To a certain degree, horror movies succeed or fail on their action and special effects, but they still need to keep me interested, and forcing the main character through a gory ordeal isn't enough. Slither, for example, is a movie about alien mind-control slugs. We've seen alien mind-control slugs in other movies; they're sexually transmitted in David Cronenberg's Shivers and I hear they're pretty entertaining in Fred Dekker's Night of the Creeps, which I might try to track down and watch before the end of this month. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured--well, they were alien mind-control trilobytes in that case, but they were basically the same thing. You remember that episode. It's the one where the guy's head explodes.
What I'm trying to say is that I missed Slither on its initial release because the trailer made it look like a paint-by-numbers affair. I didn't see it somebody plunked me down in front of it and said "watch this." There might have been free food involved. Anyway, Slither didn't look like it had much to offer, but I was wrong. If we were discussing a family, I'd say something like, "it has a lot of heart; it has it in spades." It's a horror movie, though, so it's probably more appropriate to say "it has a lot of guts; it has them in buckets."
Slither begins in space, as a meteor speeds toward the earth. It begins to break apart as it enters the atmosphere, and finally crashes to the ground behind a patrol car where the recently-promoted Sheriff, Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) is dozing while his deputy, Wally, uses a radar gun to clock the speed of whippoorwills. Neither one notices the crash.
It is noticed, however, a day or two later by by Grant Grant (Michael Rooker, the local millionaire. After his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) spurns his advances, Mr. Grant goes out, gets good and drunk, and finds himself out in the woods with an old almost-flame named Brenda. He notices the cracked meteorite, follows a trail of slime, and gets himself stabbed in the chest by some kinda space parasite which burrows into his brain and starts working on him. Over the next few days, Grant Grant develops a ravenous hunger for meat, and his body begins slowly to mutate ("it's a bee sting", he says, "I seen the doctor. Gave me a prescription."). He also infects Brenda, making her an incubation unit for the aforementioned alien mind-control slugs.
Reduced to its action, Slither sounds gross and grim, but unremarkable. Grant gets weirder and Starla finds it increasingly difficult to be an understanding wife, and then Brenda explodes sending thousands of baby slugs out to feed. The populace become zombies, and Grant Grant starts looking like a cross between Jabba the Hutt and his Spaceballs cousin, Pizza. Bill, Starla, and a handful of slugfodder characters have a very unpleasant night.
I have not discussed the elements that make Slither wonderful, and believe me, it is wonderful. The last few times I've watched this movie, it was somebody else's choice. Every time I sit down thinking, "well, I've seen it a million times, but at least I know it's fun," and then I end up enjoying the hell out of it in spite of myself.
The film was written and directed by James Gunn who got his start writing for Troma Entertainment where he wrote Tromeo and Juliet. That last sentence will not make sense to everyone, but if you know Troma, it should explain everything. Slither is what happens when a Troma alumnus tries to make a respectable horror movie. It is very, very funny, and very, very weird. Gunn has jetisoned the sort of cartoony, exaggerated Tromaisms that make Lloyd Kaufman movies so tedious, and kept the good stuff. Of particular note is Gregg Henry as the profanity-spouting mayor. All of his dialogue is gold, and it culminates in a furious rant when the character snaps: "Brenda explodin' like a water balloon, worms drivin' my friends around like cars, and now there's no goddamn Mr. Pibb?! It's the only Coke I like!" The characters, really, are what makes the movie float, especially Nathan Fillion as Sheriff Pardy whose dialogue keeps the movie light and funny during the final act, which might otherwise have been a long, obligatory slog.
It also helps that Slither, while not a direct parody of anything, is full of little homages to older horror movies. This is a labor of love, not an attempt to cash in. Some of the nicest touches are just the filmmakers avoiding the pitfalls of the genre and short-circuiting its conventions to make a tighter movie.
Generally, the critics liked Slither, though it didn't do well at the box office. Its producers blamed the comedic elements, saying that the market just wasn't ready for horror comedy, and critic Richard Roeper blamed the plague of zombie movies that had been going on for the previous year. If anything, I blame the ad campaign which made it look like just another boring zombie/slug movie. Don't think zombie/slug movies sound inherently unpromising? Try watching one of the bad ones.
Click here for one of the crappy trailers.