Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

James Gunn likes to stay ahead by going back.

While working as a filing clerk at Lloyd Kaufman's B-grade studio Troma Entertainment, he penned the screenplay (largely in iambic pentameters!) for the cult hit Tromeo & Juliet (1997), bringing Shakespeare crashing into a freakish 20th century. Then in 2002 he adapted television's old-school cartoon series Scooby-Doo into a live-action extravaganza of post-modernism, before achieving the impossible in 2004 with his terrifyingly successful update of George A Romero's classic Dawn Of The Dead. Now for Slither, his feature debut as a director, Gunn continues doing what he does best, recombining the choicest elements from his cinematic predecessors and gluing everything together with very smart dialogue.

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A meteor crashes into the backwoods of Wheelsy, a town deep in the American south, in the middle of the annual deer hunting festivities; and no sooner has its egg-like cargo been discovered by local businessman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) than his chest is penetrated by a parasitic alien. At first his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) is delighted by the "real change" that she senses in Grant - especially in the bedroom (or, more precisely, on the sofa); but with his behaviour becoming ever more erratic, with his appearance transforming dramatically, and with neighbourhood pets - as well as single mother Brenda (Brenda James) - mysteriously disappearing, Starla reaches out to her childhood sweetheart Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), now chief of the local police, for help.

Bill hardly needs convincing that something is seriously wrong, for Grant has sprouted tentacles, Brenda is found giving birth to a swarm of orally-fixated slugs and most of the townsfolk are either quickly turned into single-minded zombies, or else eaten alive. Only Starla, Bill, the foul-mouthed mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) and resourceful teenager Kylie Strutemyer (Tania Saulnier) have managed to escape relatively unscathed, but with the now monstrous Grant still carrying a torch for his wife, it is open season in Wheelsy.

At a time when most other horror directors are still picking over the battered corpse of the Seventies, refreshingly Gunn has horror from other eras in his sights, namely the alien invasion movies of the Fifties, especially The Blob and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, and the latex-driven body horror of the Eighties.

Those who are fanatical about the heights of ickiness that cinema achieved during the Reagan years will take special pleasure in Slither's reverential resurrection of motifs from John Carpenter's The Thing, Brian Yuzna's Society, the Alien sequels and David Cronenberg's entire back catalogue; while everyone else can just revel in the gross excess of it all, in a production that at one point used up the whole national supply of skin-making silicone for its huge scale physical effects, putting a whole lot of goo in its boo.

With Slither in our theatres, and Reeker and a new Friday The 13th sequel soon to follow, it looks as though the Eighties, until recently reviled as horror's worst decade, are now back from the dead for critical reevaluation. Accompanying the ample gore of Slither is dialogue that, without ever resorting to cheap gags, or deviating from the integrity of the story, is laugh-out-loud funny. Gunn has assembled an ensemble of likeable and, more importantly, believable, small town eccentrics, and then celebrates the absurdity of their reactions to events that are beyond all normal experience - and the results will make you gag with breathless delight as much as disgust.

More slyly amusing is Gunn's knack of running riot with the viewer's expectations, as he sets up cliches only to knock them in the water - something that he does quite literally in the film's climactic stand-off. Here men need rescuing by women (but happily take all the credit), and that grenade, whose presence in the police station's storage locker has been so carefully established, might not quite end up where you would think.

In the end Slither is, like Tremors, Undead and Monster Man before it, a monster movie with a wry smile on its face, where (thankfully) the gruesome effects, rather than the humour, tend towards full on gross out. In fact, it would win itself a place at the very top of the horror comedy food chain, if only its ending was a little less tepid.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2006
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Alien spawn turns a small Southern town into a monstrous menu.
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Director: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Starring: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Xantha Radley, Tania Saulnier

Year: 2006

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada/US


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