The new horror-comedy Slither, written and directed by James Gunn, quickly sets the tone, revealing both its intentions and influences with an appropriately traditional opening shot that recalls many a sci-fi/monster movie.
A meteor hurtles through outer space, while in the big, black void beyond, we see the planet Earth, spinning like a bright blue bull’s-eye… the perfect target for space debris of the traditionally villainous variety. Meanwhile on Earth, in the small town of Wheelsy, a seemingly dim-witted police duo whittle away the evening inside their police cruiser as, unbeknownst to them, the smoldering meteor suddenly blazes across the night sky, crashing in the not-too-distant distance.
It’s the dawn of deer hunting season in Wheelsy, and Wheelsians young and old are ready and raring to reassert their rightful place atop the old food chain high above their antlered inferiors. Coincidentally, sexy school teacher Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks) is busy discoursing on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Being a young and attractive woman, it’s not surprising that Starla’s distracted students are far more ardent in their amour for their curvaceous teacher than they are for any of that dusty old Darwinism, of which Starla seems the sole devotee.
Sharing in her student’s lustful sentiments is Starla’s oldster hubby Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), who is very much devoted to his wife. All the same, it becomes clear that things are not all rosy and racy at home when later that evening, Grant attempts to give vent to his passions with a suggestion of sex, and Starla rebuffs his advances, apologizing for not being in the mood. Withered and woebegone, Grant wends his way towards a tavern to give his sorrows a proper Pabst Blue Ribbon beer bath.
Seated in the bar and hunkered behind a bunker of beer bottles, Grant is approached by a fellow lonely-heart named Brenda. Soon thereafter the lovelorn twosome are traipsing and tripping through the woods when Grant stumbles upon a strange, goo-strewn pod. After engaging in some tried and true backwoods science by prodding the pod with a carefully chosen stick, something erupts and shoots from the pod, and appears to enter Grant’s body. Confused, but believing he is okay, Grant hurries home to his beloved Starla.
Despite his beliefs, over the next couple of days Grant’s appetites continue to grow and expand, and his insatiable voracity begins to emerge in the form of bodily mutations. With small town life suddenly spinning out of control, an unimaginable horror continues to evolve, adding a new link to the food chain, and ensuring that before long hunters will become the hunted, now that humans are on the menu.
Horror-comedies are indeed a tricky lot. The tightrope walk between what is frightful and what is funny often proves too precarious a permutation, sending movies that aim to have audiences scream in terror one minute and shriek with laughter the next, rapidly plummeting in a fiery heap to their blazing box-office deaths. Even so, there are those occasions when the balance between horror and hilarity is just right. This result can be a unique film hybrid that succeeds in evoking two of our most basic human responses, and combining two popular movie genres, that on the surface, seem completely dissimilar.
Certainly, there are plenty of horror movies that briefly utilize humor for comic relief, or at the opposite end, films like Young Frankenstein or the Scary Movie franchise, which are strictly comedies spoofing popular horror films. Still, neither of these “types” are horror-comedies in the truest sense. With this in mind however, for the perfect example of a film that truly does fit the bill, one need look no further than James Gunn’s monstrously funny fright-film, Slither.
When watching Slither, Gunn’s directorial debut, one can sense the pure joy and adoration the director/screenwriter has for horror movies as throughout the film Gunn proudly displays his numerous inspirations like a B-movie badge of honor. Whether it’s David Cronenberg’s ’70s shockers Shivers and Rabid, low-budget sci-fi horror like The Deadly Spawn, or Frank Henenlotter’s humorous ’80s horror hybrids, Slither is a blood-drenched, slime-covered love letter that gives horror film enthusiasts something to celebrate. At the same time, one need not be a “horror buff” to enjoy Slither however, as it is just a fun, highly likeable movie in general, and as such, should prove an entertaining, and possibly disgusting, viewing experience even to audience members unfamiliar with the film’s predecessors, or who may miss the various winks and nods.
Although Slither’s basic story cannot be lauded for being innovative, necessarily, it is really quite clear that this was not one of Gunn’s concerns, nor apparently, an aspiration. Rather, he has managed, quite handily, to rejuvenate some rather worn-out horror movie concepts and conventions with an abundance of wit, humor — and yes — originality. For this reason Slither never feels stale, or like the slimy “creatures featured” in the film, sluggish. This is of course a breath of fresh air in a genre that, truth be told, has begun to feel as imaginatively stagnant as someone who uses phrases like, “a breath of fresh air.”
In his director’s chair debut, James Gunn does an exceptional job bringing his ideas to life onscreen. Visually, the film is not overly extravagant but nor is it boring, and the somewhat restrained, deceptively simple approach benefits the film overall. The special effects are a successfully effective melding of the traditional variety with state of the art CG, and what may have perhaps looked like cheesy, hackneyed hokum in another film, actually works quite wonderfully here.
The cast does a very fine job in Slither, and the major characters that populate the film, while not profound or multilayered (which they need not be), are really nicely written. Despite numerous recent examples, and plenty of opinions to the contrary, Slither also proves that characters in horror films, even if they are simple, can be likeable. Unlike their multi-tentacled, slime-coated, blood-quaffing counterparts, the main human characters that the audience is supposed to relate to, or at the very least get behind in Slither, are engaging, oft-times funny, in some cases moderately intelligent, and for all of these reasons, decidedly human and easy to root for.
Thankfully Slither also employs the classic monster movie tradition (think of the well-known Frankenstein monster for an example) wherein those aspects of the creature that are identifiably human still manage to emerge from beneath all of the deformities and ugliness, thus making the “monster” a somewhat sympathetic and ultimately tragic figure.
Apart from perhaps a couple of very brief lulls in Slither, the film is without any major problems. In all it is simply a very lively, highly-entertaining, tightly-scripted, out-and-out funny horror movie that should have some audience members squirming in their seats. Fans of recent horror-comedies like Dead & Breakfast, or Bubba Ho-tep should also have a lot of fun with Slither, a movie that is truly the best laugh-filled fright film since Shaun of the Dead and a gruesome gut-buster bound to become a horror-comedy classic. Now don’t let my slutty quote whoring hinder you – just get to the theater and have yourself a bloody good time!