Spawn of the Slithis (1977) Spawn of the Slithis/Slithis (1977) -**½

     This is the sort of thing that never fails to give me a surge of the warm fuzzies. Most bottom-feeding filmmakers are content to rip off one or two movies at a time, but that wasn’t good enough for Stephen Traxler, the writer/director/producer of Spawn of the Slithis/Slithis. When Traxler put this movie together, he not only gave us Jaws with a gill-man, but made it a toxic monster flick while he was at it. Furthermore, he also threw in a little dash of X: The Unknown by making his gill-man’s body out of semi-sentient, radioactive mud! Can you honestly say you know of one other film which uses quite that combination of recycled ideas?

     We open on two young boys playing frisbee beside one of the canals in the aptly named Los Angeles suburb of Venice. While running to intercept a particularly long toss, one of the boys discovers a pair of mangled dog carcasses, something which, if the radio news is to be believed, has been showing up a lot lately around town. That night, another dog is attacked and killed, this time in the backyard of a house, by what is obviously some sort of monster. The dog’s owners die, too, when they come in response to their pet’s frantic barking.

     The police, being the police in a ninth-rate monster movie, have their heads lodged firmly in their asses, and are proceeding according to the assumption that all the recent animal (and now human) mutilations are the work of a Mansonesque cult. Thus it will fall to high school journalism teacher Wayne Connors (Alan Blanchard, of Foes) to find out what’s really going on. Christ— we don’t even get a real reporter this time! Ignoring the strident disapproval of his wife, Jeff (Idaho Transfer’s Judy Motulsky), Connors begins by paying a visit to the home of the two recent victims; don’t ask me how he talks himself out of being arrested for tampering with a crime scene under investigation. He does, though, and manages to make off with something he finds very curious, as well— a sample of the odd, slimy mud that the killer or killers tracked all over the house.

     A friend of Wayne’s named John (Dennis Lee Falt) is a biologist, and it is to “Dr. John” that Connors brings the peculiar substance from the dead couple’s living room. Various types of analysis reveal that the slime is mildly radioactive, and that it is composed of a mix of organic and inorganic constituents that Dr. John has never encountered before. It does remind him of something he read once, however. Nearly twenty years ago, when the first experimental nuclear power plant came online in rural Wisconsin, a radiation leak caused the mud at the bottom of the lake beside which the plant was situated to take on something very much like life. So far as the scientists could determine at the time, the irradiated mud absorbed the bacteria, algae, and other microorganisms growing within and upon it, and somehow merged with their cells, becoming something that had never existed on Earth before. The scientists dubbed this living mud “Slithis.” (Jeff: “Why?” Dr. John: “For the same reason your parents named you ‘Jeff’.”) It is John’s opinion that the stuff Connors brought him is probably Slithis, too, and with a nuclear power plant of their own only a few miles up the coast, it is as least within the realm of possibility. The troubling part of the whole business is that the original Wisconsin Slithis was nothing more than a mass of living muck, completely immobile and completely harmless. But if Wayne’s Slithis has anything to do with the killings in Venice, it must have absorbed something far more advanced than a bunch of bacteria.

     The strategy our heroes adopt from this point is two-pronged. First, they seek out one of the scientists who originally discovered Slithis, to ask him whether he thinks it’s possible for the stuff to absorb and mimic higher forms of life. And having been told that, yes, it probably is, Connors hires a boat captain and diver named Christopher (Mello Alexandria, from Psychic Killer and THX 1138) to help him collect mud samples from the sea floor around the power plant; if they find a matching deposit of Slithis down there, they’ll know for sure that they’re on to something. Meanwhile, the monster of Venice begins making a rather higher profile for itself, killing several more humans in addition to the animals that had previously accounted for the bulk of its diet. Finally, when all the scientific evidence checks out, and when his efforts to interview some bums who were around to witness a monster attack yield corroborating testimony, Connors takes his case to the police, who dismiss it out of hand. Looks like Wayne, Jeff, John, and Christopher are going to have to take matters into their own hands, and play Quint, Hooper, and Brody to the Slithis monster’s Bruce…

     Where Spawn of the Slithis goes most wrong is in devoting so much time to Wayne’s tedious detective work and so little to the monster. Partly it’s because of the usual reasons that this is a mistake— there’s little enough going on in the first hour of Spawn of the Slithis to break the will of any but the most pig-headed audience, and it takes a rare degree of dedication to make it all the way to the final act. By the time Connors finally tracks down the bum he most wants to talk to, for example, chances are you’ll be long past ready to move on to something else more exciting. But apart from that, the short shrift given the monster in the first two thirds of the film is a miscalculation because, astonishingly enough, the monster suit is really, really good, and could easily have stood the heightened scrutiny that would come with more screen time. As it is, however, we’re forced for much of the movie’s length to make do with such amusement as can be extracted from the truly horrendous acting served up by virtually the entire cast. Alan Blanchard and Judy Motulsky are, for the most part, merely vapid and uncharismatic, but with the supporting cast, we’ve got something we can really sink our crap-appreciating teeth into. It’s just about impossible to believe Dennis Lee Falt’s Dr. John as a professional scientist, and Mello Alexandria as Christopher makes for one of the screen’s all-time least convincing Jamaicans. But we don’t strike the real comedy gold until we meet Hy Pike as the police lieutenant with whom Connors has his dealings. Holy shit! Where did Stephen Traxler find this guy?!?! (Oh, of course— in the casts of Dolemite and The First Nudie Musical. Suddenly it all makes sense…) Not since Byron Lord’s turn as Colonel Page in Mars Needs Women have I seen a comparably uncontrolled performance. Picture an aging José Mojica Marins as he might behave as a guest star on “The Muppet Show,” and you’ll have some idea of Pike’s acting here. I just wish Traxler had brought him in sooner, ‘cause he’s honestly the thing that saves Spawn of the Slithis from itself, and this movie desperately needed more of him.



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