Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Slither (James Gunn, 2006)

(Seeing as Mr. Gunn is now hot as pancakes, a 2006 article, to explain why I've had an eye on his work all this time)

Horribly funny

What with very real horrors readily visible in news broadcasts (from Iraq, for one), escapist horror seems the order of the day in the multiplexes. Last year there was Saw 2, Hostel, The Devil's Rejects, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist and remakes of House of Wax and The Amityville Horror among many others; this year there's The Hills Have Eyes and the just-released Silent Hill.

Maybe my biggest problem with all these slash-and-splat flicks is the lack of humor in them; solemn horror now being the dominion of Japanese filmmakers (I'm thinking of Hideo Nakata, whose The Ring Two was an underrated little gem, and Kurosawa Kyoshi, the best living practitioner of the genre in Japan--one of the best in the world, for that matter), most attempts by American directors to be taken seriously will end in a fit of giggles. American directors are better off going in a different direction--the 'horror comedy' for one, which requires the kind of aggressive irreverence for which they are particularly gifted (there's already been one early master, the British-born but Hollywood-based James Whale). American horror needs, in short, to be fun again.

James Gunn's Slithers is a mishmash of half-a-dozen titles including a few classics (the opening is straight out of the original The Blob), with references to half a dozen more, including Rosemary's Baby, The Thing, Basket Case, and Tremors (don't be intimidated by all the arcane allusions, though--there's plenty to cringe at, and laugh).

Nathan Fillion is Bill Pardy, a small-town sheriff in a police cruiser with too much time on his hands (his partner kills time by measuring the speed of passing birds with their radar gun). When things happen they happen fast: a meteorite crashes into the surrounding forests and the town's wealthiest man, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) is infected by a needlelike lifeform that lodges in his lower skull. Grant develops an appetite for raw meat ("Gimme a couple of ribeyes…eight. Naw, ten. You know what? Gimme fourteen") and pet dogs, and develops unsightly rashes ("It's just a bee sting," he explains to wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks)).

Writer-director James Gunn has some experience in horror comedy (okay, he wrote the Scooby Doo movies--but also Tromeo and Juliet, and a few other Toxic Avenger installments). There's real wit in his setting the action in Wheelsy, a community so American Heartland small the bars play country music, the citizens gather for the official opening of hunting season, the town's most visible black man wears a collar and crucifix (probably why he was allowed to live there), and the sheriff's gun rack includes shotguns, automatic weaponry, and a grenade confiscated from some overambitious trout fisherman. America is being invaded by an enemy more insidious than mere terrorists: an alien whose reproductive organs parallel--worse, parody--ours (and we know with what perverse fascination these people regard sex outside of marriage, or even just outside of the missionary position). Gunn borrows an image or two (actually, whole sequences) from David Cronenberg: Grant grows tentacles, prompting one elderly townsfolk to describe him as looking like "something that fell off my dick during the war;" a hapless young woman (Brenda James) finds herself pregnant with alien life forms, swelling to enormous size (a swipe at America's obesity epidemic) and "hankering for a bit of possum;" bright-red slugs--resembling by turns tongues, phalluses, vigorously wriggling sperm cells--are unleashed, squirming their way through lawns, up walls, and (moist, meaty tails flicking and flailing) into people's gullets.

From an opening straight out of The Blob to alien biology inspired by Cronenberg, Gunn finally shifts to Romero, with zombies possessed by Grant's red slugs taking over the entire town. Gunn also happened to write the Dawn of the Dead remake, and while some critics approved of his speeded-up zombies, I didn't; they were more spastic than spooky, more desperate than serenely, unnervingly confident. These zombies, however, I do like--they remember their former selves, not enough to feel they have to switch sides, but enough to taunt the survivors and become genuine menaces; they also share Grant's identity, and it's not a little unsettling to hear him speak in stereo, from more than one corner of the room.

Through it all runs a romantic-triangle storyline that subverts the holiness of matrimony, then gets so compelling it subverts its own subversion. I'll explain: Grant's marriage is at first sight a sterile one--Starla chose Grant mainly for money and security; Grant chose Starla mainly because she was hot. When Grant turns monstrous and hides in the surrounding forests, Starla pleads with him to come back, saying theirs is a "sacred bond" that he has to recognize.

Strangely enough, Grant does; early in the picture he had an opportunity to be unfaithful with Brenda, but backs away (this was before the alien possessed him). Even when sporting several tentacles and a hideously deformed mouth (among other grotesqueries) Grant still accords Starla special treatment, fixing her up in a lovely white dress, then putting their favorite tune on the sound system (I'm embarrassed to say I even recognize the song--"Every Woman in the World," by Air Supply). The film overtly comes down in favor of affectionate adultery over exploitative matrimony, but not without a struggle: Michael Rooker's Grant Grant still manages to come across as hauntingly sweet, even touching, an unforgettable lover to say the least.

As for the rest of the cast--Nathan Fillion, who I remember best as  captain of Serenity (in the Joss Whedon film of the same name), creeps, runs, leaps and more or less struggles through this physically exhausting film with winning aplomb; he may not be smart enough to always realize what's going on, but he is smart enough to insist that when the story of how a young girl (Tania Saulnier) saved his life is retold, he should be the hero. Elizabeth Banks is a touch too skinny for my taste, but nevertheless makes for a creamy damsel in distress/bestial love interest. Gregg Henry, a veteran of Brian De Palma films (not to mention De Palma's upcoming The Black Dahlia) and hardly a stranger to black and extremely bloody comedy, makes for a memorably grotesque town mayor.

Michael Rooker played the eponymous role in John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and what made his performance there (the finest of any actor in recent years, I thought) so memorable wasn't the violence (which was unsettling, even for a hardcore horror fan like me), but the shy gentleness. I was prepared to see Rooker's Henry as someone monstrous, even evil; I wasn't prepared to see him as someone almost capable of love. Rooker's hideously bloated Grant has a similar kind of found humanity, albeit on a broader, more cartoonish scale. Easily the best horror film I've seen this year.

(First published in Businessworld, 4/28/06)

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