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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006


Don (2006)
Dir: Farhan Akhtar


Poised to open on the biggest holiday weekend of the Indian calendar, (October 20th-21st, the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali) which fortuitously coincides with the Islamic celebration, Eid-al-Fitr, Farhan Akhtar’s Don is perhaps the most highly anticipated Bollywood movie of the year. That means that over a billion people, from Mumbai to Lagos, from Singapore to London - even all the way to Jackson Heights, NY, await its arrival in thrall. The film marks the return of star Shah Rukh Khan, to the screen. It’s been three years since his last picture. To his legion of fans, three years is like an eternity. Shahrukh is a celebrity demi-god: Tom Cruise before he succumbed to “creative suicide,” Leonardo DiCaprio circa Titanic. Mass hysteria hounds him wherever he goes.


Don is a remake of the 1978 gangster movie of the same name, which was then Bollywood’s answer to Shaft.  Chandra Barot’s original movie exudes Bombay blaxploitation—mod costumes, violent brawls, harshly erotic love scenes, and an atmosphere that oozes 70s funk.  The plot centers around a rakish, good-natured street-performer named Vijay who is the spitting image of a sadistic, Goan mafia kingpin named “Don.” The Indian police quickly put unsuspecting Vijay to work as Don’s decoy, allowing them to penetrate the leader’s seamy underworld. But the mafia is on to the police plot, and they kill the only inspector who knows Vijay’s identity, leaving Vijay fighting for his life to outfox the mob and the police on his own.


Akhtar’s Don does away with some of silliness of the 70s film in favor of plausibility. Here, Vijay is a struggling single parent, trying to make ends meet as he reluctantly agrees to the dangerous assignment. Updated to the 21st century global sensibility, the movie takes us to Malaysia, where international crime bosses evade the grasp of the Indian police to control the Mumbai underworld from afar.


Journalist, Sukhetu Metha, writes that the term “underworld” is really a fallacy in India, and in Asia in general. Crime there exists in an overworld. Dons are pictured in society pages. They manage international narcotics rings and inaugurate hospitals. Lawlessness permeates every aspect of urban life in the business and media, from the small family mom-and-pops to the multinational corporations. It only augments the sense of helplessness of the individual and widens the abyss between the wealthy and the rich.


Elements of John Woo’s Hong Kong films pervade the storyline—the stylish characters spiraling towards destruction in a city controlled by ruthless triads. Woo’s flamboyant American debut, Face/Off, is a strong influence: two men with the same face, the cop posing as a gangster, the gangster posing as cop, two versions of the same anguished man.


The clothes and technology have changed, but the badass sensibility still remains. Don is an unequivocal star vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan precisely because Barot’s original film was also a star vehicle, for the young Amitabh Bachan, India’s biggest and most beloved movie star. Khan is stepping into big shoes here. Yet the show is his and his alone.


Even though Sharukh Khan is, at this moment, in the very epicenter of stardom, his position is precarious.  He is Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country where the emotional and political divide between religions is as explosive as the one in Northern Ireland.  Market analysts have surmised that Don will do well in secular, urban centers and in the Arab and East Asian market, but not in so well in Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of India, the hotbed of Hindu fundamentalism.


In spite of the communal tensions surrounding its release, Don cleverly captures the essence of India: the glitter of the metropolis, the cultural mélange of Muslim and Hindu, the rustic honesty of the Indian worker, and the unyielding power of greed. The movie is set primarily in Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia’s national landmark, standing tall at over a 1, 400 feet, serves as the centerpiece to many of the film’s pivotal action scenes, bathed in green light against the night sky; Through gaze of Akthar’s lens, Kuala Lumpur positively glistens with mystery and menace. 


Malaysia is a modern, inclusive Muslim state. Many of the extras are Muslims, the women in headscarves and the men in skullcaps. And yet the song sequences on the street are deeply rooted in Hindu culture and phraseology. Particularly “Khaike paan Banaras-wala” (“Chewing a paan from Banaras really opens up the mind!”), sung after Vijay is stoned on a traditional Indian marijuana-laced milkshake. It is full of the vigor and rustic charm that’s reminiscent of tribal India.


Khan’s song sequences are the high points of the movie, if only for the sake of the sheer amount of energy he pours into them. Like with all musicals, the bulk of characterization in Don plays out in the songs. And the composers, Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy, have created the perfect score to set the film’s mood.  They move from Don’s cool menace to Vijay’s earthy playfulness and provide some entertaining respite from the barrage of action. “Main Hoon Don” (“I am Don”), the obligatory villain entrance number, is a P. Diddy style spectacle with Don clad in sunglasses and velvet Shanghai Tang jacket surrounded by glitzy shindig dancers and swirling cigarette smoke. Though lacking in substance, “Main Hoon Don” is dark and atmospheric, bringing us into the mobster’s tantalizing lair.



The same mood is evoked by the better written and staged, “Aaj Ki Raat” (“Night Falls…”), a retro-disco number with an eerie, seductive feel. The real showstopper, is the rousing religious hymn, “Maurya Re” (“O Lord, O Father”), sung by Vijay in devotion to the god Ganesha. The entire sequence is saturated in vibrant colors, full of graceful temple dancers, gleeful extras, and clouds of pink powder. There’s a recurring sprightly melody played out on the electric guitar that’s positively infectious.


But the boldness of Don is the ending, in which the plot unravels to reveal a surprisingly equivocal turn of events. It’s one of those haunting denouements, along the lines of the ending in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll. Throughout the movie, Akhtar explores the question faced by Vijay: Are we good people pretending to be bad, or are we bad people pretending to be good? In a movie that seems to glamorize the mafia, Akthar fervently condemns them and the men who invariably get away with it all because they’re masters at exploiting our vulnerabilities, our need for justice.


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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006

After nearly a month of horror highlights (and some significant lowlights) SE&L will be regaining its critical composure. As part of the post-terror healing process, we present five days of Forgotten Gems - films that have fallen through the cracks and that definitely deserve a second look. Beginning with the latest in Bollywood wonders, our retrospective will cover everything from Dogma ‘95 efforts to classic period pieces. But don’t worry, we’ll be back Monday, 6 November with a bunch of brand new features, including a Beginners’ Guide to Exploitation, a look at the best that Criterion has to offer, and that most maligned of motion picture presentations, the Misunderstood Masterpiece. Until then, enjoy.


The SE&L Staff


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Monday, Oct 30, 2006

In an arena as thoroughly subjective as the scary movie, how does one even begin to come up with a list of the artform’s very best? In the hierarchy of horror, things change so rapidly (and frequently) that, at any given moment, one category of creepy - the Devil films of the ‘70s - will give way to an entirely new fear fad - the slasher films of the ‘80s. This means that, as the genre shifts, trends taper off and subcategories flourish, one man’s terror quickly becomes one filmmaker’s trash. It’s the same with opinions on what is and is not petrifying. Dread is indeed a personal propensity, difficult to discuss in terms of absolutes and universals. Yet whenever fans get together and share their experiences with the cinema they love the most, conversations typically turn toward the defining films that began their affair with fear in the first place. Though they may not always agree, it is clear that there are certain films that stand out amongst the throng, that argue for their place as not only good grue, but expert cinema as well.


This is what the SE&L list strives to uncover, the true masterpiece and milestones of post-modern horror. Again, there are certain caveats to this non-definitive Decalogue that should keep the obsessed and the angry in check, hopefully avoiding most call-outs and complaints to a minimum. Several sensational films from the myriad that many would consider crucial just missed the cut. They include current offerings like Silent Hill, Shaun of the Dead and Hostel, as well as deserving efforts from decades past like The Howling, Hellraiser, Prince of Darkness, Ganja and Hess and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. In addition, classics from the Golden Age – films featuring the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman – were also discounted, given their already important place in the overall history of horror. As we live in a contemporary world, a place that prides itself on rediscovering and then reconfiguring the past to fit its current concerns, the movies SE&L selected are all indicative of the era. They manipulate their ideas with various analogous elements, creating films that function as both macabre as well as a mirror on the modern world.


Some will still argue that favorite films are missing or seated too far down the roll. They will dismiss any compendium that does not contain their idea of fear flawlessness and belittle any attempt to praise some perceived hackwork over what they feel is a true shock landmark. Nonetheless, SE&L stands by its choices, using decades of film knowledge and years seated firmly in front of the TV (with VCR/DVD hook-ups providing the product) to make its final determinations. Sure, there are gaps in the analysis and forgotten efforts that missed the list based solely on their ‘out of sight, out of mind’ situation, but this does not take away from the ten titles found below. Each one stands as one of the genre’s best conceived and executed expressions. Authoritative? Perhaps not. Arguable? Most definitely. Ten terrific examples of terror? There is absolutely no doubt about it. Let’s begin right at the top:


1.The Exorcist

The darkest dream of America circa 1973, a country out of control with the generations gapping so viciously it seemed almost supernatural. While the connections to other universal elements (the onset of puberty, the familial fear of separation and divorce) added heft and depth, the combination of William Peter Blatty’s narrative and William Friedkin’s irrefutably great direction creates an experience that is remarkably frightening. But more than this, The Exorcist also asks the hard spiritual questions, exploring elements of faith, love and the lack thereof. With perfect performances and F/X that still manage to chill the bones, fear doesn’t get anymore flawless than this.
Classic Moment: A late night visit to Regan’s room reveals a disturbing message.



2. Evil Dead 2

It is safe to say that Sam Raimi literally revived old fashioned horror – twice. The first time was with his original brazen Book of the Dead extravaganza. But when the tide in terror started to turn away from fright and more towards the funny, Raimi reinvented his own initial film. Presented as a sort of requel (a combination sequel and remake), Part II forever cemented his stature as one of fear’s maddest hatters. This is the one fan’s remember most – Bruce Campbell’s bumbling badass, the Three Stooges inspired severed hand fight – and with good reason. It is a benchmark in cinematic diversity and delirium. 
Classic Moment: Ash replaces his severed hand with a chainsaw – Groovy!


 


3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Thanks to the uneasy iconography of its formidable fiend – the human skin masked homunculus named Leatherface – Tobe Hooper’s original Saw story has been marginalized and mocked over time. But some 32 years after its initial release, this vile journey into the heart of a grisly American Gothic is still the most disturbing cinematic experience ever. Between the oppressive opening somewhere in the Southwestern wilderness to the dinner table standoff between actress Marilyn Burns and her cannibalistic captors, we find ourselves lost in an unrelenting world of anxiety and abomination. And then it gets worse…much worse.
Classic Moment: Leatherface’s ‘dance of death’ in the light of a Texas dawn.



4. Suspiria

Dario Argento’s fractured fairytale is an outrage-filled trip into a world where beauty is obliterated and the friendliest façade hides sharp, salivating teeth. From the moment Jessica Harper’s Suzy Bannion arrives at the creepy Austrian ballet school, the chaos of a massive thunderstorm foreshadowing the torment she’s about to be put through, we realize we are in the hands of a full blown cinematic genius. Then the first murders occur, and a whole new sense of sublimity arrives. Like a dream peppered with poison, or a nightmare dressed in lace, no one uncovers the gorgeous inside the grotesque – and visa versa - better than this able auteur.
Classic Moment: Suzy discovers the truth about the Tanzakademie.


 


5. A Nightmare on Elm Street

Reading the terrifying tea leaves of early ‘80s society – Regan in the White House, children cherished as biological trophies by ever-wayward parents, his favorite genre overrun by slice and dice silliness – horror hero Wes Craven reintroduced the monster back into the monster movie. Using a newspaper account of a boy who was “killed” by his dreams, the man responsible for Last House on the Left created a creepy cult symbol in Freddy Krueger - killer of kids both in reality and in the far more vulnerable world of their dreams. Though later reduced to a cloying comedian, this is Mr. Finger Knives coming out – and its unforgettably frightening. 
Classic Moment: Freddy reminding us just who ‘God” is.


 


6. Dawn of the Dead (1978)

The master of the modern zombie film finds yet another novel way of mixing scares with social commentary as he investigates America’s growing consumerism while upping the atrocity ante. This time, everyone’s favorite suburban cathedral – the shopping mall – is transformed into the setting for a strange lesson in situational sociology. It’s a battle between the haves (the survivors), the have nots (the roaming biker gang), and the flesh-craving caretakers of a land slowly subsumed by both sides inability to work together. Add in Tom Savini’s autopsy-level make-up work and you have one of the most memorable visions of internalized Apocalypse ever created.
Classic Moment: Flyboy ‘returns’.


 


7. Halloween

John Carpenter was not setting out to start a trend. As a huge fan of both Hitchcock and Argento, the filmmaker wanted to fashion a tribute to the suspense epics he adored as a young film student. The result was the beginning of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s slasher age for genre cinema, and the rebirth of the yearly calendar call of ‘Trick or Treat’ into a night of unspeakable evil. While both this fine first feature and its creator have fallen on hackneyed hard times of late (the numerous lame sequels haven’t helped the frequently floundering franchise) no one can deny the precision and potency of Carpenter’s original vision.
Classic Moment: Michael Myers stands in awe of his horrifying handiwork.



8. The Fly (1986)

How Canadian auteur David Cronenberg pulled this off is still one of the movies’ most powerful mysteries. Given the task of revamping the hoary old creepshow standard from the ‘50s – the human transformed into insect – he instead created a combination geek show and love story. Along with stellar performances by a cast who took the horror as seriously as the more heartfelt material, he managed a masterpiece that gave astonishing depth to the entire palette of fear. When a filmmaker can have you weeping at the end of his creative creature feature, you know there is more going on here besides your standard scares.
Classic Moment: Brundlefly requests to be put out of his misery.


 


9. The Thing (1981)

Looking for a way to reinvent himself (his post-Halloween efforts had been more or less ignored) John Carpenter again traded on his past, and his love for the 1951 ‘classic’, to craft this claustrophobic paean to paranoia. Mercilessly slammed by critics as being nothing more than an offal-spewing orgy of special effects and grue, time has definitely tempered opinions. Along with Kurt Russell’s sensational star turn, what once was seen as a technical triumph without a lick of cinematic soul now stands as one of this director’s trio – along with Halloween and Prince of Darkness - of undeniable triumphs.
Classic Moment: The Thing makes itself known inside the camp’s dog kennel.



10. The Other

As the primer for all the ‘twist’ ending experiences that would fill the latter part of the ‘90s this amazing 1972 movie is a tone poem to terror. Using the stuffy standard revolving around twins (one evil, one easygoing) and hints about hidden horrors within the fragile family unit, actor turned novelist turned screenwriter Tom Tyron mapped out a nostalgia laced vision of countrified calm, and then exposed the menace lying below the surface. With amazingly natural performances from the Udvarnoky brothers and scenery chewing choices by acting legend Uta Hagen, this is a fright flick as noted for its mood as its ghastliness.
Classic Moment: We finally learn what Holland “did” with the baby.



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Sunday, Oct 29, 2006


Dead Alive


It’s really ironic, when you think about it. Very few of the so-called post-modern horror films celebrated by critics and audiences actually strive to be different from the classic Gothic companions that they pretend to separate themselves from. Sure, many re-envision their stalwart subjects in various newfangled lights, and try to contemporize such graduated folktales. But in the end, the results are still the same. Vampires continue to suck blood, monsters are made out of grave-robbed body parts, and a full moon produces a plethora of wolfmen, each one wearing their joyless gypsy curse on their hirsute human pelts. Maybe this is why Bill Gunn’s esoteric exercise in terror, the sadly forgotten Ganja and Hess, is so striking. When we hear it was supposed to be a combination of blaxploitation and bloodsucker, we settle in and expect the worse – or perhaps Blackula Part 2. Instead, we get a devastating art film that raises more intriguing philosophical questions than hairs on the back of one’s neck.

Part of the reason for the movie’s minor present day status stems directly from the reaction it received when first viewed by distributors, and then completely unprepared New York audiences. When they hired the off-Broadway actor and accomplished screenwriter Bill Gunn to helm their horror film, newly formed Kelly-Jordan Enterprises were looking to break into the urban market, a seemingly endless cash cow triggered by Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. With the success of black-themed horror, an idea was hatched. Combining the elements of exploitation being used to foster the ghetto films with a bit of Bram Stoker, Gunn’s instructions were simple. Meld the two concepts and deliver a commercial script. What the company got instead was a surreal story about a rich doctor whose stabbed with an ancient blood cult’s ceremonial dagger. It leaves him immortal, indestructible, and addicted to blood.


Much to Dr. Hess Green’s horror, his stature in life allows him the almost legal, leisurely pursuit of his particular natural narcotic. When potential victims aren’t merely inviting themselves into his house, they proposition him in bars or on street corners. Once fed, the high minded scholar with an erudition beyond his urges looks for ways to curb his cravings. When the wife of one of his supply sources turns up asking questions, Hess senses someone capable of sharing his secret with. But this means he will have to turn Ganja Meda into what he’s become. In the interim, a battle of wills ensues, with Ganja’s money grubbing ways running roughshod over almost everything in Hess’s life. He seems to love her, but this could also be a cautionary move to keep her close – and confined. She, on the other hand, has never once fended for herself. Instead, she relies on the kindness of suckers – and Hess has got the closet skeletons to settle her accounts quite nicely.


Reluctantly, Kelly-Jordan approved the storyline, and soon Gunn was helming his first feature. But, as a bad Borscht Belt comic might say, a final thing happened on the way to the final cut. Inspired by the collaborative process he was experiencing with Producer Chiz Schultz, actors Duane Jones and Marlene Clark, Director of Photography James E. Hinton and Editor Victor Kanefsky, Gunn decided to completely reimagine his movie. Gone were long passages of exposition, unnecessary moments of clichéd horror, and anything obvious or overt. In their place, Gunn imagined a “Ingmar Bergman” style experience, with arcane symbolism and complex themes. He would twist certain subjects – sexuality, addiction, religion – into intricate statements of subtle surreal purpose. He would then add to the context by purposefully messing with the rigid requirements of cinema. Not only would he deliver a fright film unlike any ‘70s audiences had seen before, he would attempt to rewrite the language of film as well.


For the most part, he succeeded. Ganja and Hess is more a meditation on spirit and suffering than a sinister sampling of some notorious neckbiters. Gunn made his movie a crisis of conscious rather than a full blown exercise in fear. There are no big scenes of bloodletting, no moments of cryptic commentary about “the children of the night” or fluttering fake bats. Certainly, the sensuality surrounding the vampire legend is more or less intact, given a daring homo/hetero sexual connotation all throughout the film. There was even a suggestion, mentioned by both Victor Kanefsky and Chiz Schultz on the recent DVD bonus features (a very fine release from the always reliable Image Entertainment) that this was really a ménage a trios gone grisly. Hess entertains both Ganja and her psychologically fragile husband George, and there are moments where the men seem more than mere co-workers. Still, in keeping with this movie’s motives, nothing is spelled out or explained.


Gunn also included a couple of creative elements that keep the audience constantly off guard. Hess has a butler named Archie, and when he’s not storming around the estate in a series of ritualistic maneuvers, he’s giving and getting a hard time from his employer’s new live-in lady. Similarly, Hess also employs a local minister as his chauffer, a right minded man named Reverend Williams who is constantly calling on God to right the wrongs of the world and support the righteous while smiting the wicked. We keep waiting for the stereotypical moment where the man of the cloth uncovers the evil right underneath his eyes and does his Christian quack voodoo to set everything right. Oddly enough, this doesn’t happen. Instead, both Archie and the preacher play their parts perfectly, merely minor catalysts in the film’s final, flummoxing denouement.


Without the fright formulas in place – the standard cheap shocks, the nods to cinematic scares from decades past – Gunn created a true post-modern masterwork. And like any artistic effort, it was embraced by some and slighted by all the rest. Indeed, upon witnessing the commercially worthless effort Gunn gave them, Kelly-Jordan halted the release (the movie played for less than a week in one NYC theater), hired a new editor and savaged the director’s vision. Utilizing material from the original script that Gunn shot and then rejected, the resulting revamp was indeed more like the concept the company had contracted for. But the newly named Blood Couple was equally unliked by audiences, left to play the dying drive-in circuit to earn back its budget. Gunn would sort of have the last laugh. Taking his original version to Cannes (it is this delightful director’s cut that Image now offers, thanks to the efforts of All Day Entertainment), Ganja and Hess won a standing ovation – and a great deal of critical respect – from the French film aficionados.


It definitely does deserve the praise. In an era (the ‘70s) known for cinematic invention and motion picture experimentation, the avant-garde nature of Ganja and Hess makes it an initially off-putting experience. Sadly, this is our fault as an audience, not that of the film itself. Indeed, one needs to wipe away all preconceived notions before entering this movie, and it’s not just the ideas about blood sucking vampires and supernatural shivers. No, a new pair of eyes and a reconfigured eerie ethos are needed to really appreciate what Gunn was doing. He is making a movie of thoughts instead of plots, visualizing his meaning in stark, surprisingly passionate particulars. He wants you to feel the disconnect of the characters, to sense Hess’s growing hatred of his personal predicament as well as the spiritual battle for his soul. In addition, he attempts to mimic the way in which true macabre would function in the modern world. That’s why scenes seem half completed, conversations merely overheard or lacking clear context.


The result is a real surprise, one of the genre’s fiercest forgotten gems. Taking so many unexpected twists and turns that it literally leaves the viewer breathless, Gunn gives the Nosferatu notion the contemporary tweaking that so many well meaning moviemakers simply avoid. By purposefully placing his narrative in a minority arena, the director delivers a more human and heartfelt aura to his approach, and the acting by Dwayne Jones and Marlene Carter is incredible, pushing the possibilities even further. When she tells Dr. Green that his driver can’t possible miss her – she’s the ‘most evil’ lady around, it’s not just a threat, it’s a promise. And at the end of the story, we sense our good doctor was played from the moment Ganja arrived. Sadly, Gunn’s desire to see his original resonate with an audience had to go mostly unfilled. He died before work on this DVD even began. Still, for a storyline so strongly attached to both the supernatural and the soul, the newfound affinity for Ganja and Hess is probably making its creator very proud. Even posthumously, he and his film deserve it.


 


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Sunday, Oct 29, 2006


Gut Level


Slither simultaneously symbolizes everything that’s right and wrong with the current trends in post-modern horror. On the positive side, this minor masterpiece’s deconstruction of the entire ‘80s idea of terror is so flawlessly fashioned and perfectly executed that writer/director James Gunn ought to be celebrated (or in some fright fans minds, shot) for how accurately he skewers the era’s many mediocre monster movies. The film frequently feels like a fanboy’s final exam. In addition, Gunn gives gorehounds a real reason to rejoice. Unlike the current concept of over the top bloodletting that thinks the sequence is more important than the sluice, this inspired auteur gets his groovy grue just right. As he piles on the pus and unleashes the organs, those of us longing for this kind of craven creature feature can’t help but smile from ear to ear.

The setup is deceptively simple. After a meteor crashes outside the small town of Wesley, South Carolina, one of the local bigwigs, a rich jerk named Grant Grant, gets infected by a space spore. Seeking someone to help him hatch his slug like servants, Grant kidnaps a former fling, kills several head of livestock and dozens of neighborhood pets, and sets up his brooder outside the city limits. Before you know it, Wesley is overrun by killer creepy crawlies, all looking for orifices to invade. Worming their way into their victim’s brains, the townsfolk are soon resurrected as living dead members of Grant’s growing invasion force. It will take a nice guy sheriff, a suddenly orphaned teen, and Grant’s wife Starla to hopefully save the day. Unfortunately, killing these ‘critters’ will be a lot harder than everyone thinks.


So where’s the negative, you ask? What could possibly be wrong with a movie so easily praised and smashingly entertaining? Well, for one thing, it was a flop. For reasons only a macabre Mensa scholar could understand, the demographic preferred such alternative terror offerings as Eli Roth’s Hostel (good) and the recent Omen remake (bad…very, very bad) to Gunn’s goofball gross out. Second, and far more troubling, people were actually put off by the notion – created as kind of a critical shortcut for the genre addled element of the press – that this was some kind of mainstream Troma movie. Instead of embracing the name of the world’s leading Indie icon as a badge of dynamite dishonor, audiences actually responded by purposefully avoiding the film. If they didn’t like what Lloyd Kaufman and his ilk were doing before, why would they enjoy a big budget version of the same?


Well, for one thing, Slither is not a Troma film. The connection between the two stops at Gunn’s previous career as a company executive and scriptwriter (he was responsible for the equally engaging and enigmatic Tromeo and Juliet). The fact is, for anyone looking for logical links between past and present efforts, films like Night of the Creeps, Robot Holocaust and Bad Taste provide far more credible creative starting points. Slither is obviously the effort of someone who’s studied horror, looking at everything from the bad, the bumbling, and the brazen as inspiration for his ideas. Many similarly styled flicks with familiar titles like The Deadly Spawn, Killer Klowns from Outer Space and Critters use the invasion idea to turn normal society sinisterly askew. What Gunn adds is his own mythology (gotta love the mind-meld moment were a CGI creature goes on an intergalactic killing spree) and a child-like glee when it comes to glop. 


Similar to the sensational Shaun of the Dead, Slither also understands that humor goes a long way toward preparing the foundation for your outrageous frights. A legion of devotees, raised on Freddy’s wounded wise-cracks, the Leprechaun’s lame one-liners, and the inherent hilarity in seeing Jason do away with clueless copulators, don’t really like their terror straight up. They want some moments of merriment, a little boo breather, so to speak, before heading out into flesh-eating zombie territory. With a keen comic sense that shows through in almost everything he does (a perfect example of which is his collaboration with wife Jenna Fisher on her fabulous mock doc Lollilove), Gunn gives Slither the kind of wink and a nod irony that should have made this movie an unqualified youth culture hit. Sadly, the current craze for ‘violence porn’, best exemplified by the Saw series and Roth’s tainted travelogue, apparently provides no room for something both funny and frightening.


And yet, Gunn doesn’t stop there. This is a movie loaded with in-jokes, nods to famous horror heroes, and constant references to films past and present. Almost everyone in the cast is named after a celebrated genre writer, director, producer or actor, and locations like ‘Henelotters’ act as less than subtle cinematic shout outs. Certainly Slither can seem insular at times, trying too be a tad too cute for its own limited means, but that doesn’t begin to destroy the amazing work done here by Gunn and company. From the impressive cast (including former serial killer Henry – a.k.a. Michael Rooker - as Grant) to the refreshing use of physical as well as computer generated effects, the filmmaking is first rate. Yet unlike previous attempts to make a purposefully bad b-movie, Slither is too smart to be so easily dismissed. Instead, it radiates a pure love of horror language, and never stumbles along the way toward its silly scares.


Still, one is shocked by the poor box office performance. That’s not to say that every film like Slither steals away multiple megabucks from their time at the Cineplex (Shaun of the Dead and John Carpenter’s The Thing were both less than boffo upon initial release), but when nothing else out there comes close to this movie’s invention and charm, ignoring it seems downright dumb. Here’s predicting that a few years from now, once the latest fear fad fades from view, joining J-Horror and Blair Witch rip-offs on the Island of Misfit Movie Ideas, Gunn will be vindicated and Slither will soar in popularity. The obsessives will discover every obscurity, the devoted will pen numerous weblog entries on the film’s sexual themes and obvious inspirations (everyone from Spielberg to Cronenberg will be cited). But none of this will make-up for the fact that, when they had the chance to champion the first truly great horror film of 2006, they waited instead to celebrate a bunch of spelunking dames and their run-in with some underground albinos.


Slither will survive. But there’s a bigger issue at play. Gunn probably used up all his blockbuster clout delivering his deliciously fun film to the big screen, and it’s probably a safe bet that a major studio won’t be bankrolling his next low-budget laughathon anytime soon. And that’s a shame. For all its tricks and gimmicks, it’s easily recognizable references and excessive use of entrails, Gunn actually makes a great bit of schlock. It reminds us of a time when terror could encompass any and all ideas, when it didn’t have to be micromanaged down to a recognizable trend or taken apart and rearranged to earn an easy PG-13. Now more than ever the suffering category of scares needs jaded jesters like James Gunn. Slither is the perfect cure for such cinematic stagnancy.


 


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