I have had a ton of affection for SLITHER ever since its borderline disastrous theatrical release. I first saw the film on its opening day in 2006. I went to a mainstream multiplex in Chicago where it was showing in one of the largest auditoriums. I was one of three people at that early evening screening. I have never been one to put much stock in box office results for a film. After all, John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING was a financial and critical (at the time) bomb, and it is now widely considered a classic. But even I had to acknowledge that the small turnout was a very bad sign for a film from a major studio getting a wide release. Then the movie started and I laughed my ass off at the witty dialogue and squirmed in my seat at the image of alien slugs trying to force their way into a young woman’s mouth. All thoughts of financial issues for the film were pushed from my mind. By the end of the movie, the other two people in the theater had walked out and I had no idea who I could recommend the film to.
The fact is I was ambivalent about the film when going to see it. I had read very positive coverage of its production in Fangoria and I dug the eclectic cast. But I was worried about James Gunn at the helm as writer/director. All I knew about him was that he had written the abysmal SCOOBY-DOO movies from 2002 and 2004 and the 2004 remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. While DAWN turned out better than I anticipated, I still didn’t trust him. But at the point in the film when Michael Rooker, covered in a massive makeup prosthetic, flicks a tentacle and slices a man in half, I was fully on board. Clearly, mainstream audiences did not agree with me.
When I popped the Scream Factory Blu-ray into the player, it had been a few years since I last watched SLITHER. Aside from some dated CGI, the film holds up remarkably well.
Taking inspiration from the ’70s and ’80s-style creature features of the gooey, slime-covered variety like NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, FROM BEYOND, SHIVERS, and SOCIETY, SLITHER follows an alien organism taking over the body of a small-town businessman named Grant Grant (Rooker). Gradually turning Grant into a giant monster that then enslaves the townspeople and turns the really unlucky victims into wombs for millions of its worm-like larvae, it falls to Starla (Elizabeth Banks)—Grant’s unhappily wedded wife—and laidback sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) to try and find a way to stop the Grant monster before it takes over the world.
While the plot of SLITHER and some of the slimier details of the various monsters are largely pastiche of many past horror films, Gunn thankfully writes characters that are usually more than they initially appear. Grant—before he is taken over by the alien—just seems like a crass oaf, but eventually is revealed to be a big dork who cannot understand how to relate to Starla, even though he truly loves her. Starla seems like simply a sweet woman stuck in an unhappy marriage that she feels duty-bound to stay in, but when the shit hits the fan, she reveals an icy side to her personality as she is able to make snap life and death decisions and uses the remaining echoes of Grant’s love for her against the monster. Pardy simply just seems like most Nathan Fillion characters we have seen—laidback, funny in a corny sort of way, and essentially decent. But spurred on by his long-simmering crush on Starla, Pardy starts losing his cool as the situation spins out of control, making him a questionable choice to lead a resistance against the aliens.
That subversion of character expectations and genre clichés is what sets SLITHER apart from many horror films that rely heavily on homage to past films in the genre. Granted, there are still plenty of visual callbacks to the already-mentioned cult films of the ’80s (and then nearly every street, character name, and store is named after horror movie characters and directors), but Gunn actually does seem interested in throwing curveballs at the audience and investing in his characters beyond simply running, fighting, and spouting exposition.
It helps that Gunn cast the film well. Beyond Banks, Fillion, and Rooker all doing work that is better and more layered than less committed stars might bring to a film like this, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, and Don Thmopson all take turns stealing scenes as the other townspeople caught up in the struggle for their lives, providing texture to a film that occasionally shows some of the seams that come with a low budget (by studio standards).
It honestly makes me happy to find that SLITHER is still as much fun as it was during that first (mostly) solo screening I had back in 2006. Most studio horror films of that time have disappeared from memory (not just mine, but seemingly from the pop culture hive mind, in general), but there is still a scrappy energy and smart sense of humor to SLITHER that keeps it from feeling dated or cynical. Despite the overtones of the film as a metaphor for an unhappy marriage finally reaching its breaking point, it is a film that is pure fun if you have a sense of humor that tilts to the sick side without becoming mean-spirited.
Given how poorly it performed at the box office, SLITHER was given a pretty stacked DVD release from Universal around ten years ago. It appears most of those extras have been ported over for this Scream Factory Blu-ray. While most of these extras were behind the scenes pieces shot during the production (the best being a cameoing Lloyd Kaufman’s video diary and a piece with Fillion walking around with a camera being insulted by the cast and crew), the most interesting aspect of the extras is the difference in Gunn’s attitude between the on set footage as he cracks off color jokes and expresses his stress with heavy loads of sarcasm and then to hear him in a more subdued mood on the Universal commentary track. While the track—with Fillion—is largely kept light and informative, it is clear that Gunn took the film’s financial disappointment hard. Given the fact that SLITHER was his directorial debut, it is fair to assume he might have been concerned about ever getting another directing job.
The new extras produced for the Scream Factory Blu-ray include an interview with Gunn and a commentary track with the director, Fillion, and Rooker (impressively, this commentary is entertaining with the interplay between the three participants and manages to be informative without repeating too many of the details already covered in the other extras). These new extras find a more relaxed Gunn who seems far more confident in his abilities (I suppose two huge Marvel films will do that). Thankfully, he does not take the tact of many veteran filmmakers who only complain about all the flaws they see in their early films. While he does point out mistakes or things he wishes he had done differently, he mostly seems genuinely happy that SLITHER holds up and that it has found a cult audience.
The transfer and sound mix is as clean and crisp as you would expect from a Scream Factory Blu-ray of a recent studio film. But just as important as the image and audio upgrades and new extras is the fact that SLITHER is available on a home video format again. With the old Universal DVD out of print, it would have been very easy for the film to fall through the cracks and disappear. It is nice to get some of these more recent cult films back in the hands of viewers since they are often overlooked in the increasingly niche market of horror/cult Blu-ray companies.
The Scream Factory Collector’s Edition of SLITHER will be available on Tuesday, August 1st, 2017.