Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fright Flashback: James Gunn

For our Scream 101 episode about this film, click here.

Welcome to Fright Flashback, where every week until the end of summer we will revisit an older horror film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to an upcoming new release. This week we are anticipating Guardians of the Galaxy, the new Marvel feature that was written and directed by James Gunn. Having never seen one of his films, I decided it was best to explore one of his early horror efforts, Slither.

Year: 2006
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

It's a mystery how some movies just fail to get by in popular culture. If Slither had been made but a couple years later than it did, it would be all over the place thanks to its cast of now well-known faces. I mean, how can you put Elizabeth Banks, Nathan Fillion, Merle from The Walking Dead and Pam from The Office in the same film and not have it make a splash?

The world is a strange and confusing place and I'm not sure I want to live here anymore.

You know what? Never mind. I guess I could stay here a little longer.

Combining the zany comedy of an Evil Dead movie with the B-horror sensibilities of 50's classics like The Blob and the growing fervor of the Zombie Renaissance, Slither is a delightful and creative mishmash of genres. It doesn't breathe new life into them, but rather leaps deftly between them to create something cannily nostalgic and intelligently campy in glittering combination.

Slither tells the story of Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), a small town schoolteacher in the South. When, unbeknownst to her, her husband Grant (Michael Rooker) is infected by a creature in a mysterious meteor in the woods during an illicit tryst, he begins to act very strangely. It turns out that "for better or for worse" does not include being taken over by an alien parasite that uses worm-like minions to turn all the townspeople into shambling zombies, so Starla must team up with the lovelorn Chief Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) to eradicate the alien menace before it is too late and humanity is devoured.

Part of the fun of being tossed into a zombie-type movie is guessing how exactly the disease works this time around. Sure, the whole idea of what a "zombie" is is pretty much set in stone, but the genesis and pathology can range all over the map. Is the disease an ancient one or a new creation? Does it make people rise from the grave or merely infect the newly deceased? Is everyone infected or just those who are bitten? There are hundreds of different factors that go into the specificity of the thing and Gunn's complex mythology blows them all out of the water.

The bathwater, that is.

Slither isn't the best horror movie I've seen (which would be [REC]), nor is it the best zombie movie I've seen (which would be [REC]). Heck, it's not even the best zombie comedy movie I've ever seen (which would probably have to be Shaun of the Dead or Dead Snow). But it's got a lot of pizazz and squelchy charm that makes it about as far from a chore as a low-budget zombie movie could ever possibly be with its stellar wit and brisk pace.

While the genre trappings mostly remain intact (save for some terrific reversals and subversions in the finale), the humor is as fresh as it gets and provides Slither with a timeless edge that will keep you tickled even if the whole "worm snakes want inside my mouth" thing isn't your cup of tea. Comedy depends on the element of surprise, so I will refrain from shoving a laundry list of the best lines down your throats. I gotta leave room for the worms anyway.

Just pretend it's licorice.

Luckily for Slither and unluckily for its audience, the effects are top notch. The movie is unafraid to throw plenty of twisting, slimy goodness at the screen for as long as possible. Very influenced by the psychosexual works of the late H. R. Giger and the excesses of the Stuart Gordon era, it depicts the invasion of the human body by an alien force in excruciating detail.

This may turn off some viewers, but makes it a must-see for the horror faithful. Slither's monsters are all slime and gore, pulled from the deepest darkest recesses of the mind. And in a world so inundated with self-indulgent CGI monstrosities, it is a relief to see practical effects brought to the screen in the modern era. This relief is so profound that it includes even the outrageously bad deer puppet that stinks up a third act scene.

But the effects are one hundred percent convincing everywhere they need to be and keep Slither firmly in a hilariously disgusting camp. There's also some terrific B-movie foreshadowing where innocuous details play an important part in survival, a keen use of shadow and light in creating an effective environment, and a fearlessness that is uncommon in today's studio horror.

It's perhaps a little too cheesy and a little too bereft of thematic import to be a new classic, but especially when compared to the other horror of the year, even the entire decade, Slither is well worth your time. You deserve a good laugh. And where else are you going to see Elizabeth Banks murdering a zombie with a spike? Something tells me Pitch Perfect 2 isn't going to cut it for the gorehounds.

If you're a fan, check it out! If you're not, you might just like it anyway. Check it out!

TL;DR: Slither is filled to the brim with wonderfully slimy effects and sharp humor.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 963


  1. I had never seen a movie by James Gunn until last night. (Incidentally, doesn't that sound made up? Perhaps it is.) I did love Guardians despite it/myself, but now I kinda wonder if that toneless sensibility might work even better in a genre I've been trained by the likes of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson to accept a self-aware silliness in. (You'd think Matthew Vaughn would have already beaten an unresisting acceptance of superhero pseudo-parody into me, but maybe I'm just too close to the subject.)

    Anyway, I will indeed check it out. Kind of reminds me of the Cronenberg near-classic Shivers, except--almost by default--the acting must be better, not so much because of Elizabeth Banks or Nathan Fillion specifically, but because they are people for whom English is a first language and memorizing the lines of a script isn't too much of a hassle.

    1. Oh it's certainly worth a watch. I'd unhesitatingly recommend it to YOU of all people. Although I personally considered the humor of Guardians (review pending) to be sharper, perhaps it's because, like you said, I've come to expect comedy in my horror films.
      But yeah definitely check it out when you can, the tones are a lot more cohesive so I think you'd get a kick out of it.