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On Bad Moon (1996) and Silver Bullet (1985)
Bad Moon has the sheen of a sleepy 90s popcorn horror movie, with its flatly lit widescreen images, firmly but non-threateningly adult leads, nonspecific northern US setting, and plucky blonde child character – like one of the less well-remembered Stephen King adaptations, one of the ones based on a short story too thin to ever a novel. But the sheen doesn’t quite match the material underneath, which is not thin but spare, elemental, and unexpectedly sinister in its flensing of narrative elements down to the bare essentials. In this sense, at least, it resembles its grandparents, the Universal horror films which, for all their beautiful decadence, always come down to a shadow on a face, a glint in an eye, and the sudden realization that a threshold has been crossed. For a few minutes, in Bad Moon, we are in a jungle, at a man’s campsite – we see it attacked by an enormous wolf, standing on two legs. It kills his guides, his girlfriend, slashes the man himself, who we will come to know as “Uncle Ted”, before he can blow its head off, and then that’s that. That’s all the movie says we need. It’s taken as a matter of course that he becomes a werewolf, that his attempts to find a cure are in vain. We rejoin him as he turns to “family love” as a last resort which he delusionally hopes may induce “remission,” and takes his Airstream trailer to the backyard of his wealthy lawyer sister’s house. What Bad Moon suggests, but does not draw out, because it draws nothing out, is that lycanthropy is a progressive disease in which the sufferer, day by day, becomes more and more wolf-like, and that to become more and more wolf-like is to become less and less capable of controlling one’s own, innate violence. The chief dramatic antagonism is between Uncle Ted and his sister’s German Shepherd, Thor. This is not only because Thor correctly recognizes him as dangerous, but because Ted, in turn, perceives him as a threat – not a threat in human terms, i.e. the fear of being attacked by this muscular, sharp-toothed animal, but in animal terms, as a competitor for love and territory. They are, in essence, two opposed models of masculinity – the Guardian, well-fed and well-groomed, capable of violence but controlled, intelligent, acting only in defense of its family, and the Beast, untamed, reckless, filthy and hungry, which desires nothing more than the ecstacy of evisceration (notably there is no “husband” in this movie – excepting an elderly sheriff who appears in one scene, the only men are animals, or fodder for animals). Beyond this the film is not interested in drawing out the mechanics of the affliction – he transforms every night and there’s nothing to be done about it. No spells, no medicines, no silver bullets – the treatment is a tree trunk and steel handcuffs, the cure is to get your head blown off. That’s it. It isn’t interested in elaborating the mechanics because the mechanics don’t matter, only the threat, and the violence, and the war of egos. And there is a strange sexual component to this as well – it’s not immediately obvious what the relationship between Ted and this woman who proves to be his sister is; it’s not until after they’ve embraced, almost as lovers might, that the ambiguity is cleared up. As things progress and Uncle Ted struggles more and more to maintain the facade of civilization, his behavior becomes not just more aggressive but more lecherous, too – mutedly so, but we remember the special attention the werewolf gave to his girlfriend in the opening, drawing out her death far longer and with far greater brutality than the male guides, and we see the same thing in his eyes near the end, as his sister watches him transform. Like most of the film’s interesting ideas, it doesn’t really do anything with this, or even develop it to a point where we can be sure it’s fully intentional. This vagueness is arguably to the film’s detriment, but at the same time this is what draws me to it. It runs a lean 80 minutes and has about four characters, counting Thor. In such a stubborn, barebones film, which is so disinterested in exposition yet so idiosyncratic in its interpretation of its subject, every detail that is underlined, even slightly, takes on a magnified importance. Early on, we see what’s left of a forest surveyor who was one of Uncle Ted’s victims: blood, guts, and shredded clothing strung fifty feet up the side of a tree. The whole film is a bit like that: more skeleton than meat, and glistening in the moonlight.
Silver Bullet is more than a decade older but has almost the same sheen – in part because the 90s were in many ways the ghost of the 80s, and in part because it actually is a Stephen King adaptation, and an adaptation of a “novelette” at that, a form which is even slighter than a short story. It’s a film of about the same quality, if not the same focus, and is also about a werewolf, but the differences are striking, as they always are between something King-esque and something drawn from the work of the man himself. For one, there is no sexual tension to the film, unresolved or not. The hero, a pubescent boy, mentions “tits” exactly once, as a punchline which exists to prove that this is a world in which desire couldn’t be anything else. And this is the other important difference: it is a world – or at least a town, which for Stephen King is the same thing. Bad Moon is about a family, about “family love”, and does enough to make that clear and nothing else. Silver Bullet is about a town under attack, and it wanders all over soaking up the sights. The drama here is simple, not elemental: there is a community of many people who are distinct in familiar, legible ways, and they act, more or less, in the ways we have been taught to expect them to, under the circumstances. Boys throw snakes at girls, single mothers-to-be swallow pill bottles, bearded camo-vest loudmouths lead old men with shotguns into the woods to die. There’s nothing we have to strain to reach, nothing is coarse enough to chafe when it rubs against us – even when it’s something genuinely strange, like a priest, howling, with both eyes put out. Like Bad Moon, again, there is an ease with which the conventional tenets of lycanthropy are employed or dispensed with – our heroes make assumptions about how it works, about the man’s agency, about his control over his Beastliness, about when and why they’ll be attacked, assumptions based on essentially nothing, pure speculation, which nonetheless prove to be correct. Here, it still takes a silver bullet, but here also, the transformation now happens every night. Here, there is still no theory of how werewolves come to be, they still simply exist, but now it’s not a progressive disease, rather something that waxes and wanes with the cycles of the moon. With some luck, the werewolf of Silver Bullet could go on killing forever. This makes it possible for the climax to occur on Halloween, and for the question of the primal and the rational to be safely elided. When we watch Silver Bullets we don’t need to wonder about what its Beast says about men, because the film is happy to reassure us he’s this man, who is the way he is because he’s bad, and you don’t need to worry about it any more than that. This isn’t a good thing or a bad thing, really, it’s just an ethos, in the barest sense possible – just the reason why, stubbornly, persistently, we continue to know who Stephen King is. His hero is a kid in a wheelchair, and his sidekick is a middle-aged burnout with a drinking problem. It would be easy to read some degree of autobiography into this, but it wouldn’t get you anywhere. The story exists on a lower plane: America.
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