremost, this is King’s big foray into werewolves. More than that, it centers on a sibling relationship that’s absent from most of the author’s other works. On top of that, it features a disabled protagonist in Marty Coslaw, played by the late Corey Haim.
But it’s Uncle Red that I really want to talk about. He’s a hero to Marty before he even learns of the possibility that a monster is terrorizing their town, but he winds up becoming a true horror hero that—over thirty years later—is still vastly overlooked. This is partially due to the fact that he’s portrayed by Gary Busey, who has since become the butt of pop culture jokes for being a rambling lunatic. Whatever people might think of the actor now, Silver Bullet is one of the best performances of Busey’s career. And that does mean something, considering that the man was nominated for an Oscar.
The major strength of Silver Bullet and the thing that I think ultimately saves it is that it boasts a script written by the King himself. Having King write the screenplay allows for a richer adaptation than it may have otherwise gotten as the source material, Cycle of the Werewolf, is only 120 pages long. That’s a very basic skeletal structure and in the wrong hands, this could have easily turned into a forgettable mess.
Luckily, we instead have some surprisingly well-crafted and well-written scenes. One of my favorite moments in Silver Bullets is actually a discussion Uncle Red tries to have with Marty’s mother over the fact that she needs to cut the cord and accept that Marty can actually take care of himself. It’s not a moment you’d expect from a film like this, especially in that it’s so well written that there’s no clear winner of the argument. Both of them make great points. But what it showcases is how deeply Red cares for Marty to the point of rushing to his defense even when the kid isn’t around to hear it.
It can seem jarring that Red jumps on the bandwagon of helping his nephew track a werewolf so quickly, but the film makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t actually believe in the werewolf until he sees it for himself at the end. There comes a point where he starts to believe that something is up and that the Reverend Lowe might have some skeletons in his closet, but he never completely buys the werewolf theory until he’s forced to confront it on his own.
Even though this isn’t addressed in the film, I think the truth is that this is fun for him. Even if he gets pissed off at Marty and Jane in all the ways an adult would. Red’s the stereotypical cool uncle. He’ll do anything to keep his nephew happy. He’ll humor him in ways that no other adult would. But the truth is that Red is a very lonely man or he wouldn’t find himself knee-deep in werewolf hunting to begin with. He’s an alcoholic moving from one failed marriage to the next, very likely has no real friends or he wouldn’t be so intent on visiting his sister and her family all the time.
Like most cool uncles, he’s not actually a cool guy. That’s part of what makes the character so interesting. He’s exactly the kind of person a child would think was cool, but he’s actually a fairly broken man. Putting down a rabid werewolf might be the only real thing of value that this character has ever done, and is certainly one of the few things we see him do in the film that isn’t largely self-destructive.
As much as people like to think that Gary Busey has gone off the rails, he’s had some great performances in his career. After The Gingerdead Man, it can be easy to forget that. That’s a good reason why Silver Bullet should never be forgotten. As much as it’s a great werewolf flick and a solid Stephen King adaptation, it’s a starring role for Busey from a time when he was firing on all cylinders. This is a character who is exactly the kind of person a kid would dream of having on their side: he’s an adult who understands. As you get older, it becomes clear how rare a thing that is.
Silver Bullet has other strong characters and performances to make it worth recommending—not least of which being those of Corey Haim and Everett McGill—but it’s Uncle Red who clearly steals the show.