Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review: Slither (2006)

Slither (2006)

Rated R for strong horror violence and gore, and language

Score: 4 out of 5

Long before James Gunn became one of the secret weapons in Marvel Studios' arsenal with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, he was known for making B-movies. The Dawn of the Dead remake he wrote was actually one of the bigger films he was involved with; he got his start working with the famed schlockmeisters at Troma, and between then and Marvel, he went on to create the twisted superhero satire Super, the two Scooby-Doo live-action films, and today's film, the horror-comedy Slither. A grotesque little flick filled with disgusting sight gags, abundant shout-outs to classic horror films, and an incredibly lovable cast of characters, Slither is hardly a great movie, but it is always an entertaining one that wears its influences, and its heart, on its sleeve.

Set in the small town of Wheelsy, South Carolina, the film opens as any number of sci-fi B-movies have in the past: with a meteor landing in the nearby woods. Inside is a parasitic alien creature that travels from planet to planet, where it takes over a single organism as a host and then "reproduces" with slug-like creatures that slither into creatures' mouths and take over their brains, forming a hive mind of zombified puppets. On Earth, the alien uses as its host a man named Grant Grant (yes, that is his first and last name), a wealthy local car salesman who's unhappily married to a teacher named Starla, and was out that night looking to fool around with another woman. Taking on the memories and personality of its host, the alien can't bring itself to use Starla as a breeding pod for the worms, instead doing so with Grant's would-be mistress, all while Grant's body starts to visibly mutate as the alien transforms his physiology. As Starla realizes that her husband is turning into a monster both literally and figuratively, she turns to Bill Pardy, the chief of police and her childhood crush, for help, all while animals are mysteriously disappearing from the farms outside of town. Before long, Grant's swarm of alien brain slugs is unleashed on the town, and Starla, Bill, the mayor Jack MacReady, and a teenage girl named Kylie must fight for survival against their zombified townsfolk and the increasingly grotesque mutant Grant.

This is a movie that's all about two things: the comedy gags, and the gore gags. The former is most readily apparent with Nathan Fillion as Bill Pardy, a small-town cop who is horribly out of his depth. While he's no Barney Fife, he is also not the action hero he sees himself as, spending most of the second and third acts trying to bravely stand in the line of duty only to either run for his life or get his ass kicked more often than not. He's a guy who flat-out tells one of his fellow survivors that, if he survives this, he's gonna be telling tall tales about all the zombie alien ass he kicked defending his town, leaving out the bit where she had to save him from getting eaten by a zombified deer. Bill is a comically realistic portrait of how an actual average Joe, even a police officer, would probably handle zombies or aliens, his discovery of the various horrors he uncovers throughout the film accompanied not by calls to gear up and roll out, but by a reaction of "what the fuck!?!?". Fillion is a natural at playing this sort of action hero with a lighter touch, having made his name as Captain Mal on Firefly, a character who he was clearly channeling throughout this film. At the other side of the "good guy/asshole" spectrum is Gregg Henry as the town's douchebag mayor MacReady, a man whose indignities suffered are quite well-deserved, culminating in him having to face some townsfolk who most definitely did not vote for him.

The heart and soul of the film, however, is Elizabeth Banks as Starla. A woman from a poor family who ran off with Grant so that she wouldn't spend the rest of her life as trailer trash, she soon found herself living with a husband who did genuinely love her, but didn't seem willing or able to care about her wants and needs, even before he got taken over by an alien. Afterwards, she has to grapple with the fact that the man she loved, warts and all, is gone, having turned into a brutish monster. The allegory for domestic abuse isn't hard to spot, with Starla being a long-suffering wife trying to leave a husband whose mistreatment of her only gets worse after he's possessed by the alien, and "Grant" still believing that he loves Starla even though she might think he has a funny way of showing it. That said, this is no Lifetime movie, and Banks spends most of the film making for a tough, if scared, cookie as she battles zombies with the best of them. The romance between Starla and Bill felt natural, with Banks and Fillion's chemistry feeling like that of old buddies who'd known each other for years but never got the chance to make it into something more, without ever feeling forced.

The other highlight of the film, of course, is the undead. While the zombies' alien origin and the nature of how they infect people make for an obvious homage to Night of the Creeps, that's where the similarities end, as this film instead chooses to go for more in the way of outright body-horror. Grant's infection progresses from a rash to a slithering, tentacled squid-monster to a giant blob that takes up an entire living room, made of various zombies fused to his form, most of it done with practical effects caked to Michael Rooker. Apparently, Gunn relished the opportunity to throw an actor best known for playing all-too-human villains (most notably Henry Lee Lucas in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) into some of the heaviest makeup he could conceive of, and the attention to detail is all over the place. The practical effects were outstanding for a $15-million-budget zombie flick, with zombie heads getting splattered with shotguns, brain slugs getting fried with curling irons, tentacles jabbed into people, a man sliced in half lengthwise, and the highlight, a woman who gets turned into an incubator for the slugs and, as a result, balloons into a giant beach ball that comes close to filling an entire barn before she bursts. Gunn wasn't going for subtlety when he shot this, lovingly displaying all the nastiest sight gags he could get away with under an R rating. The only weak link in the effects work here is that, when they use CGI to augment it, the film's fairly low budget shows through more often than not. It is fortunately kept to a minimum, but for those moments when it's unavoidable (such as when swarms of slugs are attacking the characters), it's also very noticeable.

When it comes to the rest of the film's problems, the big one for me was the character of Kylie. A teenage girl who watches her entire family get possessed by the brain slugs, including her kid sisters (no, the kids are not safe in this movie), our introduction to her trying to escape her house was a great scene. Sadly, the film doesn't know what to do with her afterwards, her character getting little development and spending most of the rest of the film as Bill's sidekick while he looks for Starla and Grant. Given that she'd witnessed some of the most horrifying sights in the film, Kylie should've been far more disturbed and traumatized by the whole affair than she seemed to be. It was here where the lighter tone of the film worked against it, as, even though the film is about an alien invasion/zombie apocalypse that threatens to destroy the world, the stakes never felt particularly high. There was never any doubt that this film was going to end with the main characters triumphant. Whereas Shaun of the Dead knew how to balance comedy and horror without making the latter feel insubstantial, Slither never quite sticks the landing on that front.

The Bottom Line

Still, even though it doesn't join the ranks of the great horror-comedies, Slither still makes for a very fun joyride, a B-movie with Hollywood's production values and little of its homogenization. Whether you're a fan of James Gunn, zombies, gore, or the actors involved, you'll get a kick out of this.

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