Clever, scary and almost brilliant, Slither pulls off one of the toughest feats in genre filmmaking: mockery combined with approbation. Writer-director James Gunn, a troma veteran, cynically and hilariously eviscerates monster movie clichés while delivering a rollicking monster movie of his own. He doesn’t merely alternate between playing the genre straight and making fun of it; he does both simultaneously. It’s impressive, and supremely entertaining.
The central monster plot also works, if you like, as a metaphor for the disintegration of marriage (or, more accurately, a marriage) — the subtext is ripe and plentiful. Rich, hapless Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), rebuffed by his suspiciously beautiful wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks), goes for a late-night walk, winding up in the woods with some gold-digging harlot. As he decides that maybe he’d better get back to his wife, after all, he’s attacked by some form of interstellar goo, and quickly discovers that he has developed an affinity for meat. Meat, meat, meat.
This spells trouble for Starla, of course, who remains unaware that her husband now has two tubes protruding from his chest. Hilariously, she tries to reconcile, playing the couple’s favorite song and seducing her possessed husband in a very 1950’s sort of way. Soon enough, all hell breaks loose, as Grant goes loping off into the woods of the small rural town, his transformation rendered by perfect, matter-of-factly gruesome practical and CGI effects (my favorite is the shot of Grant awkwardly high-tailing it away from police, his left arm in the process of turning into a tentacle).
The story is not, as I half-expected, an amalgamation of arbitrary B-horror conventions. While it’s every bit as grotesque as anyone could wish, it’s also logical and intriguing, working on its own terms — I can imagine the plot working in a novel, or short story. Though I was mildly peeved at the resolution, which resorts to a tiresome cliché instead of lampooning it, the overall premise and progression, both of which are interesting bordering on fascinating, more than pick up the slack.
Aside from Starla, the prototypical plucky heroine played by an extremely game Elizabeth Banks, the hero slot is filled by the pathologically easygoing Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) — easygoing, at least, until attacked by hordes of zombies, at which point he intones that his “easygoing nature is being sort of fucking tested.” There’s also the lovably sleazy Mayor (Gregg Henry), who begins by suggesting that the weird hyper-squid attacking local livestock might just be someone stricken with lyme disease and ends up in a death struggle with space slugs.
Exuberant as all get-out, Slither inspires giddy admiration — it is focused so single-mindedly on its goal to entertain us, damn it, and it does just that. Gunn knows and loves the genre, and his affection for the film’s various inspirations is palpable. My affection for his movie, in turn, is virtually boundless.