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.
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.
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.
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.
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.