Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/08/06 11:53:00

"You've seen it before, but seldom done this well."
5 stars (Awesome)

At some point during the pre-production of "Slither", I imagine James Gunn getting lost walking through the Universal office building. He's supposed to get someone from Rogue Pictures to sign off on his micro-budgeted direct to video horror movie. But, instead, he winds up with the main studio guys, who see his paperwork and absently sign off on it, since it looks legit. Suddenly, he's got a whole bunch of extra money and a decent cast, and he decides to make the most of it.

The story is standard B-movie stuff: Meteor falls to Earth near a small southern town. A couple people off in the woods get killed, and the little slugs that emerge from it wind up inside a local (Michael Rooker), who starts acting weird. Well, weirder; anyone with a name like Grant Grant is going to be unusual to start with. Soon, people and livestock are disappearing, and local sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) is on the case, along with mayor Jack MacReady(Gregg Henry), the wife of the possessed man, Starla Grant (Elizabeth Banks), whom Bill has had a crush on since elementary school. They track Grant to the woods behind the Strutemyer farm, where they realize that their problems are decidedly not of this Earth.

Simple stuff, and it could have easily been an unremarkable Sci-Fi channel movie or direct-to-video release, but the cast and crew opts not to mail it in. Sure, Fillion is kind of riffing on his character from Firefly and Serenity, but Mal Reynolds was the best character he ever had, and injecting a lot of him into Bill Pardy is a good thing. Pardy's friendly but occasionally sarcastic, respected and good at his job but able to screw up in believable, human ways. He can also take a line as flat as "that is some fucked-up shit" and get a big laugh from the audience with his delivery. Elizabeth Banks has been kicking around in fun supporting parts for a while (most notably The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Baxter), and dives head-first into a leading role. Starla's got to be duped in the first act without coming across as stupid (which goes for the whole choosing Grant over Pardy thing, too); we've got to like her enough to want her to survive and survive with Pardy. We do, because her scenes with Fillion warm up from their initial awkwardness as the film goes on, and because we totally buy her when she stops being a vaguely unsatisfied trophy wife and starts kicking some ass.

Meanwhile, Michael Rooker is rather exceptional as Grant. The man's kind of a sleaze even before he gets an alien slug in his gut, but redeemable; afterward, though, he becomes really fun to watch. Alien-Grant has world-threatening menace tempered by the pure joy of discovering sex, and his inherited affection for Starla gives the monster nuance without being a humanizing buzzkill. Bonus snarkiness is provided by Gregg Henry's Mayor MacReady, whose general lousy attitude and hung-over demeanor raises the very interesting question of how he got elected to public office. We also get Tania Saulnier as teenage Strutemyer daughter Kylie, but she's appealing beyond her nubile form and necessary function of being a survivor with useful information.

The scene where she gets that useful information is one of my favorites in the movie, because it's where Gunn makes the threat big, even though it's confined to this small town. There are compromises made for budget reasons with this kind of movie, like how the alien threat tends to become possessed humans with icky makeup and is never seen in a context other than eventually being beat by a group of rednecks or a small army base. Gunn gives us that information visually, in a quick zap to the brain that approximates how Kylie gets it, and it's so much more effective than just telling us. The budget is put to good use, not just in that CGI-heavy scene, but with a bunch of quality practical effects that do gross things to the human body while still giving the actors room to perform.

Slither has its tongue in cheek a lot, but never so much that the film becomes a joke - the comedy is genuine oddness and interaction, not cheap self-referencing. There's a lot of very funny scenes, but just as many that are uncompromisingly creepy and tense. Other times, Gunn and company hit on how encountering the unknown and bizarre can frequently be both at once. The action's as exciting and splattery as one could hope for, and when the good guys take casualties, they are people we've met and grown to like enough that we're mad, even though we know going in that a bunch of these guys are cannon fodder.

That's just good movie-making, there. James Gunn set out to make a fun monster movie, and manages it with nary a hitch. It's movies like "Slither" that make bad popcorn movies so frustrating, because they demonstrate that the genre can be light and fun without being stupid or slapdash.

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