For fans of modern horror, the 1980s were something of a golden age. Directors like Wes Craven, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, and Sam Raimi contributed to a new wave of movie horror that began with the ultra-low budget slasher flicks of the late '70s and continued through moderately budgeted studio releases like The Fly, The Thing, and The Lost Boys. They brought a sophisticated new flavor to the genre, while franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street flourished. What made these films so remarkable was the wit and energy involved in creating them every crappy PG-13 scare flick that hits the multiplex today has its roots in an '80s film that did it first, and did it better. Current mainstream horror fare is marketed to the 13-to-17 age bracket, and it offers little more than a few cleverly designed deaths, a number of "boo!" moments, and a lot of pretty people running around in their underwear, screaming. The masters of horror knew that to do fright well takes brains they need to be roller-coaster rides, mixing humor, creepiness, and terror to create a multi-level experience that triggers the viewers' endorphins by successfully combining screams and laughter. Which is why it's a shame that James Gunn's brilliantly conceived homage to '80s horror, Slither (2006), was trundled in and out of theaters with little advertising support Gunn made one of the slickest, grossest, funniest, and most disturbing horror films of the past 15 years, but if you blinked you missed its very short run on just a few hundred screens.
Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, Serenity) is sheriff of Wheelsy, South Dakota, one of those quiet rural towns where nothing much ever happens which makes it a perfect job, as he's the sort who really doesn't care to exert himself if there's no need. He carries a torch for a local schoolteacher named Starla (Elizabeth Banks), who's married to successful local businessman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker). During a drunken bit of fooling around with another woman in the woods, Grant stumbles across a piece of a meteorite that's crashed to Earth and gets himself infected with an alien parasite, the result of which is some seriously bizarre changes of both the mental and physical kind. As Grant's behavior and appearance become increasingly grotesque, Starla can't ignore that something is very, very wrong with her husband, who's becoming more obsessed with her the more he transmogrifies. Meanwhile, more of the slug-like parasites begin turning the local citizenry into shambling zombies, and Bill finds himself having to manage a panicked town, its foul-mouthed mayor, and a number of disgusting and frightening developments the worst of which is the horrific squid-like thing into which Grant is slowing transforming.
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Slither's writer and director James Gunn, who penned the script for Zak Snyder's exemplary remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), cut his teeth on Z-grade Troma Studios fare, writing, directing, and even appearing on-camera in Tromeo and Juliet (1996). His admitted adoration for '80s horror colors every frame of Slither, making it sort of a love letter to the great funny-creepy monster movies of the era like Tremors, The Evil Dead, and The Fly. The town's bitchy, expletive-spewing mayor (hilariously rendered by the marvelous character actor Gregg Henry) is named Jack MacReady as an homage to the main character in John Carpenter's The Thing, and horror buffs will recognize names that are similarly used for streets, businesses, and minor characters. Like Shaun of the Dead, another recent film that successfully blends horror and comedy, Slither offers genuine creepitude and suspense along with the deliciously down-to-earth viewpoint that, should something like this actually happen, regular people would be ill-equipped to manage (as when Mayor MacReady tries to reason out why Grant is changing so drastically, and announces that it must be Lyme disease: "You touch some deer feces, and then you eat a sandwich without washin' your hands. You got your Lyme disease!" Bill: "And that makes you look like a squid?"). With his tongue firmly lodged in his cheek, Gunn expertly engineers a mash-up of the hilarious and the disgusting in a gleefully R-rated scare flick that pulls no punches with violence or language, and which should have been seen by a lot more horror fans while it was still in theaters.
Universal's DVD release of Slither offers an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with rich colors, although darker scenes get a bit murky otherwise, everything's clean and sharp. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (English, Spanish or French, with optional English, Spanish or French subtitles) is very good as well. There's a nice slate of extras although to avoid spoilers, viewers shouldn't watch any of them until after the film starting with a fun yack-track by James Gunn and Nathan Fillion, who recorded the commentary together but in separate locations they discuss not only the specifics of Slither, but horror in general, and Gunn answers a lot of questions that have come up about the film (like his choice of Air Supply's "You're Every Woman in the World to Me" as Starla and Grant's song, saying that he's always found it "creepy and stalkerish"). There's also a lightweight behind-the-scenes featurette, "The Sick Minds and Slimy Days of Slither" (10 min.), a tour of the set that's presented and shot by Fillion (4 min.), "Who is Bill Pardy?" (5 min.), a very funny blooper/gag reel focusing on Fillion, and a more general gag reel (8 min.). Also on board are three special-effects featurettes "The Gorehound Grill: Brewin' the Blood" on how to make fake blood (3 min.), "Visual Effects: Step by Step," which illustrates how several of the effects were done set to cheery music (5 min.), and "Bringing Slither's Creatures to Life" (18 min.). There's also a video diary by Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman (9 min.), who played a small role in the film, as well as a number of deleted and extended scenes. Keep-case.