Dir: James Gunn
Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
Let’s say you’re a nerd done good. You got your start working for Troma Films, the schlocky independent horror studio responsible for the Toxic Avenger franchise, for whom you co-wrote (and secretly co-directed) their latter day hit Tromeo and Juliet. From there you were courted by major studios, writing the screenplays for the Scooby-Doo films and being attached to one of the initial drafts of the Dawn of the Dead remake. At one point you were even married to “The Office’s” Jenna Fischer. But what you’ve really wanted to do is direct your own film, one that can be as inventive as what inspired you when you were just a tyke.
These were the stakes when James Gunn set about making Slither, a highly ambitious sci-fi/horror/comedy mash-up that touches any number of hallmarks of those genres. Influenced by the films of his ’80s youth, Gunn refused to play it small in his debut, choosing instead to make a picture worthy of his idols Carpenter and Cronenberg and going for broke without hesitation. Slither’s plot in particular feels like something straight from Cronenberg’s earlier works, with its use of parasites and telepathic bonds, something that put it at odds with the previous decade’s fixation on the torture porn movement the Saw franchise ushered in.
Set in the small town of Wheelsy, South Carolina, Slither concerns the transformation of the town’s richest citizen, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) into the host for an ancient alien parasite. Before long, Grant has unleashed waves of parasite progeny to turn the majority of the town’s population into a mix of zombie-like puppets and horribly hungry breeders. Which leaves Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and Grant’s wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) to lead up the small group of survivors as they attempt to defeat Grant before it’s too late.
For fans of both sci-fi and horror, half of the fun of Slither is in its references. Gunn is quite obviously an obsessive fan of the genres, citing Cronenberg’s Shivers and The Brood as particular influences on the film as well as the usual suspects of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Re-Animator and The Thing. Rather than outright steal from these works, though, Gunn instead pulls from their moods and tones as often as he does their plots and imagery. Gunn’s instincts with Fillion especially recall Carpenter and Kurt Russell; Fillion brings his effortless wit and sly toughness to the film, making one wonder why he hasn’t been picked for more roles like that of Pardy. Gunn draws out similar impact from Banks, who all too often isn’t allowed to break free from minor comedic roles. As Grant’s suffering wife, Banks displays a tragic sympathy for her husband’s transformation even as she understands what she’ll eventually have to do.
Unfortunately, it was this type of directing that more than likely sealed Slither’s fate. Gunn cares about his characters, even the ones that don’t live past Slither’s middle point and he’s able to extract a similar passion from his actors in their performances. Fillion and Banks are the two notable stand outs but to overlook Rooker would be a mistake. As Slither’s villain/first victim, Grant is a truly tragic persona- throughout the film, Grant as the parasite remarks that his actions aren’t something he chooses to do, they are simply a part of his nature. Rather than reduce his villain to black and white moral grandstanding, Gunn prefers to examine the predator/prey relationship and ask whether you can fault an organism for merely doing its evolutionary mandate.
Where Saw and its ilk treat their characters as cannon fodder, Gunn brings real weight to his plot, making every death, whether as sacrifice or folly, count. Audiences couldn’t get into it, even as critics held Slither up as one of the best films of either the horror or sci-fi genre in the last decade. Slither’s use of bleak humor didn’t win over audiences who similarly crushed Feast and it certainly didn’t help that Universal apparently couldn’t figure out how to market the film- some previews framed it as a straight zombie film while others made it look like a gross out creature feature. The confusing marketing is an important point to acknowledge, since Universal’s portrayal of the film as yet another zombie picture in a year full of them fated Slither to a type of over-saturation it didn’t even deserve to be lumped in.
Gunn’s failure at making back even half of the film’s total production and marketing budget similarly doomed the director to temporary exile. Though he seems poised for a potential breakout with this year’s Super, which appears to be a more mature, innovative take on the themes explored by Kick-Ass earlier this year, Gunn was more or less disowned by Universal and some trade publications even blamed him for the death of the comedy horror genre of all things. Like The Thing before it, Slither may have been a financial disaster on its release but it’s found a gradually increasing audience at home due to its similarly groundbreaking treatment of long-standing sci-fi tropes. Maybe it’s for the best that Slither has remained a film for the nerds instead of the unwashed masses- the likelihood of Saw fans churning out a future horror master is slim, but Slither is truly worthy of its pedigree.
by Nick Hanover