“How can you blame someone for acting according to their own nature?” —Grant Grant, Slither
At the point in James Gunn’s Slither where Grant Grant, an imposing and relatively wealthy figure played by Michael Rooker, says the line above, his transformation into a squid-like alien beast is nearing completion. His head looks lumpy and flush with red, as if his skull were turned inside-out; his mouth stretches out over gnarled, pointy teeth; and his skin resembles a plastic figurine that’s been cooked in the microwave. Never that handsome on his best day—and always a conspicuously odd match for his wife Starla, played by the fetching Elizabeth Banks—Grant is now a terrifying mutant, begging Starla to come back to him. Sure, he tried to strangle her and he’s real sorry about that, but clearly something has happened to him. “How can you blame someone for acting according to their own nature?”
That’s a question I found myself pondering both times I watched Gunn’s most recent effort, Super, a movie that unquestionably acts according to its own nature. It’s ostensibly a comedy about a short-order cook (Rainn Wilson) who decides to become a superhero to get his wife back from a drug dealer, but it’s really unclassifiable, because the laughs are often cut by psychosis. The joke that Wilson’s superhero punishes every crime—even minor ones, like cutting in line at the movies—with a pipe wrench to the skull is a good one, but the blunt reality of it is hard to stomach, much less find hilarious. But there’s something admirable about that, too: Gunn seems to want to put audiences through a nervy, destabilizing experience, and he doesn’t seem to care if that turns the movie into a hideous mutant. He’s going to follow his muse no matter what.
By contrast, his 2006 horror-comedy Slither plays much more smoothly and assuredly: The tone is cheerfully irreverent, the story is firmly rooted in old B-movies like The Blob, Night Of The Creeps, and George Romero’s zombie cycle, and Gunn knows exactly which beats will draw a big response form his audience. And yet, by Hollywood standards, it was a radical, unmarketable departure from the tried and true. Horror and comedy are generally segregated in Hollywood, and to mix them up can create a toxic alchemy at the box office, with the humor undermining the straight-up scares expected by horror aficionados. Yet I’m dubious of the idea that audiences rejected Slither; they just didn’t give it a chance, which is less Gunn’s fault than the fault of a rigid and unimaginable studio system that doesn’t know how to sell movies that they can’t package in the usual boxes. Because this movie plays like gangbusters.
Slither takes place in the town of Wheelsy, one of those sleepy little burgs found in like-minded movies like Tremors or Eight Legged Freaks, where the mayor is kooky, the sheriff is the only competent lawman in town, and the people are eccentrics to a man. How sleepy is it? In the opening scene, a cop is using his speed gun to track the flight of a whippoorwill. (He’s disappointed to find it’s only 27 miles per hour. “I’d have thought more like 31 or something. 32.”) Meanwhile, the asteroid that will lead to the virtual obliteration of the entire town goes unnoticed, landing in the woods behind the cruiser with giant thud. Within this foreign body is an Alien-like parasite that can wriggle its way into humans, generally through the mouth, and transform them into zombies, something resembling a giant squid, or worse.
The trouble begins when Grant Grant, frustrated by Starla’s resistance to him in bed, turns to a make-up-caked local bar waitress for love instead. When they come upon the crash site in the woods, an alien slug burrows into Grant’s chest and wriggles its way up to his brain stem, beginning the quick and gruesome transformation of his body and mind. Fueled by a diet of raw meat—and later, the fresher kind—Grant soon terrorizes Starla, who turns to the town sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a man who has pined for her for years. As Bill eyes Starla at a line-dancing event for the town’s annual “Deer Cheer” hunting-season kick-off, we get this fine exchange, a prime example of the profane snap of Gunn’s colorful dialogue and Fillion’s talent for delivering a wry one-liner:
There’s a part of me that wishes I could make a better argument for Slither on thematic grounds, but the film is all entertaining text, precious little subtext. Gunn doesn’t seem to have anything in particular he wants to say about small-town life or marriage or politics or sexual anxiety, though all are incorporated into the story one way or another. If anything, Slither could be read as a horror film for vegetarians, because it reserves so much contempt and revulsion for dumb hicks who slaughter deer for sport or make terrible gluttons of themselves. Beginning with Grant Grant, the zombified humans in the film are mindless consumers of meat—and not just any meat, but truckloads of butchered, uncooked ribeye and whatever live animals are unfortunate enough to cross their path. The parasitically afflicted hosts in Slither get grosser the longer they stick around—an instinct no doubt left over from Gunn’s time at Troma—but they also get larger and take on mass. There’s the sense that if the plague goes unanswered, the result would be untold millions of people combining into one giant, sweaty, all-consuming beast. Like this poor woman, perhaps, only infinitely larger:
As for the abundance of sexually suggestive images, Slither has more grotesque body horror and vaginal openings than a David Cronenberg film festival and a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit combined, but it seems like a case of Gunn making visual jokes for the sake of it. Grant’s mutually unsatisfying marriage to Starla manifests itself in aggression and phallic mutation, but Gunn doesn’t spend much time on their relationship before the creepy-crawlies start to come out. Slither abounds with movie-geek references and genre commentary—and it relies, to some extent, on the audience picking up on it—yet it’s geared heavily toward broad, crowd-pleasing fun. It slavishly recreates the feel of one-half of a cheap-o sci-fi/horror drive-in double-feature, only with expert craft and a modest (but not inconsiderable) studio budget.
And Gunn finds the perfect leading man to do it in Fillion, a cult icon in the tradition of Bruce Campbell or early Kurt Russell—masculine, ironic, put-upon, and willing to withstand just about any force thrown at him, natural or otherwise. Rooker’s evolution into a monster may be the best piece of acting in Slither—hilarious and disgusting yet pitiable at the same time—but Fillion has an alternate-universe movie-star presence that’s key to the film working. Gunn writes him a lot of lines that are simply reactions (e.g. “Well, now that is some fucked up shit.”) that ping off his bemused nonchalance; he specializes in the type of character who might look upon the craziest happenings imaginable with curiosity or frustration, but never surprise. Born into another generation, he could have been Han Solo or Jack Burton.
Above all, the shame of Slither’s orphan status is that it really shouldn’t have been an orphan at all. A lot of cult items have some distancing element that narrows their appeal to a self-selected few, but apart from the gross-out moments, Slither is defined by a rollicking populism that should have put a general audience in its corner. Gunn knows where the laugh lines are, knows how to tease viewers with misdirection (the grenade bit is particularly brilliant), and knows when to pause a beat for applause at the big payoffs. Sadly, the ovations never quite materialized in a theater.
May 5: Double Team/Knock Off
May 19: The Vanishing (non-shitty version)
June 2: Schizopolis