Slither (2006) ***Ĺ
Lloyd Kaufman often likes to put himself forward as the successor to Roger Corman, billing his Troma Team production company as a proving ground for up-and-coming talent comparable to American International Pictures in the 50ís and 60ís, or to New World Pictures in the 70ís and early 80ís. His most convincing argument for that line is almost certainly the career of James Gunn. The brain behind the neo-blank verse dialogue in Tromeo and Juliet, Gunn was easily the most capable screenwriter Kaufman ever had in his employ. And while that isnít saying much, Gunn has gone on to much bigger and better things since becoming (to use Kaufmanís own words) Tromaís sleeper cell within the mainstream. Most notably, he wrote the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead, a film which accomplished the seemingly impossible by reworking one of the most important and beloved horror movies of the 1970ís in a way that did the original something like justice, while permitting the remake to stand confidently on its own merits. Now, with Slither, Gunn tries his hand at directing, and while Iím not totally sure the world needed an uncredited update of Night of the Creeps, this is almost unquestionably the best one we could have hoped for.
The little Southern town of Wheelsy is the kind of place where the commencement of deer-hunting season is the biggest event of the average year, but this year is going to be far from average. While the newly appointed Police Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, of Dracula 2000 and Serenity) and an old deputy named Wally (Ben Thompson) sit out another uneventful night on the beat, and Grant and Starla Grant (Grant Grantó you just know he got picked on for that when he was a kid) enjoy an evening out on the town, a meteorite falls to Earth in the woods outside the village. Later, when Starla (Shaftís Elizabeth Banks) rebuffs her husbandís sexual advances, Grant (Michael Rooker, from Skeleton Man and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) storms out to pay a clandestine visit to his woman on the side, Brenda Gutierrez (Brenda Jamesó formerly Brenda Lynne Klemmeó of Cutting Class). Grant and Brenda get drunk together, and then head out for a walk in the woods. This leads first to them finding the meteorite, and second to Grant becoming host to the slug-like parasite that traveled across the interstellar void inside it. The creature burrows into Grantís belly, climbs up his spinal column, and finally settles down with its mouthparts inserted into the manís brainstem. Brenda has no idea what to make of what she just saw, but Grant seems to recover quickly enough, so she assumes it canít have been anything terribly serious. And the award for grievously underestimating the gravity of a situation goes toÖ
Grant starts undergoing some changes now that heís playing host to a brain-slug from outer space. First, he develops an incredible appetite for raw meat, literally filling the bed of his pickup truck with steaks, chops, and whatnot on his trip to the butcher shop the following morning. Eventually, this hunger will become so compelling as to make Grant start depopulating Wheelsy of its pet cats and dogs. Then he starts having skin problems, breaking out in strange and unsightly swellings which he isnít quite successful in passing off as the product of an allergy to bee venom. Next, he develops a pair of retractable tentacles housed in his belly; given that we see them first while Grant is watching Starla take a shower, it seems clear enough that these new appendages serve some kind of sexual function. Starla is not so perfectly unobservant as to miss Grantís strange behavior completely, but her worst suspicion is that maybe heís having an affair (which, as we know, he is). But when Starla finally breaks into her husbandís basement workroom (Grant clumsily installed the lock right after he acquired his parasite) and finds it filled with the carcasses of Wheelsyís missing animals, she recognizes that something has gone desperately, incomprehensibly wrong with him. Grant comes home just then and catches her spying. He barely looks human now. His skin is a ghastly, mottled salmon pink, his head and face are weirdly swollen, the beginnings of tentacles can be seen budding all over his body, and his arms have become elastic and seemingly boneless. Grant attacks Starla, but she is able to call the police station before she is completely overpowered. Chief Pardy and his men arrive in the nick of time, rescuing Starla and chasing off the thing that used to be Grant Grant.
Mayor R. Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry, from Star Trek: Insurrection and Bates Motel) is reluctant to believe that his town has a monster on its hands, but Pardy and his fellow police officers know what they saw and refuse to be persuaded that it was anything elseó Grant is turning into a human squid, and thatís all there is to it. Further urgency is added to the hunt for the Grant-thing when it comes out that Brenda Gutierrez has gone missing, and that Grant was seen in the vicinity of her house shortly before his attack on Starla. Pardy deputizes a sizable posse to help him intensify the search, and soon thereafter locates both Grant and Brenda. Grant is now weirder and uglier than ever and BrendaÖ Well, Brendaís pregnant. Itís really the sort of thing you just have to see for yourself. Grant escapes capture, and while Pardy attempts to figure out what to do with Brenda, the woman gives explosive birth to a teeming multitude of space slugs. The vile little creatures each make a beeline for the nearest open mouth, and practically all of Pardyís deputies wind up parasitized; Pardy himself escapes, as do Starla and Mayor MacReady. The remainder of the slugs slither off toward town, and it quickly becomes apparent that anyone infected becomes a zombie under the control of the original organism. In fact, it might be better to say that the infected become one with the original brain-slug, for each of them is capable of acting as a conduit for its intelligence (filtered, oddly enough, through what remains of Grant Grantís personality). Things look pretty hopeless until one intended victimó a teenaged girl named Kylie (Tama Saulnier)ó manages to kill her slug after it has already partially tapped into her nervous system. The experience gives Kylie considerable insight into the nature of the alien menace, and if Pardy could just meet up with her, he might have a chance of containing the invasion, even if itís probably too late to save his little town.
I had a very good time with Slither. Itís one of the speediest, most streamlined movies Iíve seen in a long time, feeling considerably shorter than its 80-odd minutes, and like its probable model, Night of the Creeps, it gets the tone just about perfectly right. Slither takes itself just seriously enough, which is to say that it acknowledges and has fun with its absurdity without being obnoxious or smug about it. There are a couple of the expected in-joke character names, but the references are not overly obvious. The dialogue is sarcastic overall, but in a naturalistic way that conveys the charactersí recognition of the outrageousness of their situation instead of attempting to impress the audience with James Gunnís superior glibness. Both Gunn and his cast resist the temptation to overplay the Deep South backwoods stuff, and although some of the characters are quite flamboyant (MacCready in particular), they come across as eccentric individuals rather than redneck caricatures. In general, Gunn displays a very light touch as a director, and thatís exactly what a movie like this one needs. He shows that he has developed considerable skill as a filmmaker without losing any of his Tromatic sense of whimsy, and Slither looks like it would have been a fun movie to make. At the same time, however, it makes a solid, good-faith effort to get under the audienceís skin with a contamination-horror vibe that might almost be thought of as Cronenberg Litetm. The brain-slugs from space are just plain icky, exactly the way theyíre supposed to be, and Slither packs a couple of gross-out scenes that would do any Troma production proud. So sure, weíve seen the like of Slither before, but itís been a pretty long time since Iíve seen it done this well.