Red worms from outer space invade!
A few weeks ago, I talked about good horror remakes in the context of Alexandre Aja’s new version of 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, which I liked in spite of my better impulses. I neglected to discuss in much detail another recent remake that also passes the test, the 2004 version Dawn of the Dead, which had tension and suspense to spare. Most unexpected, however, was how damn funny it was. It wasn’t a horror-comedy per se, but in so many of its best moments, it simultaneously appealed to its audience’s gag reflex and funny bone (witness the zombie baby scene, to name just one example).
The screenwriter of that film, James Gunn, goes for the same effect in Slither, his directorial debut, but his approach is more overtly comical this time around. This film is to mainstream horror what the Garbage Pail Kids were to the cabbage patch ‘— a lowbrow version of an equally lowbrow creation, and far more enjoyable for it. Slither is a horror fan’s horror film, one that successfully employs much of the ethos that, year after year, draws people to cheesy fare like The Dead Hate the Living, Ghoulies, and Critters 1-4.
The film opens with a shot of a meteor hurtling through outer space. Within seconds it will crash near the small town of Wheelsy, a redneck burg nestled somewhere between Mayberry and Stereotypesville, W.Va., where the high school’s mascot is the Cooter and the first day of deer hunting season is celebrated with more fervor than New Year’s Eve. Once the meteor lands outside Wheelsy proper, it cracks open and spews forth a slimy alien life form that infiltrates the body of local yokel Grant (Michael Rooker), causing him to stalk the town, sweating profusely and hungering for meat ‘— the rawer the better.
As Grant’s condition worsens, he begins impregnating local people (for lack of a better term), who swell up to the size of small barns before bursting and sending forth thousands of blood-red worms, which repeat the breeding process when they enter their victims orally. A litany of horror conventions follow, many of them culling their suspense from those unnerving ‘squish’ sounds made by creepy-crawlies just off-camera.
It sounds disgusting, and it is, and it also might sound like I like it, which I do. If there’s an obvious successor to Peter Jackson’s 1992 gross-out classic Dead-Alive, this is it. Gunn revives a horror movie aesthetic that I haven’t seen done this well in a long, long time. I’m not sure I can name it, but it’s something like gleeful repulsion. I’m not talking about gore ‘— what Gunn does here, strangely, is more innocent than that, something infused with a 12 year old’s fascination for just how gross he can be before he makes himself throw up. Sure, it’s revolting, but in an odd way it doesn’t come off mean-spirited (maybe pointless, but who cares?), even if the things that happen to many of these characters are downright awful.
While I’m the first to be rankled by Southern stereotypes, I couldn’t bring myself to work up a single roll of the eyes at this film. Nathan Fillion (of the much-loved and dearly departed TV series ‘“Firefly’”) is hilarious as the Wheelsy police chief, and his supporting cast (which includes a great bit part for ‘“The Office’s’” Jenna Fischer, among many others) yuks it up as the befuddled hayseed townspeople. Webb’s script is full of great exclamations like ‘“The worms are in their brains!’” that would sound perfectly placed in a trailer for an Ed Wood film, which isn’t very far off-base: this is a matinee horror revival done right, the perfect Saturday afternoon diversion for college kids weaned on early Sam Raimi films.
Visual effects supervisor John Gadjecki has designed some ghastly, stomach-churning creatures for Slither, which at their best recall the mountains of synthetic flesh in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The mutated people of Wheelsy are a living celebration of the inventions of Latex and stage blood that made this genre of film possible, and though the red worms themselves are noticeably done in CGI, it only adds to Slither’s B-movie appeal.
It should be obvious to anyone who reads film criticism that there’s a fine line between phrases like ‘“shamelessly derivative’” and ‘“in the grand tradition of,’” and it should come as absolutely no surprise that the distinction is entirely in the critic’s gut reaction. Those who dislike Slither will probably say there’s nothing original about it, and for the most part, they’ll be right. But the humor, the great cast, and the good-natured sense of disgust are the film’s own. At the end of the day, it’s closer to an R-rated Men in Black than anything else, and as long as Will Smith isn’t in the sequel, I’ll be the first in line.
The worms are in Glen Baity’s brain! To send them your comments, direct your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.