Slither, written and directed by James Gunn, is the horror movie that Feast only dreamed of being. Yesterday on the blog I wrote about the ways in which Feast attempted to ape the cheesy/scary/funny formula of many 1980s horror pics, and here I am today, discussing a film that has mastered that equation. Synchronicity, huh?
This is a good, maybe great horror film, and Slither may just become a classic like Tremors (1990), even though - at times - it treads perilously close to the turf of that forgotten 80s flick, Night of the Creeps. Fortunately, Slither is better than that two-decade old horror in just about every way imaginable.
Slither is the story of small town - Wheelsy, Texas - as a meteor crashes in the woods outside of the burg. While the Mayor, Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), gets ready for Deer Cheer 2005, a local businessman, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) discovers the meteor in the brush and is promptly infected by an alien parasite, a thing that the screenplay later terms a "conscious disease." The alien bug begins to re-shape Grant's mind and body (and we get a see-through view of Grant as the parasite burrows into his chest and makes contact with his central nervous system...). Consequently, before long, Grant is infecting the townspeople willy-nilly, including a mistress named Brenda, who becomes unwitting and unwilling host to about a billion parasite worms, each one sharing a hive mind with the Grant-host.
Investigating this odd happenstance is Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a laconic but square-dealing lawman who happens to harbor a Texas-sized crush on Grant's nubile young wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks). In one night of terror, the Grant monster and his zombie minions lays siege to the town, and also an isolated farm belonging to an All-American family.
The synopsis above doesn't really do Slither justice. It may not sound like an original story (and it isn't...) but the tale is filled with surprises and quirks that make it a genuine treat. The humor arises, in particular from the colorful character moments, the dialect of the locals, and a careful reversal and undercutting of expectations in key moments. For instance, without giving anything away, watch for the punch-line involving a confiscated grenade that "just happens" to be stowed in the police station, and which we - as experienced moviegoers - know will play a role in the climax. Also, the sustained and tense set-piece in the farmhouse, in which a teenage girl, Kylie (Tania Saulnier) is attacked by worms in her cast-iron bath tub, is unexpectedly frightening...and visceral.
Beyond these touches, the characters act with admirable consistency (which was a factor missing from Feast), and the special effects stand up to close scrutiny. The latter point is a bonus, no doubt, and ratchets up the "ick" factor of Slither. It's a gory proposition at times (particularly in the macabre aftermath of a tentacle attack on one unlucky local...who splits right down the middle before our eyes...).
A movie like this must know and understand when to dole out tricks and when to give us treats, and I must say, Slither is adept at that. The humor, particularly involving the farmhouse and "Family Fun Day" is ghoulishly good stuff, and not so obvious nor over-the-top that it ruins the suspense. And believe me, this sequence, which starts in the bath-tub and goes out onto the roof, into the yard and finally into a parked car, is suspenseful as hell. This movie doesn't play favorites with the characters, but you don't sense the writers' mental wheels spinning in the background either (like in Feast, where they were trying to be oh so hip.)
A few of the great jokes in the film: there's a police map dotted with little squid icons to trace Grant's location, a Karaoke performance to the tune of The Crying Game, some funny slang for lesbianism, and a pocket-ful of genre homage that rockets by at warp speed and doesn't draw attention to itself. I caught references to Frank Henenonlotter (of Brain Damage and Basket Case fame), saw a town storefront called Max Renn's (after James Wood's character in Videodrome), and a few other touches. MacReady, after all, is the name of the hero in John Carpenter's The Thing...and that film also involves shape shifting.
In common with that Carpenter film, Slither explicitly concerns the pliability and corruptibility of the human flesh, as our bipedal form is twisted, perverted and ruined by an invasive species. Notice, for instance, how the transmission of the "conscious disease" is a deliberate (and bizarre...) parody of the human sex act. We first see it happen, by the way, to the strains of a country music tune...
And, in the tradition of such classics as Halloween (in which fate was lectured on to Laurie Strode...) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (in which Hamlet was discussed with Nancy Thompson...), Slither provides a similar high school class room sequence with a point. Here, Starla describes in detail Darwinism and the concept of survival of the fittest. This is Slither's playground, the battle of species, and impressively, the film even puts a cosmic spin on the material. At one point - and with dazzling special effects - Kylie (by biting one of the worms...) is granted access to the hive mind. She sees the billion year history of the parasite, and this chronicle unfolds before our eyes. We see alien vistas as strange, inhuman creatures on wild savannahs and under extraterrestrial skies wage war and fall before the parasite. This was an unexpected development in the film - an ambitious reach for greatness - and a welcome bit of explanation about where the creature came from. Not to be obnoxious, but again, Feast couldn't be bothered to "think" about the monsters it featured; they were just killers that could do anything the script required of them...at any point.
It's fair to state that Slither also benefits enormously from the presence of Nathan Fillion in the lead role. Yep, he's the Captain of the Serenity or Preacher on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the performer boasts an easy, comfortable way with this material. Fillion doesn't play the part of Pardy lightly, with tongue-in-cheek, nor try to make a joke out of the monsters. In fact, his situationally-appropriate sense of fatalistic humor is a boon to the material. I could have done without his wrestling match with an infected deer (the only lame scene in the whole movie...), but otherwise, Fillion walks away with Slither, and his presence amps up the fun aspects of the film.
Basically, I'm going to fawn all over any horror movie that can play the tune "Every Woman in the World" over its climax...and still prove scary, tense and utterly involving. Again, if you like your horror straight up and serious, rent The Descent. But if you like your horror with a dash of comedy, you can't go wrong with Slither.