It’s a conscious disease.
— Starla (Elizabeth Banks)
Starla (Elizabeth Banks) has settled. Obviously perky, probably sweet, and certainly exciting for her high school students in her tight little skirts, she’s also married to the lunkiest guy in town, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker). “That’s one match I’ll never get,” remarks a sympathetic deputy. The explanation provided, that Grant is “made of green,” that once-poor Starla has settled for a nice house and a decent budget for dresses and shoes, doesn’t quite cut it. And so Slither proceeds to demonstrate the total wrongness of Starla’s choice.
First, she’s got a more appropriate option who’s been in love with her since they were kids: handsome sheriff Bill Pardy (the most excellent Nathan Fillion). And second, Grant’s a monster. Or he turns into one, after a night of near-carousing in Wheelsy’s only karaoke bar with Brenda (Brenda James). They end up in the woods, where they stumble on a gooey thing that’s crashed in a meteor in the film’s first scene. He pokes at it with a stick. This would be the film’s second majorly wrong choice.
The ensuing slimy onslaught combines and exacerbates conventions familiar from alien invasion and zombie movies, with a bit of David Cronenberg’s body transmorphology as well. Grant’s change comes slowly at first — a zap to his gut from the slippery thing on the ground, a brief gestation period that results in increased sex drive, childlike enthusiasm, and an overwhelming desire to eat raw meat (the declaration of desire is resolutely guttural: “Meat! Urggh”). First he’s loading up his trick with plastic packs from the grocery store, and soon he’s graduated to hunting dogs and cats and cows, locking up the remains in his basement, which he padlocks oh so ominously.
Starla misses this cue at first, as she’s distracted by his suddenly good-loving attentions: they make sweet love on the sofa while Air Supply’s “You’re Every Woman in the World” wafts in the background. She has no idea how grim and inverted this notion will become. Grant’s change is soon impossible to deny: his face is pussy and misshapen, his mouth distended, his body stretchy, and his instincts both aggressively procreative and murderous.
Wholly crude and repellent, James Gunn’s movie is also effectively delirious — smart, fun, and obvious in its borrowings, not to mention rather fond of its tweaky characters. That includes the requisite “old man” (Michael Cromien), who observes that alien-Grant “looks like the thing that fell of my dick during the war”) and blustery mayor, Jack (Gregg Henry), unable to get out of his own way and prone to poor judgment (challenging alien-Grant to come out of hiding, he uses all sorts of invectives, from “cocksucker” to “pussy,” then explains, “I’m using psychology”).
Like all good menaces to earthlings, alien-Grant is all about the penetration. He’s got a pair of tentacles with snipper-looking things on the end that pop out of his middle (this during the stage when he’s still got a middle), then wiggle into the belly of the designated vessel for his seed, Brenda — this as the camera pulls out to lurk from a doorway, underlining the voyeurism involved in all such visceral effects. (The image is part John Hurt in Alien, part Marilyn Chambers in Rabid, part Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball.)
In standard slasher movie fashion, Brenda sort of “deserves” her bad end because she tries to seduce Grant back at the bar. The process is extra-gross, all pulsing and gyrating and convulsive. And her end is very very bad: Brenda’s the one in the promotional trailer who says, “Something’s wrong with me,” while looking like a flesh-colored version of Violet Beauregarde after she’s turned into a big fat roly-poly blueberry in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What’s “wrong,” as is usually wrong after a human female has sexual congress with an alien: she’s going to have his babies.
Or rather, his slugs. Upon their emergence into air, this army of red wormy thingies set forth to get inside every breathing body they can find, from the charming farmy family to the charming animatronic deer out in the forest, entering through the mouth (with one scene also homage-gesturing to Nightmare on Elm Street, as blue-fingernailed, iPoded Kylie Strutemyer [Tania Saulnier] reclines in her white bathtub, and a slug approaches from through her legs, the same point where the camera waits and watches). If you can keep your mouth shout and protected, the slugs don’t get inside, but of course, this proves impossible for all but the central characters, meaning that intrepid, Kylie is soon surrounded by sisters and parents who have been infected, turned into flesh-eating zombies who stagger and lurch in the usual zombie fashion.
Bill gets the usual limited help from several deadmeat deputies — including plucky Trevor (Haig Sutherland) and Margaret (Jennifer Coping), invited by the guys to contribute to the resistance effort even though she’s a “lesbo” — but he’s the obvious hero. Suitably reluctant and arrogant at the same time, he’s disinclined to shoot things (“I will never understand what joy a grown man gets by blowing the face of a cute little deer,” he says early on, during the “Deer Cheer,” a dance to kick off hunting season). But he’s also resourceful and careful about his image. He figures out that everyone who ingests slugs is connected to Grant (they all insist, sometimes speaking in unison, that “Marriage is a sacred bond” and feel inordinate affection for Starla), and so the destruction of alien-Grant is the only way to end it. “I’ll keep growin’,” grrrs Grant, “‘Til I’m everywhere, ’til I’m everything.”
What he doesn’t see is Grant’s mirroring of himself: the guy who loves the girl so hard and so long and so hopelessly that he loses himself. Lucky for him, this loss of self becomes literal for Grant and his many extensions (all urgly, all pink and oozy, all soulless). And so settling for Bill looks like Starla’s right choice in the end. Unless she notices Kylie, whose blue fingernails are delightful indeed. Even working within conventions, Slither allows for options.