James Gunn’s Slither is a gleeful movie. In fact, if I was forced to describe it using only “G” words, I would say that Slither is gleeful, gooey, gory and goofy. It’s the kind of good, wholesome fun you can only get in films where Michael Rooker is ramming ovipositors into people’s stomachs.
In many ways Slither is a throwback to body horror and the cheekier horror films of the 80s, but the movie it most reminds me of is Shaun of the Dead. There’s no actual connection between the films except for a tonal similarity – both are comedic films with a serious horror underpinning, and both films find the comedy not in the monsters (both films play those elements completely straight) but in the characters. The laughs in Slither (and there are a lot of laughs in Slither) don’t come from the alien slugs doing silly things, they come from the silly people reacting to the really nasty alien slugs.
Slither is set in the town of Wheelsy, a decaying rural town where one of the biggest highlights of the year is the party leading up to the opening of deer season. Gunn, who wrote as well as directed the movie, quickly brings us through town and introduces the main characters – Grant Grant (Rooker), the local mogul; Starla (Elizabeth Banks), his improbably young and beautiful wife; Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), the easy going (read: lazy) chief of police who has been in love with Starla for years; and Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), the foul mouthed and tempered mayor. Gunn doesn’t spare the supporting characters either – he creates a town filled with recognizable faces, which adds heft when they all become mindless pawns of an ancient invading alien evil.
To Gunn’s immense credit he gets that invasion underway quickly – Grant Grant discovers an alien life form and is infected by it very early in the first act, leaving the movie to be an escalation of gross outs and monster mayhem. The alien shares Grant’s mind, turning him into a From Beyondish monster who remembers a millennia of world conquering. He impregnates a local bar skank, who in turn gives birth to a zillion slugs, which set out to turn the people of Wheelsy into shambling zombies that share Grant’s hive mind. The infection will progress until the whole Earth has been sublimated by the ravenously meat-eating zombies. All that’s standing between the rest of us and doom is Bill Pardy, who can’t seem to get his police cruiser door open when being chased by zombies.
What makes Slither a movie I want to see again (and possibly again) is that while there’s all this great slimy alien stuff, and while the dialogue is astonishingly hilarious (I predict that in one year’s time Slither’s Memorable Quotes page on IMDB will be one of the best on that site. The film is just jam packed with lines that will find their way into geek patois), Gunn and his actors never allow the characters to turn into parodies or sketches. Even MacReady, the most buffoonish character in the film, is fleshed out by the end. Again, it’s something Slither has in common with Shaun of the Dead – you wouldn’t be at all averse to seeing these characters outside of a monster movie setting.
It’s great seeing them in a monster movie setting, though, especially one as lovingly created as this one. If I could recommend a DVD special feature for Slither it would be a text commentary keeping track of the homages, from the opening shot that recalls John Carpenter’s The Thing to a local bar called Hennenlotter’s. More obvious is Gunn’s tip of the hat to his humble beginnings, as The Toxic Avenger plays on a TV screen.
This wouldn’t be a Devin Faraci review if I didn’t take some note of the social subtext to the film. Horror movies always comment on their times, whether consciously or not, since what we find scary is going to be determined by the world around us. Deep in Slither I see commentary on out of control consumerism and consumption. The alien-infected crave meat, endless amounts of meat, and they gorge themselves until they become huge balloons of slugs. And is it any coincidence that this plague of deadly consumerism starts with the local big business man?
Rooker, it needs to be said, is fantastic as Grant Grant. It’s not an easy role – he spends most of the film in the thrall of an evil space slug, and a lot of that time deep under many layers of slimy make-up. The film relies on Rooker’s ability to project both menace and vulnerability – his greatest weakness is his very sincere love for Starla. By the time Grant has become a beast the size of his own house and is re-creating scenes from Society, it would be easy to play him just as a monster, but Gunn and Rooker wisely dial it back just enough so that when he meets his inevitable end you can’t help but feel bad for the guy.
The rest of the cast is packed with greatness as well. Fillion proves that he needs to find a clever romantic comedy, stat – the guy’s delivery and timing are impeccable, and he has that young Harrison Ford thing going on in spades. Elizabeth Banks shows that her 40 Year Old Virgin performance wasn’t a fluke; she’s a gifted comedienne who can be funny and silly without losing her class, something that makes her that much funnier. And Gregg Henry is spectacular – every single thing he says is a killer line.
2006 is a banner year for horror, as far as I’m concerned, and Slither is the latest film to exceed expectations and remind me why I was a Fangoria subscriber in my youth. Unlike Hostel and The Hills Have Eyes, Slither is a feel-good horror film, and it’s the kind that’s perfect for turning an impressionable 12 or 13 year old into an FX freak.