***½/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras B+
starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry
written and directed by James Gunn
by Walter Chaw Paying tribute to his Lloyd Kaufman roots with a shot in which The Toxic Avenger is on TV in the background, James Gunn's Slither is more in line with the hipster revisionism of his screenplay for Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead. Postmodernism its point, then, drying up the musty cellars somewhat of the films it riffs on, Slither misses when it does only because it has little resonance beyond the basic Cronenbergian sexual-parasites thing and the shopworn idea that Americans are voracious, disgusting, ignorant swine. (In truth, the one moment that really bugs me is a fairly demented rape sequence (involving more infant-menace than anything in the new The Hills Have Eyes) and its played-for-giggles fallout.) In place of useful sociology, it does for redneck archetypes what Shaun of the Dead did for workaday slobs, poking fun at the thin line between slack-jawed yokels (initiating deer season with a barn-busting hoedown) and beef-craving, slug-brained zombies (recalling that NASCAR now boasts its own brand of meat). The biggest surprise is that Gunn appears to have seen and liked Night of the Creeps, and that, like that film, Slither does what it does without sacrificing too much of its good-natured, self-deprecating sense of humour along the way.
Poor Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is married to heavy-breathing good old boy Grant (Michael Rooker) in the kind of small, backwoods community where the sheriff, Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), carries a torch for Starla from way back in elementary school. When Grant goes off in the woods with Brenda (Brenda James) following a night of frustrated amour with Starla, he poignantly pokes a space slug with a stick, gets impregnated with a mind-controlling parasite, makes a nest in the basement out of leaves, and buys a lot of steak. It's a long time before somebody notices that something's amiss with Grant, a gag expanded on later when a family of zombies goes after the eldest daughter (Tania Saulnier), walking like tenderloin-looking space slugs might walk if they suddenly sprouted arms and legs--the idea that the bumpkins of Podunk, USA are ridiculous, graceless cattle, moving in time with the herd. But the satire (it feels more like the kind of ribbing that male friends engage in) is without edge, and the cast is uniformly up to the task of presenting the material with the appropriate level of reverence. Except for that extended alien rape sequence, Slither just never feels patronizing or mean-spirited. Granted, rape should never be comfortable to watch, but it's so at odds with the tenor of the rest of the film that it's gratuitous.
The rape establishes, however, a certain lawlessness in Slither alongside a real interest in grotesque-ifying the American gothic in a new "household" that Grant (starting to look a lot like Belial from Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case--indeed, a bar in the film is called "Henenlotter's") sets up in an abandoned barn, bringing home the bacon, as it were, and spreading his seed in one explosive, crimson guignol of a sentient-slug ejaculation. The film is disgusting and, in its way, it's sad, too--and it's that element of the pathetic that reminded me the most of the tightrope described by Ron Underwood's cult classic Tremors. In both, there's a tenderness attending the treatment of its essential human relationships as they're challenged by these extreme circumstances--and in both, whenever an innocent is killed, there's never the sense of complete anonymity that would make the bloodshed not less funny, but rather damnably inconsequential. There's the girl who tries to save her little sisters in vain, the fate of the rape victim, the missing posters for dogs named "Roscoe" that start cropping up before the other shoe drops in earnest, the way that Starla plays on Grant's essential loneliness, and a final, apocalyptic tableau that's surprisingly affecting. By the end (especially once Starla gets a little enthusiastic in her bloodlust), the laughter starts to sound a little like hysteria--and that's a really good thing. It's possible, in fact, that Slither's subtext holds a lot more than it appeared at first glance--that maybe these orally-transmitted zombies are representative of how minds are changed in our shouting culture; of our dangerous condescension to and marginalization of the red states; and of how the pods and the cult of neo-cons aren't shambling anymore. Now they've got teeth--and a real desperate taste for meat. Originally published: March 31, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Slither arrives on DVD courtesy Universal in the United States and Sony/TVA in Canada; please note that this review pertains to the Canadian release, whose specs may differ from those of its American counterpart. The 1.80:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation exhibits some combing, though it's not especially pronounced unless you step through the film frame-by-frame and no other authoring artifacts are detectable. Shadow detail could be stronger but colour latitude is breathtakingly filmlike, making the transfer's shortcomings that much more frustrating. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 audio could've been mastered at a louder volume but nevertheless does justice to Slither's creepy-crawly soundmix, whose frequent over-the-should effects lend verisimilitude to the onslaught of gummi worms. Listed as a "Nathan Fillion commentary," the feature-length yak-track actually pairs the gracious Fillion with writer-director James Gunn; while the two have a chummy rapport that endears us to both parties, Gunn is regrettably something of an onanist who can't resist tooting his own horn whenever the picture subverts a genre convention. It should be said, however, that their discussion nicely complements the rosy view of the production as proffered by the remaining extras in touching upon things like weather delays and how Canadian content regulations influenced casting decisions.
Video-based supplements begin with eight deleted scenes totalling ten minutes and four extended scenes totalling seven minutes. Hard to believe but there's nothing noteworthy among all this elided footage, save perhaps a funny bit where the newly-possessed Grant organizes cold cuts into file folders. The next few bonuses seem tailored to people who worked on the film: "Visual Effects Step by Step," a.k.a. "Visual Effects Progressions," is a 5-minute demo reel juxtaposing CGI composite shots in various stages of completion; "Gag Reel" (8 mins.) is so interminable that you start to feel like a party crasher; and the hidden-in-plain-sight Easter egg "Who Is Bill Pardy?" (5 mins.) is the very definition of an in-joke as incantations of the protagonist's name trigger gouts of laughter among cast and crew. (This running gag resumes in "Slithery Set Tour with Nathan Fillion" (5 mins.).) The next two featurettes are far more inclusive, if simultaneously meat-and-potatoes. In "The Slick Minds and Slimy Days of Slither" (10 mins.), the incandescent, lethally flirtatious Elizabeth Banks professes her undying love for Gunn, a man who happens to be married to the equally luminous Jenna Fischer (Pam from "The Office")--dude's got some serious mojo working. If you didn't notice Slither's numerous shout-outs to horror icons, this segment incorporates a brief montage of storefronts and street signs bearing names like "Max Renn's Guns & Ammo."
Gunn himself conducts a gleefully sadistic in-costume interview with actress Brenda James in "Bringing Slither's Creatures to Life" (19 mins.), getting her to recount in her own words a tearful flight during which it occurred to her to look up "prosthetic makeup" and actually read the script she'd signed on to make. This colossal rubber suit--aptly dubbed "James and the Giant Peach"--is only the most ostentatious example of old-school ingenuity on display. My favourite practical involves the magic-lantern projection of parasites onto actress Tania Saulnier to simulate bugs worming their way across a windshield, an effect John Gajdecki imagines saved them a small fortune. The piece really whets your whistle for "The Gorehound Grill Brewin' the Blood" (3 mins.), wherein "frequent masturbator" Kurt Jackson instructs viewers in the preparation of homemade blood; spoof of cooking shows or not, it's entertaining and legitimately informative. Rounding out the platter, "The King of Cult Lloyd Kaufman's Video Diary" (9 mins.) finds the Troma founder visiting protégé Gunn on the set and preparing to shoot his one-line Slither cameo as "Sad Drunk." Kaufman's camerawork is vertigo-inducing but at least he trains his lens on Fischer a couple of times, and the punchline is very funny in a schadenfreude sort of way. Note that the disc offers bilingual menus and reversible cover art calling the movie by its cool French title, Incisions. Originally published: October 23, 2006.