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Schlock & Awe: SLITHER is Horror Comedy Done Disgustingly Perfect

As hard as it is to make a truly scary horror movie, it’s much, much harder to make a true horror comedy. Most of the time when filmmakers attempt horror comedy, they do a movie that’s much more of a comedy than a horror movie, mostly a comedy with horror tinges and trappings. Eliciting laughter and eliciting fear individually take impeccable timing and tone, and many horror films and comedies can’t even manage one of those, but to make people laugh in between making them scream is really something special. One of the handful of films that does this beautifully is James Gunn’s 2006 film, Slither.

Striking the right balance between scary and funny is incredibly difficult, and you either run the risk of just being a horror movie with a few jokes, or go too far the other way and get labelled a horror spoof. I’ve seen Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead for instance incorrectly given the “spoof” or “parody” tag, and while I think it’s close to being more of a comedy than a horror film, it does just strike the balance. Slither, on the other hand, never veers too far into comedy to be taken seriously, and is up there with Evil Dead 2 and An American Werewolf in London in the annals of the truly great horror coms.

Gunn had been a part of the Troma factory of cheaper-than-cheap and grosser-than-gross horror films, and became that studio’s most prominent graduate. His script for 1996’s Tromeo & Juliet was a turning point in Troma films, because it was actually pretty good. He then moved on to a career as a screenwriter, penning the scripts for both live-action Scooby-Doo movies and Zack Snyder’s feature debut, Dawn of the Dead. The script for Slither was set to be yet another directed by someone else, but he persuaded Universal to take a chance on him, mostly because he knew nobody else would do it right.

Slither references a metric buttload of horror films and directors, notably classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and The Blob. In another director’s hands, it might have been turned into a PG-13 thing, but one of the movie’s hallmarks is that it pulls no punches on the gore, and never fails in being hilariously foulmouthed.

The story takes place in a small town southern town on the day a tiny meteorite strikes. The town’s most prominent citizen is self-made millionaire Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) who’s married to the prettiest and nicest school teacher Starla (Elizabeth Banks). Starla doesn’t love Grant anymore, and if she had her way she’d take up again with the handsome sheriff, Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), with whom she shared a high school romance. Feeling scorned by his wife, Grant ventures out into the night to have a tawdry affair, but he doesn’t because A) God help him, he loves Starla and B) he gets infected by a tiny insectoid creature from the meteorite. He slowly starts to turn into a gross, tentacled beast while laying eggs in and eating people.

Eventually, Grant’s eggs hatch and the town is all but overrun with slugs that mean to leap inside the mouths of unsuspecting townsfolk and turn them into zombies, and it’s up to Bill, Starla, a young woman named Kylie (Tania Saulnier), and the asshole mayor named Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) to try and defeat the alien menace and destroy some undead scuzz buckets. You think the movie’s just going to have one threat, but then very quickly it has a million.

Rooker really steals the show in this movie, with his fully committed performance as the slowly-grossening Grant Grant, and his discomfort at the elaborate and heavy prosthetics, but the entire cast is utterly brilliant. Banks and Fillion have oodles and oodles of chemistry and make for excellent heroine and hero, and the audience really cares about their plight. Special commendation needs to be given to Gregg Henry for having most of the best lines, including one I still quote: “Where is the Mr. Pibb? I told your secretary to pack Mr. Pibb. It’s the only Coke I like. Goddamn Brenda exploding like a water balloon, worms driving my friends around like they’re goddamn skin-cars, people are spitting acid at me, turning you into cottage cheese, and now there’s no f***ing goddamn Mr. Pibb?”

It’s sort of a revelation to revisit this movie after a decade, knowing how Gunn has become the writer and director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films. You can absolutely see where he’d go when you watch Slither, which maintains an irreverent tone while being true to the horror and sci-fi genres despite a small budget and unconvincing visual effects. The Guardians movies are so good because they have characters you care about as misfits within an otherwise straightforward space opera, and Slither does the same thing with the alien invasion plot.

To celebrate the movie’s 11th anniversary, Scream Factory is releasing a beautiful collector’s edition Blu-ray, which on top of a bevy of vintage featurettes and interviews, has a brand new 30-minute interview with Gunn and a brand new retrospective audio commentary featuring Gunn, Rooker, and Fillion. They’re all enlightening and having a chance to look back at the movie through the eyes of the now-much more successful principles is a lot of fun.

If you haven’t seen Slither in awhile, do yourself a favor and pick up the new disc. It’s a movie that is too fun to ever get old.

Images: Universal

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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