Considering his monumental success with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and now his role orchestrating the newly revamped DC Universe, James Gunn is undoubtedly one of the biggest directors in the world. Comics fans and film critics alike respect his auteur ways, but as with most creators’ journeys, Gunn’s initial Hollywood days were unassuming. (We all have to start somewhere.) After a scriptwriting run as separate as Tromeo and Juliet, the live-action Scooby-Dooand (ironically) director Zack Snyder’s acclaimed Dawn of the Dead remake, Gunn first took up the directing mantel in 2006 with a low-budget horror film entitled Slither. The darkly comedic pastiche earned positive responses from critics but failed to make back its $12 million budget. Nevertheless, Slither’s wry humor, propensity for the grotesque, and prioritization of human relationships recalls Gunn’s future films like Guardians, Brightburn, The Suicide Squadand television’s Peacemaker, just with more carnage.
Slither was inspired by B-movies of the 1970s and 1980s, primarily body horror maestro David Cronenberg‘s Shivers (1975) and The Brood (1979). Gunn cited manga artist Junji Ito‘s Uzumaki as another influence, while the internet drew comparisons to Night of the Creeps (1986, director Fred Dekker) prior to Slither’s release. Sci-fi and horror are a long-standing genre mash-up and Slither acts as a loving amalgamation of practically every preceding creation: 1988’s The Blob, itself based on the 1958 classic of the same name; Cronenberg’s The Fly, itself based on the same-named 1958 film; the three different Invasion of the Body Snatchers films, beginning in 1956; John Carpenter‘s The Thing, a masterful 1982 remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World. Most of the aforementioned are low budget and exceedingly gross; all reckon with violation of the body in some form (sometimes to the unfortunate point of targeted sexual violence against women). Gunn’s directorial debut embodies all the tropes, mood, and iconography while the film with tongue in cheek self-awareness. If Cronenberg and Carpenter aimed to interrogate concepts like biology and classism, Gunn wants his audience to snort into the dinner they now regret pairing with Slither.
Starring Nathan Fillion post-Firefly and pre-Castle, Elizabeth Banks pre-Pitch Perfect and her own horror-comedy Cocaine Bearand now-longtime Gunn collaborator Michael Rooker, Slither is set within the small fictional town of Wheelsy, South Carolina. After a meteor crash, Wheelsy’s residents find themselves ground zero for a parasitic alien intent on planetary domination. leaving their hosts as nothing but walking, talking zombies helpless to the aliens’ control and part of a hive mind (think the Borg or the Cybermen, but with more slime). Rooker’s character Grant Grant (yes, his actual name) has the inauspicious honor of hosting the parasite leader. Grant retains some of his human memories, such as his love for his wife Starla (Banks), and initially tries to protect her from the parasite’s instincts before it corrupts his affection into twisted, single-minded tyranny.
James Gunn Both Mimics & Mocks the Legacy of Body Horror in ‘Slither’
When it comes to body horror, a cinematic notion where all bets are off, Gunn doesn’t flinch. What starts small with the lead alien shooting a sharp, wiggling barb into Grant’s chest evolves in consistent measures. After what still remains of Grant’s origin personality refuses to attack Starla, several thick, wiggling tentacles spring from Grant’s chest to instead penetrate the stomach of Brenda Gutierrez (Brenda James) and pump glowing goo into her (it’s Slither’s most explicitly sexual connotation, but thankfully, Gunn reduces the genre’s tendency toward violent assault into an obvious metaphor that’s depicted as intentionally ludicrous). Over time, Brenda transforms into a massive, room-sized ball of fleshy face that’s only recognizable’ then ruthlessly torn in half while birthing thousands of baby alien slugs that immediately start shoving their way down residents’ throats, their victims choking, gagging, and flailing all the while.
Grant himself undergoes bulbous, grotesque evolutions reminiscent of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly: large deformations on his head resemble tumors, massive pimples ooze out puss, drool gushes from his snarling and too-large teeth. Midway through the film he becomes a human-sized slug “standing” upright, complete with long barbed tentacles capable of bisecting a police officer with one flick. (That action, of course, necessitates the poor man’s guts spilling out in a squelching heap.) Grant’s final form covers the length of a house, lacking any human resemblance except for Rooker’s eyes, and he keeps growing in scale and ooze capacity with every slug-controlled Wheelsy resident that merges into his squirming body.
Then there’s the mass invasion of Wheelsy from the birthed baby slugs. Watching them wiggle along the grass in hordes proves disgusting enough, but like the most superior horror movie concepts, their ability to infiltrate houses turn innocuous daily activities into vulnerability, girdle. Margaret (Jennifer Copping), takes a bath while her younger sisters reads in bed just down the hall. A slug crawling into Margaret’s bathtub and swimming through the water toward her is delicately reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s (Robert Englund) clawed hand reaching for Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in the bathtub in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street. Margaret realizes the threat and manages to tear the slug out of her mouth and burn it to death with a nearby curling iron, but the separation leaves blood gushing from her mouth. Her little sisters and parents aren’t so lucky, and faster than … she can blink, slugs have infested every inch of her home’s walls and floors. She flees onto the roof and into the family car, but so many cover the car that their sheer mass blacks out the windows.
Oh, and the slug-controlled humans spit green acid, meaning the remaining protagonists have two growing armies to contend with. They all harbor an insatiable need for meat, too, leaving behind slaughtered animals and veritable mountains of flies circling the noxious corpses
‘Slither’ Shows off Some of James Gunn’s Directorial Trademarks
All of Gunn’s productions carry some mark of his stylistic tendencies, and the majority are present throughout Slither. He strikes a fairly balanced mood between the extreme violence and omnious wit, often combining the two for maximum irony. This is best illustrated by cross-cutting between a deer hunting kick-off celebration and Grant advancing on Brenda alone in her home, followed by lively country music from the party playing over Grant assaulting Brenda with his impregnating tentacles. The one-liners are an indomitable presence all their own, whether they’re as simple as Fillion’s character Bill Pardy quietly deadpanning, “Well, now that is some f *cked up shit” at the first sight of a metamorphized Grant, or Pardy muttering “My easy going nature is getting sorely f*cking tested” while pursued by a herd of slug! humans. As an established master of poker-faced buffoonery, Fillion matches Gunn’s tonal requirements to a T.
Wheelsy mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) enjoys his share of the farcical as well. After Pardy assures a room-sized Brenda that they’ll take her to a hospital, MacReady hisses, “What the f*ck they gonna do with her at a hospital?” He also throws a tempter tantrum at the lack of Mr. Pibb in the drinks cooler and argues with Pardy over the definition of the word Martians. “Martians are from Mars,” Pardy explains, exhausted; “Or it’s a general term for ‘outer space f* cker,” MacReady snaps. Even an infected human gets to rail against one of the protagonists for staring in horror at their disgusting visage: “Are you judging me? Damn Republican. We’ll run all you Republicans out of town.”
‘Slither’ Is Actually About Love, Just Like James Gunn’s Other Films
Despite Slither Favoring gross-out moments over true characterization and only running for 90 minutes, Gunn doesn’t rush the plot along. He devotes time to the Wheelsy townspeople before the pandamonium kicks in, creating an effective atmosphere for his tale even if the characters aren’t t more than sketches. Their small town dynamics, while comically exaggerated, are transparently accurate to anyone from a small town. Here we have the jerk mayor honking his horn and cussing out a kid crossing the street; a bus stop while their children eavesdrop. Ninety-nine percent of the town love their guns, their beer, and shooting deer. Grant almost cheats on Starla because he’s a sex-obsessed moron, and Pardy’s spent ages in unrequited love for Starla.
Love, in fact, is Slither’s truest theme. Grant’s love for Starla is flawed long before the slug corrupts it, but it did exist between the couple, and Starla certainly held love in high regard. So does Gunn as a creator; Guardians trilogy has always been the bonds of found family. Beneath the spewing pus and bodily debasement, the people of Wheelsy care for one another. Only three residents survive the alien attack, but they wearily stumble out of town together to face their unknown future. There’s always more texture to Gunn’s stories than sheer violence or total absurdity, even inside a debut film that might initially seem like more of its parts than its sum.