Slither (2005)

Starring Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Gregg Henry

Directed by James Gunn

When the trailer for your directorial debut begins by rattling off the titles of several horror classics and then brazenly claims that “they were all for pussies,” you’re certainly inviting criticism. Granted, the early promos for writer/director James Gunn’s (Dawn of the Dead, Scooby Doo scribe) upcoming film, Slither, were designed with tongue firmly in cheek, that doesn’t excuse the fact that the film itself never comes close to the heights scaled by the works that it jokingly insults. A more truthful ad campaign might go like this: “If you were horrified by The Borrower…if you’ve either forgotten or never seen Night of the Creeps, From Beyond, Rabid, They Came From Within, The Blob or any of George Romero’s Living Dead films…then this movie might, just might, give you two or three decent jumpscares!”

Having just seen the first screening of the workprint of Slither, I’m somewhat sad to report that it doesn’t remotely deliver on the promise of that initial trailer. It leans more toward comedy than unsettling gorefest, but it fails to hit the crazed crescendos of other similar efforts like Raimi’s Evil Dead films or Jackson’s Dead Alive. It’s unwilling, or unable, to go the distance.

Like many of the 80s sci-fi/horror staples it cannibalizes, Slither opens with a shot of a meteor plummeting headlong toward Earth. Soon enough, it’s landed in the woods just outside the small hunting town of Wheelsy, where deer season has just commenced. It is here that we meet wealthy local businessman Grant Grant (Henry: Portait of a Serial Killer’s Michael Rooker) and his young wife Starla (the gorgeous Elizabeth Banks), the schoolmarm on whom all the junior high boys are seriously crushing. Their marriage is rocky, and Starla’s old flame, Sheriff Bill Pardy (“Firefly”’s Nathan Fillion), pines for her from afar.

Things kick into gear when Starla rebukes hubby’s sexual advances with a casual “I’m not in the mood,” and Grant is sent huffing off to the local bar, where he immediately picks up white trash floozy Brenda Gutierrez (Brenda James) and heads off into the woods for an illicit rendezvous. Before you can say, “Hey, this is all awfully familiar,” Grant discovers the downed meteor and has a needle-nosed slug forcibly injected into his torso (a convenient X-Ray shot shows the beastie hightailing it into his brain).

Soon enough, Grant is back at home exhibiting a host of strange behavior – not only has he installed a new padlock on the basement door, but he’s also experiencing chest pains and, oddest of all, he’s created a bunch of new folders in his filing cabinet…all of which contain slices of lunchmeat. It’s not long after this that he metamorphosizes into a Squid Monster, impregnates the aforementioned floozy with thousands of wormy larva, and promptly attacks his wife. Starla, luckily, is saved by her former beau, the Sheriff, and Grant heads off into the woods, where he spends the next few nights killing dogs and mutilating cattle. Meanwhile, the worms are about to hatch from the floozy, who has herself turned into a gi-normous fleshy womb that fills up the better part of a barn. “Something’s wrong with me,” she mewls, before exploding into a shower of alien slugs.

Once the worms are set loose, they find warm new hosts in the form of the townspeople. Teamed with a plucky sixteen-year-old girl and a foul-mouthed mayor (Body Double’s Gregg Henry), Starla and Sheriff Bill must find a way to stop the main alien menace while avoiding the zombified town populace.

On paper, all of this sounds like a blast. Indeed, Gunn includes plenty of winks to horror classics – the local bar is called Henenlotter’s Saddle Ranch; the gun shop is Max Renn’s Guns and Ammo; Starla teaches at Earl Bassett Junior High; Lloyd Kaufman is being interrogated by a deputy while The Toxic Avenger plays on a nearby television – there’s no doubt that the man knows his genre. But rather than contributing something intriguing and original to it, he sticks with the derivative clichés; seriously, how many times have we seen creatures slithering through soapy bathtub water toward an unsuspecting girl? There’s no suspense or stakes for the main characters, who themselves are a bland, forgettable lot. We know from the first frame who’s going to make it out of the film alive, and very little suspense is generated or even attempted.

Another problem here is one of tone. For the most part Slither is constructed as a comedy, replete with one-liners and sight gags (in one, the Sheriff uses small “Squid” markers on a board to map Grant’s progress through the county; in another, an alien-infected deer is blown away by a character who immediately says, “It’s open season, motherFUCKER!”) but the characters are too broad and thinly sketched to elicit much laughter. The horror is mostly underplayed for the sake of humor, and that does the film a disservice because it’s just not funny or scary enough to keep us interested.

The gore, which took the forefront in the trailer, is only seriously present in two or three setpieces, and Gunn’s directorial style is so basic and workmanlike that it renders the sometimes exceptional practical effects tension-free and dull. We’re not shocked by brightly lit gore-work framed with static camera shots; rather, we just think to ourselves, “Hmmm, decent FX.” The lack of visual distinction almost cripples the film. I might forgive the imitative nature of the script if there were something dazzling offered in the form of cinematography and atmosphere, but there’s not, and the film suffers for it.

Slither is a film where every decent moment almost always carries with it a flipside. Fillion is properly charismatic in the lead, but he and Banks are shoehorned into a poorly developed story of unrequited love in spite of the fact that they have zero chemistry. A few lines are genuinely funny while others are grating and obvious. I was intrigued by the idea that all the infected share a communal mind, and there’s a neat bit where one alien zombie begins a sentence and another one finishes it. But this, too, sets up problems when one character (who conveniently appears for the first time midway through the film) is saved from being zombified by an alien slug, but she happens to have had just enough exposure to let her tap into the shared mind and discover its weakness…which is just another spin on the old “kill the head vampire and all the rest will be taken care of” shtick. Indeed, the solution to the whole mess and subsequent vanquishing of the creature is much too straightforward and simple.

In the end, Slither is a victim of its own hype. It’s too campy and derivative to be taken as a serious horror film, and it’s not hysterical or unique enough to grant it cult status. As one person was heard to say after the screening, it’s basically The Faculty with a few extra gore effects. And The Faculty…man, that was for pussies.

2 1/2 out of 5

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