Friday, October 22, 2010

"Slither" (2006)

Starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker
Written and directed by James Gunn

Well, it's Halloween time again, which means I'm going to be taking a look at some horror pictures in celebration of the season.  I'm not really much of a horror movie fan.  I certainly don't mind creature features, the occasional slasher flick... but I simply can't stand those movies where people get tortured to death.  No thanks.

Last weekend, I went to an Alice Cooper/Rob Zombie concert and there turned out to be a horror convention going on.  There, I met Alex Winter (some of you may remember him as Bill S. Preston, Esq. of "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure") who I was surprised to learn was now a director of teen-friendly horror films.  He told me he was directing a remake of a 1980s film called "The Gate," which I told him I had no knowledge of and that I was not very well versed in the genre in general.  Very kindly, without any kind of condescension, he replied, "Well, the horror folks around here know it."

But there are a few horror movies that I know quite well, even love.  "Slither" is one of them.  I first saw it in 2006 during its theatrical run with a couple of good friends, and we all had a blast.  James Gunn (who did a fine job scripting Zack Snyder's 2004 "Dawn of the Dead" remake) writes and directs this deft mix of horror, comedy and sci-fi.

Nathan Fillion stars as Bill Purdy, sheriff of a podunk southern town about to celebrate the opening of its annual deer hunting season.  One night, a meteor crashes down in the woods outside of town and a creature slithers out.  It infects a local businessman, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), who has just had a fight with his lovely wife, Starla (Elizabeth Banks).  The next morning, Starla tries to make it up to him before work, not quite noticing that something is different about her husband.  When a young woman goes missing, and Grant is the last person seen entering her home, Purdy goes to Grant's house to ask Starla what's going on.  Purdy and Starla have a history together, and Purdy has been carrying a torch for her for years.

But whatever has infected Grant has begun to mutate him into a terrible creature, and Purdy and Starla are shocked to see the transformation.  Grant, on the other hand, believes that Purdy and Starla are having an affair.  But as he becomes less and less human, so does his ability to reason, and his behavior becomes more animal-like.  He takes off into the woods, each night coming to the farms around town and killing animals and livestock.  Purdy and Starla gather up a posse of deputies and townsfolk and lay in wait for Grant to come out of the woods at the farm of Kylie Strutemeyer (Tania Saulnier) and her family.

Following Grant back into the woods, the group makes a terrible discovery: the girl Grant kidnapped has been impregnated and turned into a massive womb for slithering worm creatures that turn their hosts into zombies connected to some kind of hive mind.  After the worms are let loose on the town, Purdy and Kylie and Starla and the town's mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) seem to be the only survivors.  They must hide from the zombies while coming up with a plan to destroy Grant, which since all the zombies are connected to the hive, would kill all the worms.

I know the description I've provided above doesn't sound very funny, but trust me... this movie is hilarious.  Nathan Fillion mines his character's shock and awe at his situation for all its worth.  The man is superbly talented at making hilarious reactionary facial expressions, and then following it up with deadpan one-liners.  His eyes widen as he sees something utterly terrible, then seems to accept it and mutters flatly, "Well... that is some fucked up shit."  His comic timing is impeccable. 

The rest of the cast, comprised pretty entirely of recognizable TV actors, is also game.  Jenna Fischer ("The Office" and also writer/director Gunn's wife) has a great cameo as the police department's dimwitted secretary, Shelby.  Gregg Henry gets some great lines as the mayor, including calling a constituent a cocksucker in front of a small child and ranting about how Shelby forgot to pack Mr. Pib soda into his lunch for the monster stakeout. 

The movie is really sort of a pastiche of various other horror movies that came before it, not really offering up much of anything original.  When I first saw the trailers and ads, I had it pegged as a remake of "Night of the Creeps."  But the sense of fun and the solid technical craft keep it from being problematic.  The creatures all look very cool, and appropriately grotesque.  Grant's final form at the end of his mutation where he begins to literally merge, physically, with other humans is absurd and disgusting, and very well constructed in terms of effects.  The development of the worms happens rather late in the game, almost 2/3 of the way through the movie.  So the final half hour or so is jam-packed with ridiculousness, including having Fillion fight a zombie deer in his office.  "Slither" in that sense suffers from something of a pacing issue, since much of the beginning of the movie is more comedic and then seems to jam most of the horror into the back end.

Still, "Slither" is only about 90 minutes long, so it never feels boring.  We had a blast the first time we saw it in theatres, and it was still a lot of fun revisiting it four years later.  It's too bad "Slither" didn't catch on with audiences back then, despite good reviews.