There’s a fairly standard sci-fi/horror trope that a lot of stories use: semi-sentient alien organism visits Earth and takes over individual humans by entering our bodies through our mouths/ears/noses/butts/any other orifices they can wriggle into. Many times, the aliens “kill” the humans or incapacitate their brains when taking over the bodies, turning the infected folks into a creature most would call a zombie. It’s definitely not a new plot device, showing up as early as the 1930s in sci-fi serials, but if done correctly it can easily make for a story that is entertaining, suspenseful, and thought-provoking.
By plot line alone, ‘Slither’ doesn’t break any molds or cover any new ground: it’s your fairly standard “alien slugs turn people into zombies and try to take over the world” scenario. However, it’s the nuanced performances by the cast, the attention to detail on the part of its creators, and the broad humor mixed with tongue-in-cheek homages to former stories of this type that make ‘Slither,’ in my humble opinion, a must-see film for any fun-loving sci-fi, horror, and/or zombie enthusiast. Now, take this review with a grain of salt if you’re not a huge fan of the “classic” sci-fi/monster movies of the 1970s and 1980s, but I personally am squarely in this movie’s target demographic.
Long before he rose to total pop-culture prominence with his work on the two Marvel ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ films, ‘Slither’ was directed by Troma Films vet and self-proclaimed long-time “schlocky sci-fi movie” lover James Gunn, who cites films like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’ ‘Shivers,’ and ‘The Brood’ as direct influences on the movie he wanted to make. Even though ‘Slither’ has been accused of being a “rip-off” of another great sci-fi/horror comedy film, ‘Night of the Creeps,’ having seen both movies I can definitively tell you that these are two different movies with two very different “feels” to them.
Those of you who may be familiar with some of Troma’s movies, including such classics as ‘The Toxic Avenger‘ and ‘Tromeo and Juliet,’ know that those folks like to put out over-the-top gross-out films with very lowbrow comedy liberally applied for good measure. Gunn is able to take what he learned during his Troma time and meld it with his knowledge of what the average moviegoer has come to know and expect, and the result is very positive. ‘Slither’ takes place around the small community of Wheelsy, South Carolina, and the environment and mannerisms of the characters as the local population definitely play to the typical Southern stereotypes, but do so without going overboard.
The cast is superb, and Gunn really lucked out on hiring a few actors right before they truly “made it big:” starring as Starla, the unhappy wife of the first human to be infected, is Elizabeth Banks, who acted in this film directly after wrapping what would be her first major hit, ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin;’ cast as Bill Pardy, the take-no-prisoners yet oddly-goofball Sherriff who has had a major crush on Starla since high school, is Nathan Fillion, long before the TV show ‘Castle’ brought him the recognition that ‘Firefly‘ and ‘Serenity’ should have bestowed upon him; and rounding out the cast of eclectic and highly-entertaining characters are Gregg Henry as Mayor Jack MacReady (with possibly the best introductory scene for a Mayor ever captured on film), Jenna Fisher as a pre-‘The Office’ receptionist Shelby, Rob Zombie as the enigmatic (if short-scened) Dr. Karl, and Michael Rooker as the first person to be infected, business owner-turned-alien monster Grant Grant (not a typo, that really is his character’s name).
This movie was considered a box-office failure: with a production budget of around $15 million, the film’s theatrical run in the United States only garnered $7.8 million, and with only another $5 million in theatrical revenue from the rest of the world, ‘Slither’ still failed to make it into the green. The reasons for this subpar showing are unknown, of course, but I truly think audiences just didn’t “get it.” This film was released shortly after ‘Shaun of the Dead’ in theaters, and audiences probably just weren’t ready for another horror-comedy at the time. That, coupled with minimal DVD promotion due to the aforementioned poor box office production, means that this movie went largely unnoticed by a vast amount of its target audience. Which is a shame, because I don’t think this movie could be much more enjoyable! Lots of action, good-looking zombies and aliens, and lots of jokes (of the subtle and not-so-subtle variety) make ‘Slither’ one of the best movies, from a sheer-enjoyment standpoint, that I’ve seen in quite some time.
Being an homage-type of film that draws heavily from those that came before it, there’s obviously not a great opportunity for a very high score in the “Originality” department. But going directly for the comedic approach does garner some style points where other alien-possession movies don’t go, and ‘Slither’ does manage to make a few unique story marks of its own, including Grant Grant, the main protagonist that spends the movie morphing – both mentally and so-disgusting-its-cool physically – from unlikeable regular-joe human to unlikeable giant-tentacled alien-thingy.
The characters really play well off of each other to create a sense of an environment that could truly exist in real life; it actually feels like this movie could take place in a small Southern town, and I give Gunn credit for not just throwing around a mish-mash of stereotyped characters just for the sake of advancing his story. Furthermore, when the characters respond to the situation they are dealing with – a hive-mind alien turning their friends and neighbors into bumbling zombie-types – their reactions, while written to be comical to the viewer, are reactions that you could actually see – hmm, how can I say this politically correctly? – stupid people having. (Eh, not so P.C., but I think it gets the point across.)
Leave it to a Troma guy to get the effects right! I could tell watching the movie that Gunn and his team used a lot of physical models, apparatuses, makeup, and gore instead of going the CGI route, and my viewing of a few of the “behind-the-scenes” extras on the DVD confirmed my suspicions. While some folks may nitpick that so much actual effects work can actually detract from the realistic appearance of a film, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Editing-wise, the movie goes along at a brisk clip, and I never once found myself bored or waiting for the next scene to come around; in fact, I was left with a slight feeling of wanting more of the story, which I think is a good hallmark of an excellent Editor.
Criminally under-rated even to this day, ‘Slither’ is a rockin’ experience for those just looking to pop in a flick and have some good old-fashioned movie-watching fun. Even though the critics didn’t like it, I say let the true fans be the judge: Ebert and Roeper gave the film “two thumbs down” on their televised review show when the movie was first released, but in 2006 the film earned three Fangoria “Chainsaw Award” nominations (winning one, “Highest Body Count”), was listed as one of the “Top 25 DVDs of the Year” by Rolling Stone Magazine, and was named “Best Feature Film of the Year” by Rue Morgue in 2006. In the words of Fillion’s Sherriff Bill Pardy, “Now that is some fucked-up shit!”