Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, March 22, 2019

Director Report Card: James Gunn (2006)

James Gunn has had an unlikely career. He began writing movies for Troma, that New Jersey independent studio that specializes in aggressively gross and crass horror films. While Troma is usually a self-contained universe of weirdness, Gunn would somehow make the leap to mainstream movies, writing Hollywood reboots like “Dawn of the Dead” and the live-action “Scooby-Doo” movies. He parlayed that success into directing a pair of movies that recalled his work with Troma, in terms of their outrageous content. Neither was very financially successful. Somewhere, somehow, someone important saw those movies and liked them because Gunn next made the leap to directing a big budget, Marvel comics tent pole.

All along, Gunn has retained a distinct style of his own, never loosing that slightly juvenile edge but able to marry it to mature themes and some really cute ideas. Which is a big reason why I'll be talking about his movies for the next few days. Let's start.

1. Slither

It would seem that the horror genre is going through something of a reinsurance in recent years. It's hit a level of mainstream acceptance previously unseen, with horror films even winning Oscars recently. People who are actually observant of genre know its actually been going through a pretty good period since the turn of the millennium, even if critics and mainstream audiences didn't notice. Look at “Slither,” for example. A loving homage to eighties horror, few people went to the movie during its theatrical run. It was considered a commercial flop back in 2006, grossing about three million shy of its 15 million dollar budget. In-the-know horror fans latched onto it immediately and James Gunn's feature debut remains a cult favorite.

Not much happens in the small southern town of Wheelsy, South Carolina. School teacher Starla getting married to much older rich man Grant Grant or Bill Pardy getting elected to sheriff qualifies as big news. Nobody notices when a small meteor lands in the woods. After an argument with his wife, Grant comes upon the space rock. A creature from inside burrows into his chest. From there, Grant is taken over by the extraterrestrial parasite, his body mutating. Soon, Grant spawns thousands of giant worms, that crawls into people's mouths and turns them into acid-spitting monsters. Bill and Starla have to fight back if they expect to survive.

Defining any horror movie strictly on how scary it is does not really do the multi-layered genre justice. However, “Slither” is a horror movie that does get the audience squirming. Gunn's picture utilizes a lot of body horror. Throughout the film, people's bodies are invaded by creepy-crawling creatures from outer space. They enter through any orifice possibly, usually thrusting themselves into people's mouths. From there, they stretch, deform, and mutate in all sorts of nasty way. While the movie never gets true scares out of the audience, save for a pretty weak attempt at a jump-scare, “Slither” is definitely grisly enough to thrill, discomfort, and satisfy.

What really helps the film achieve this is its fantastic special effects. The practical creature make-up is pretty damn good. Michael Rooker's body slowly grows postulating sores and weird lesions all over his skin. His face swells and twists. Eventually, he becomes a squid-like monster made of lumps of twisted flesh, with a jaw that beautifully extends out into a beastly maw. The zombies that result from the outbreak are similarly gruesome, with patchy complexions and acidic slime dripping from their mouths. The film does have its share of CGI effects, which is what's used to bring the legion of parasitic worms to life. While that hasn't aged fantastically, “Slither” does a good job of balancing computer effects with traditional monster make-up, creating a nice blend of grotesque nastiness.

The best horror movies aren't just driven by gore though. “Slither” does provide a deeper meaning beneath its mayhem. Grant Grant heads out into the woods that night because his wife won't sleep with him. This sexual frustration leads him to nearly have an affair with another woman. However, he backs away at the last minute, showing that Grant is ultimately a decent guy. His alien infection prompts him to attacking Starla with probing tentacles but he holds back. Later, he then attacks the woman from earlier, impregnating her with his alien off-spring, in a scene obviously reminiscent of sexual assault. As the zombies spawn, they share a hive-mind with Grant. The zombies are emotionally needy, possessive and abusive of Starla. It seems the alien infection represents the lower desires of mankind, the base wants Grant fights against in order to function.

“Slither” is a horror/comedy though, not satisfied to make its audience yell with disgust but also laugh with delight. And it can be pretty funny at times. There's a sequence where a zombie deer attacks Bill that always cracks me up, escalating in ridiculousness until its satisfyingly blunt conclusion. A short scene revolving around an off-tune karaoke rendition of “The Crying Game” is hilarious. Gregg Henry's role as the town's foul-mouthed mayor does get some laughs, especially during a Mister Pibb-related outrage. While “Slither” definitely is funny, there are a few too many times when its jokes boil down to people reacting to some gnarly event with profanity.

Then again, the best jokes in “Slither” are a little more under the surface. Gunn knew that the hardcore horror fans were his target audience. Fittingly, the film is packed to the gills with callbacks to eighties horror. The premise recalls both “Night of the Creeps” and “The Deadly Spawn,” with alien slugs creating zombies and purple parasites arriving on Earth via meteor. A scene where a slug attacks a teen girl in a bathtub – which most of the marketing was based around for some reason – was clearly patterned after a similar moment in David Cronenberg's “Shivers.” Background gags include shout-outs to “The Thing,” “Videodrome,” Frank Henenlotter, “Tremors,” and “The Fly.” It's clear that body horror classics like “Society” and “The Brood” inspired Gunn. There's even some shout-outs to less well-known flicks like “Sleepaway Camp” and “Student Bodies,” via the presence of a curling iron and a horsehead bookend. Rob Zombie and Lloyd Kaufman have cameos. There's definitely some fun to be had attempting to spot the references, even if “Slither” is a little too self-satisfied with its countless call-backs.

Another aspect of “Slither” I really like that I don't hear people talk about much is how accurately it captures life in a small southern town. The opening montage gives us a peak at what a normal night in Wheelsy is like. And there's not a lot going on. The town is quiet, practically empty. The peak of local entertainment seems to be a few stray bars. The cops are so inactive, they pass the town by measuring birds with traffic guns. People are so fucking bored that town gossip about who is screwing who is pretty much all they have to discuss. There's a lot of drinking and hunting to pass the time. As someone who grew up in a small southern town probably around the same size as Wheelsy, I'm impressed with how well Gunn captured that particular type of setting.

Though “Slither” was his feature debut, James Gunn had directed a few shorts and television episodes before, largely during his Troma days. So he definitely had a chance to develop a directorial style or visual approach beforehand. The action scenes are clear and concise, easy to follow. You can tell Gunn was working to replicate the look and feel of eighties horror. “Slither” has that same atmosphere, heavy on the blue-and-black shadows that doesn't obscure the quality of the effects either. While the film is low on stylistic flourishes, it also looks exactly like it's supposed to look, I think.

“Slither” was the first of several collaborations between Gunn and Nathan Fillion. At the time, Fillion was best known for his starring role in cult favorite television series “Firefly.” Since then, Fillion has gone on to several popular if underachieving cop shows. “Slither” came at this transitional period in Fillion's career, suggesting an alternate future where he could've been our next Bruce Campbell. Fillion has got the chin, first off. Secondly, he has a similarly easy-going charm. Fillion plays Bill Pardy as a laid-back every-dude, a small town cop equally concerned with passing time as upholding the law. After shit goes crazy, Fillion shows Pardy barely holding it together under pressure. Yet Fillion never looses that slightly cock-eyed grin, that sense of humor during crazy zombie action.

This is also the first film I really noticed Elizabeth Banks in. Banks has another similarly ideal quality for the part, nailing the charm of a small town girl with simple needs and wants. Yet Banks also emphasizes a sly intelligence for Starla, a biology teacher that knows quite a lot about the subject. She's also the movie's secret heart, driving its emotional core. See, though she might've married young and for money, Starla does care about Grant. You see it the scene where she tries to make a lost night up to him. Watching her husband turn into a giant space squid clearly has an effect on her, evident in the shock and horror Banks brings to the part. The movie manages, somehow, to get sincere pathos out of Air Supply's “Every Woman in the World” and that's largely thanks to Bank. In other words, she totally gets the part and nails it.

Yet my favorite performance in the film is Michael Rooker. Rooker has largely played heavies and psychopaths throughout the career. Which is understandable, considering the threatening aura he puts off. And, in some ways, Grant Grant fits into that type. He is a mutated space-monster that eviscerates people his tentacles. Yet there's also a tender aspect to Grant. He really does love his wife. The violence he commits in the film's second half really isn't his fault either. Rooker has to balance that humanity with a larger lack of humanity. He pulls it off, making Grant Grant a compelling movie monster.

”Slither's” box office failure was blamed on mainstream audience's inability to understand both horror and comedy existing in the same film. And that might've been true during the “Saw” era but, considering the previous success of the horror/comedy, I kind of doubt that. Instead, I think “Slither” was always a niche film. It's not like the mall horror crowd that flocked to “Stay Alive” a few weeks before where ever going to get this one. This one was directed to horror nerds and, obviously, that's the crowd that embraced “Slither.” While definitely a little smug in its fan-boy enthusiasm, you can't deny that the movie isn't hugely entertaining if you're in a very specific mindset for it. [Grade: B+]

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