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.