Directed By James Gunn
During the golden age of early 1970s American cinema, a group of talented directors used the familiar tropes of genre filmmaking to highlight the political and social woes of the Watergate era. So perhaps we should thank our current administration for a series of recent genre films, like 2005’s Land of the Dead, which captures a similar sense of the dread and paranoia widely felt across the country today. Not surprisingly, the best of these horror/thrillers have been made by directors like George Romero, Joe Dante, and David Cronenberg – respectable filmmakers who, despite their A-list names, got their start directing enjoyably schlocky Bmovies laced with socio-political subtext.
It might be too soon to tell, but Slither, the debut film of screenwriter James Gunn (2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake) shows a promising talent working in the same vein. Crafting the small-town monster movie into a broadly absurd horrorcomedy, Gunn refuses to take his story seriously, which makes his satire on mindless American gluttony and the red state-blue state divide all the easier to embrace.
After stumbling upon a crashed meteor in the woods outside of Wheelsy, Grant Grant (bald Michael Rooker) develops hideous lesions, an unstoppable craving for red meat, and two odd chest tentacles. While the townspeople calmly chalk these changes up to Lyme disease, Grant’s devoted wife Starla (charming Elizabeth Banks) can’t shake the image of their basement turned into a pet abattoir. Soon enough, Grant completes his mutation into a Jabbaesque slug monster, while an infected young woman balloons so much from the excessive meat, she explodes, sending tiny mouth-invading creatures all over town.
The repulsive blood-red slugs demand consumption and once inside their hosts, create a starving zombie collective that shares Grant’s thoughts. Still longing for his high school love Starla, town sheriff Bill Pardy (a droll Nathan Fillion) helps her fight the slug invasion with the aid of a near-infected teen (Tania Saulnier) and a corrupt Republican mayor (a way-over-the-top Clark Gregg).
The townspeople are idiotic but loveable, especially Fillion as the kind of hero who fumbles a grenade at the climax and speaks out against hunting (a horror first?). Rooker somehow keeps his humanity, and the love of conflicted Starla, even as he bodily absorbs various townspeople in the film’s most indelible image. Gunn’s main success here lies in building sequences that are both horrifying and ridiculous, capturing that narrow space of primal response shared by screams and laughter.
This makes the subtext mere icing: undifferentiated American masses, mindlessly consuming meat, parroting the words of their monstrous leader – it’s not subtle, but it’s not heavy-handed either. And while Gunn’s film may critique the attitudes of red-state USA, his sympathetic characters are far from bleeding-heart liberals. Never less than totally gross, Slither continues the great B-horror tradition of blending gore, humor, and genuine scares, while offering proof that the hybrid genre of horror-comedy might be an ideal form for political persuasion and social commentary. It’s hard to feel lectured to when your laugh is caught in a scream.