Slither [15 Year Retrospective]: Don’t Let Them in Your Mouth
James Gunn has had a lot to celebrate this weekend with the trailer for his The Suicide Squad dropping and taking the internet by storm. Another upcoming celebration for the comic book universe straddling director is the upcoming anniversary of his directorial debut Slither, a horror-comedy that pays homage to alien invasion B-movies of the past and winks at Gunn’s early Troma days. It will have been fifteen years since this little gooey slice of dark comedy hit our screens and launched the exciting career of a director who is equally obsessed with horror and superheroes.
Wheelsy, South Carolina is a small rural town about to celebrate it’s annual Deer Cheer Festival when a meteorite ruins all of their plans. Inside this hunk of space rock is a sentient parasite with the ability to infect a host and spread through giant slug-like wriggler monsters that force their way into a victims mouth and infect them, turning the townsfolk into a hive mind controlled by patient zero. Side effects of becoming a slug passenger include unrelenting hunger, zombie-like brain function and potentially melting into one giant tentacled skin blob for the rest of your days. Yum.
The unfortunate host for this hungry little extraterrestrial is Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), yep that’s his name, a wealthy resident of Wheelsy married to teacher Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks) who may have seen him as an escape from a life of poverty at first but has genuine commitment to their marriage, almost to a ridiculous degree as the film unfolds. After a near late night mistake with a woman named Brenda (Brenda James), Grant ends up with an alien injection that takes over his body. Moral of the story, don’t go into the woods at night for an affair, and if you do, don’t poke the gooey sack you find with a stick, it won’t end well for you or your marriage. Once infected Grant’s little parasite makes him better in the bedroom but also hungry as a motherfucker, leading him back into the arms of Brenda who ends up the victim of a brutal encounter she definitely didn’t expect.
Brenda’s disappearance, and Starla’s encounter with her slowly morphing husband, bring in the police department and kick off the action of the film. Once the action gets started it has a relentless pace, each scene taking us to the next set piece of gore and gratuity whilst never feeling rushed or ignorant to the characters. Witty, easy going Police Chief Bill Prady (Nathan Fillion) and his officers are on the job of hunting down this ‘squid man’ and are joined by teenage final girl survivor Kylie Strutemeyer (Tania Saulnier) and foul-mouthed, Mr. Pibb loving Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), the town’s Mayor who, much like the Mayor of Amity in Jaws, wants this problem swept away before the upcoming hunting festival. This is our rag-tag group of survivors who must avoid gulping down a parasitic slug whilst hatching a plan to kill the leader.
“…am I supposed to laugh, vomit, cringe or perform some magical triad of them all?”
These characters are flawed, awkward and don’t suddenly become masters of ass kicking, they luck their way through and hope for the best. Yet each one of them, even the hot-headed Mayor, are sympathetic enough that we care about whether they survive or not. It’s a multi-protagonist narrative that aligns us with each lead character in their shining moments. Banks and Fillion play off of each other brilliantly with tender moments where they remember a romance that could have once been and awkward silences reflecting on the insanity of their current situation. Kylie is another shining star whose bathroom brawl set piece is both terrifying and darkly humorous.
Lots of films try for the sympathetic antagonist and, even with him looking like a mutated and boil covered squid monster, Grant is definitely a successful one. Just like the rest of the town he has some imperfections to begin with, but nothing that makes him an unredeemable villain, so when he falls foul of the parasitic alien it’s easy to sympathise with him. Grant’s love for Starla is one of the remaining pieces of him and a unifying element of the hive mind that sees them protecting her, and even lovingly cleaning her up after one hell of a hard night. There’s something outlandishly funny and yet truly sweet about the connection between Starla and Grant, their commitment to their marriage and their understanding that, no matter the outcome, it looks bleak for their relationship.
The effects are brilliant. Wet, slimy and gross. It’s in the use of these practical effects that give Slither a timeless energy. Despite being made fifteen years ago, during the stage of the 2000’s where special effects were still developing and it was easy to guess a film’s budget by how much it looked like a green screen nightmare, the film’s effects stand firm even now. The entire team behind these creative and gag inducing effects should be very proud as each one perfectly hits the mark. From Grant Grant’s evolving body, to the straight down the middle severing of a hunter all the way to the gigantic pregnancy balloon body of the parasite incubator Brenda, the effects leave me wondering, am I supposed to laugh, vomit, cringe or perform some magical triad of them all? In the best of ways of course.
This film takes heavy influence from sci-fi horror of the past for its narrative. There’s a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a taste of The Thing and plenty of Cronenburgian body horror throughout. Gunn fills the film with homage and references for the eager Horror fan. There’s the little sisters of the Strutemeyer family reading Goosebumps books and looking like The Shining twins, and Kylie breaking down the door Jack Torrence style. Kylie also gets her own Nancy moments from Nightmare on Elm Street when her relaxing soak in the tub is interrupted by a slug. The town’s high school is named Earl Basset Community School, a tribute to the main character in another Horror creature feature, Tremors. It may be a bit of a stretch but the possessed deer that attacks Bill, or attacks Kylie according to his version of events, had me thinking of the mounted deer trophy from Evil Dead II. And then the ending holds a lot of Shunting energy from Society. There’s probably a million more which is part of the fun of this comedy-horror.
Slither may have failed at the box office but it won over fans and critics becoming a cult classic, a sleeper hit that boasts incredible and disgusting creature effects with well timed humour and gross out gags. This film was simply of the wrong time, it landed in a horror landscape that wasn’t quite ready for it, but has since been embraced. It’s utterly quotable, undeniably disgusting and unapologetically loving to it’s genre predecessors.