Film Reviews (2006)  

The action of “Slither” takes place in a small American town called Wheelsy.  Once a vibrant town manufacturing, well, wheels— an idealized illustration on the town’s welcome sign depicts citizens speeding along “the wheels of the future” in all their Buck Rogers art deco glory— Wheelsy has apparently degenerated into a Jesus-loving backwater whose major selling point is the great annual moose hunt.  The Stars and Stripes fly from every window, on every license plate, outside every  middle class home.  The mayor, who likes to pass himself off as a man of the people, is in reality a strict free market capitalist who wants nothing more than to ensure the steady inflow of funds from visiting hunters.  Like the business owners in “Jaws”, his main interest in ridding Wheelsy of the strange predators that have come for a snack is purely commercial.  As for his righteous moral sympathies, they can best be summed up in his line about a queer police deputy who falls prey to the slithering alien killer: “She’s a lesbo, but she don’t deserve that shit”.

Yes, this is compassionate conservatism at its finest, and it’s lines like that, along with the rifles, the hunters, the Jesus lovers, and the American flags, which clue us in to the fact that wherever Wheelsy is located, it’s borders fall within a metaphorical space with which America has recently become overly familiar: Wheelsy is in a red state. The film’s villain, an alien that travels from world to world consuming all living creatures, is a small worm that likes to leap into its victim’s brain, by way of its mouth, and seize control of its mind. It is apolitical; despite its physical resemblance to a few of the GOP's prominent figureheads, we may assume it is not a registered Republican. Even more than it was already, our alien is truly a stranger in a strange land.

But while it has its own fiendish alien agenda, the creature takes on the voice, mannerisms, and some personal traits of the body it snatches. Director James Gunn has enormous fun uniting his alien with a strapping, truck-driving, red-blooded shitkicker named Grant Grant. No matter how expansively deformed the alien becomes, even after dropping its disguise—ultimately the thing morphs into a creature that makes Jabba The Hutt look as svelte as Ashley Olsen— he continues to exude parts of Grant’s personality. He calls his wife Starla her pet name, “Sugarplum”, rants and raves about the sacredness of their marriage vows, and clearly feels a human love attachment to her. Each of the newly created zombies is a narcissistic extension of his personalty, in a hilarious parody of a duped population’s love for its dear leader.

In Gunn’s satire, Alien Grant becomes a walking—sorry, slithering—allegory for the American male. In a creative act of reductio ad absurdum, Gunn turns his monster into a pure, unspoiled example of the human male. The first impulse of the alien, after seizing control of Grant’s body, is food. “Meat!” he commands gruffly, and meat he eats—raw, bloody flesh taken first from the local butcher and then ripped from anything with four paws and a tail.  Once his stomach is temporarily satisfied, his lower organs become peckish. First he sleeps with Starla, his schoolteacher wife, but she’s an appetizer for his real ambitions. The main course is Brenda, the town slut who had a crush on Grant from their days as children (after she says she liked him as a kid, Grant laughs and says she was only a kid then, just ten or eleven. She answers: “Yeah, but I was game”). His purpose with her isn’t just sexual gratification, it’s procreation. “Impregnanted” by the alien, she becomes a gigantic, vomitous pustule of a woman, mysogyny in the flesh—about twenty tons of it. Locked away in a barn, she resembles a giant balloon of veined blancmange, immobilized with a litter of Grant’s “babies”. As another character laments, “He turned her into a womb!” Brenda is feminism’s worst nightmare.

What of Wheelsy’s family values? Kylie Strutemyer, the young teenage girl who we first meet in Starla’s class, learning about Darwin, is the black sheep of a vigorously conservative family.  She is more cosmopolitan than her siblings, two twin girls, one of whom is uncoincidentally named Jenna.  Her redneck father, seeing her Japanese-styled blue fingernails, pissily calls them “Pokey-man” stuff underneath his throwback good ol’ boy moustache.  When the creatures strike, turning the townspeople into zombies, Kylie’s family is among the first to be compelled to do the Undead Shuffle.  Attempting to escape them, she races out of the house to the family truck, only to find she doesn’t have they keys.  Her mother, father, and two sisters surround the car in one of the funniest scenes of “family values” in recent memory.  Now bug-eyed, bloody-mouthed zombies, they scratch and claw trying to get into the truck’s cabin to turn Kyle into one of them, insisting she join them for “family fun day”.  As with many of the other laughs, this immortal scene draws its comedic juice from the exaggeration of Red State, flag-waving, good old fashioned folksy American mythologies like the suburban Christian family.  The family that chews cortex together stays together.

Indeed, Gunn’s beautifully nasty accomplishment in “Slither” has been to mock— openly, without apology, and in the foulest terms possible— what have come to be known as our Red States.  This is a departure.  Typically zombie movies and other horror films are essentially conservative.  The monsters, human or alien, exist to punish modern moral transgressions, usually of a sexual flavor, but always tending toward nihilism and escape from core values of God, family, and country.  In Gunn’s vision this dynamic is turned on its head.  Because the alien takes on the characteristics of its hosts, the monsters are really the worst extensions of George Bush’s America: voracious consumers, tyrannical patriarchs, women’s loss of control of the right to reproduce, xenophobia (the mayor calls all aliens “Martians”, just as he thinks of all carbonated beverages as “Coke”), militancy, and know-nothing provincialism.  So contrary to conservatism is Gunn’s film that, when it concludes, two of the heroes actually lament the fact that they didn’t leave this little concentration of hatred, fear and stupidity for— yes—the fair city of Hollywood, California.

In more direct ways, Hollywood is celebrated in almost every frame of “Slither”, which, artistically, is little more than a fun romp through one cinematic quotation after another. Romero’s “Night Of The Living Dead” is the obvious ancestor, but Sam Raimi, “Psycho”, Troma films, “Aliens”, and “The Thing” are all borrowed from.  Other, non-horror films even show up, as in Gunn’s hilarious nod to “Bambi”, when a deer is attacked by one of the slithery predators.  The foreground is all gore, pure Hollywood B-movie fun, and Gunn has created a memorable, if less than perfect, addition to the schlock-horror genre.

Nathan Fillion is superb as the even-keeled good guy cop Bill.  An upgrade from the Pullman model of Bills, Fillion’s Bill has an easy-going but sardonic nature which is sorely tested by the day’s events. His understated one-liners remain this side of Kevin Williamson or Joss Whedon, clever but never cloying.  Elizabeth Banks, the stock innocent who must learn to unleash her mean streak to survive, is perfectly described by the mayor, who admiringly blurts out, after watching her brutally dispatch one of the zombies, “That bitch is hardcore!”  The rest of the cast, relishing their roles as monster-fodder, emerge from anonymity just to deliver a good line before dying; a wizened deputy looks at the slug-like alien and remarks, “That looks like something that fell off my dick during the war!”

As enjoyable as all this is, it’s Gunn startlingly blunt social commentary which is the real greatness of “Slither”.  No one needed another clever riff on the horror genre, but the slashing take-down of Red State America is well-timed.  It’s there in the “Jesus Saves” sign which Bill crashes into, or in the wonderful juxtaposition of the mayor’s opening speech on the eve of the hunt, in which he invokes God’s creation of Adam and Eve, with the harsher evolutionary facts we’re watching as Grant puts the tentacles to poor Brenda.  Starla’s early discussion of Darwin in her class is a key theme; in a sense, “Slither” is about the incapacity for compromise between religious fanatacism and fascism on one hand and science and liberal tolerance on the other. The uneasy marriage of Starla and Grant, so disgustingly unraveled once Grant is zombified, testifies to the rift opening in American society.  Starla is a scientist figure while Grant is, to put it politely, a paleoconservative. Their irreconcilable differences nearly lead to an apocalypse. The last image Gunn gives us is their home, once a model example of the sacred American hearth, now boarded up, bombed out, and surrounded by dead bodies as the three survivors wander away.

But as politically-minded as the film is, the director’s commentary is contained in the mise-en-scene.  The attack on “breeder” culture is clear, and yet Gunn does not freight “Slither” with heavy-handed didacticism.  Conclusions are there to be drawn, certainly, but nothing is shoved forward. Despite its absurdities, the film asks to be interpreted carefully. And the story’s “heroes” are morally compromised. The world of the movie is impure, a twilight swamp of equivocations. In the last lines of dialogue, Kylie and Bill even agree to lie to Starla. As they agreed to do in a light moment earlier in the action, she says that he saved her from a zombie deer, when in reality she saved him. The punchline doesn’t arrive; the credits do. Their lie will stand.

An odd, ambivalent way for Gunn to leave his heroes, and it’s his best touch.  If “Slither” spends most of its time poking fun at Bush’s core constituency, the ending, a strangely flat note to hit at the end of a rousing horror film, removes the possibility of self-satisfaction for audience members who were already converted to the film’s politics before they entered the theater. No one gets off. This isn’t George Clooney at the Oscars waxing proud over being “out of touch” with America while five message movies nobody watched compete for Best Picture. The sick jokes, latex and the blood packs lend this genre excursion a credibility two hours of self-important didacticism cannot. “Slither” is a fun example of what political films might look like when filmmakers with something to say finally lose their faith in the cinema of quality.