Writer: James Gunn
Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman
Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.
Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.
Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.
Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.
Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.
Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.
It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.
The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.
Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.
If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).
Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.
Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.
Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.
Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.
Writers: Scott Glosserman & David J. Stieve
Cast: Nathan Baesel, Angela Goethals, Robert Englund, Scott Wilson, Zelda Rubinstein, Bridgett Newton, Ben Pace, Britain Spellings, Kate Lang Johnson
Plot: Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals), a journalism grad student, has found the perfect subject for her student film. Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel) was a child possessed by a terrible evil and murdered by an unruly mob years ago. Now, he has risen from the grave to terrorize the town of Glen Echo, Maryland. At least, that’s the story. Vernon, very much alive, has grown up idolizing the likes of Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers, and today he’s working to join their ranks. He’s allowing Taylor and her camera crew to film him in the process of becoming the next great slasher killer. Leslie leads Taylor and her crew members, Doug and Todd (Ben Pace and Britain Spellings) to the old house where he lived before his “death.” Teenagers sneak out to the house every year on the anniversary of his demise, and this year, Leslie is planning to return.
But that’s a month away, there’s still a lot of work to do to prepare his “survivor girl’ – the one person he’s going to attack that’s going to survive to carry on his legend. Leslie stakes out waitress Kelly Curtis (Kate Lang Johnson). He waits for her to dump the garbage from the diner and sets up a quick scare for her. The burst of adrenaline from shocking Kelly goes throughout Taylor and the crew, and they and Leslie begin to bond. The crew visits Leslie’s friends Eugene and Jaime (Scott Wilson and Bridgett Newton). Eugene is a retired killer who has been a mentor to Leslie, Jamie his supportive wife. Eugene advises Leslie to make his preliminary strike against someone only loosely connected to Kelly, and he chooses a librarian (Zelda Rubinstein). He plants a fake newspaper article for Kelly to find implying a “great uncle” she never knew about raped Leslie’s mother, thus creating a connection between himself and his target, then waits for her to find it. After the librarian “explains” the article he slays her, but instead of chasing Kelly as intended, he’s interrupted by the sudden appearance of Doc Halloran (Robert Englund). Leslie is ecstatic: he has an “Ahab,” a good person who knows the killer and will stop at nothing to defend the innocent.
Despite Leslie’s insistence that they stay away from Kelly, Taylor visits her diner. Halloran is there, and he warns them that Leslie is not who he claims to be, that he’s from Nevada and is using a fake name. When Kelly approaches, nervous, Taylor and Todd flee. When they return to Leslie he’s enraged, shoving her into their van, but he calms down and promises to tell her everything she needs to know. He confesses he’s not Molly Vernon’s son, just using her name to build his legend, and that he understands if Taylor wants to leave. Reluctantly, she decides to see it through.
He takes her back to the Vernon farm to show her his preparations to the house, barn, apple orchard and mill. He’s made it easy to cut the power, put dead batteries in the flashlights, sabotaged the available weapons, set up rooms to be open to teens having sex and other places to make it easy to dispose bodies… it’s all about narrowing it down to just him and Kelly for a final confrontation. When the teenagers arrive, he even swipes a sparkplug from their car.
When a pair of Kelly’s friends begin having sex, Leslie starts his killing. Taylor and the film crew are suddenly unnerved, realizing how real the situation has become, and Leslie ushers them outside. He goodbye to them, knowing that at the end of the night he’ll be hiding, locked up, or dead anyway. Todd and Doug are ready to leave, but Taylor finds herself unable to stand aside and allow the killing spree to continue. They go into the house to warn Kelly and the others and, to their shock, find the “virginal” Kelly having rambunctious sex. Taylor is unable to understand why Kelly is behaving like just another victim instead of a Survivor Girl. With the teens’ cars sabotaged they rush to Taylor’s van, finding two bodies and an engine that doesn’t work. Taylor tries to urge Kelly to become the heroine Leslie wants him to be, but instead, she turns out to be the next victim. He chases the rest to the barn, killing Todd on the way, and Taylor realizes that Leslie had planned everything from the beginning. Kelly was never supposed to be the real Survivor Girl. Taylor was.
Halloran arrives, but neither he nor Doug – who confesses his love for Taylor – can stop Leslie. Soon he and Taylor are all that remain, racing through the apple orchard and playing out the final confrontation as planned. They arrive at the apple mill, where Taylor knows Leslie has planned the last showdown. Taylor traps him in the apple press and, with his head clamped down, he removes his mask and whispers to Taylor that he knew she was the one. With one final crank of the press, she crushes his head, then sets the mill on fire, weeping. She finds Doug and Halloran, still alive, and they watch the mill burn.
As the credits roll, Leslie’s charred remains are rolled into a police morgue. We watch and listen to his whispering voice. Just as the film ends, he sits up on the slab behind a hapless scrub. Just like the monsters he so idolizes, Leslie Vernon will rise again.
Thoughts: Although not as well-known as most of the other movies in this project, there was never any doubt for me that I would include it. I really don’t remember how I first discovered this little movie a few years back, but it instantly became one of my favorites. Like Shaun of the Dead, it’s ripe with meta-commentary on horror movies. Like Eight Legged Freaks, it manages to parody the genre it loves. But unlike either of these, it twists the entire world of the movie on its ear for a fantastic final act.
During the buildup, the movie comes across as a typical mockumentary. Leslie gives talking head interviews, Taylor follows him in his preparation and asks dozens of questions, and you quickly find yourself as charmed by Leslie as Taylor is. By all appearances, Leslie is a very warm, friendly, congenial young man. He shows great care for his pet turtles and is intensely proud of his enormous library, which is loaded with medical journals and books about escape artists and illusionists. He reminds me of a more gregarious Norman Bates – at the beginning of Psycho Anthony Perkins feels like a really nice (if somewhat browbeaten) sort of guy. Leslie has that same quality, with the added bonus of being funny and entertaining to boot. When the film turns later on and we realize that Taylor and her crew are, in fact, his targets, the effect is shocking. Leslie is a remorseless murderer. The entire movie is about following him as he plans his murders. And yet, when he suddenly starts murdering our heroes, we are shocked and horrified, as if there was no way we could have seen this coming. There’s a brilliance here that is almost impossible to quantify.
Eugene is a very good addition to the cast, allowing the (real) filmmakers to put out commentary on the state of horror movies and of fear itself. The sort of things he says actually make a lot of sense if you filter them through a real-world prism and consider the words as film criticism instead of the actual words of a killer. He comes across as a pretty typical character type – the old pro who’s upset because things just aren’t as good as they used to be. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s talking about cold-blooded murder, he’d be like somebody’s grumpy old uncle.
If you want more horror movie commentary, the extended sequence where Leslie describes the way the killing spree is supposed to go down is going to delight you to no end. Leslie taps into every psychological theory and trope used in the construction of horror movies, pounding home things like imagery, the importance of gender roles in the weapons used and in the Survivor Girl’s metamorphosis into a heroine, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting, even though I’m literally typing this paragraph while watching the scene. There’s just too much for me to keep in my head. Glosserman and Stieve could teach a graduate class in the psychology of horror.
A lot of the more lighthearted stuff doesn’t even come from the story or the characters, but from little Easter Eggs the filmmakers throw in for those who know where to look. The references to Freddy, Jason and Michael are obvious, and Robert Englund’s sizable role is a lot of fun. But people wondering where they’ve seen the librarian before would do well to check out Zelda Rubinstein in Poltergeist, and most people won’t even realize the Elm Street resident Taylor tries to talk to is Kane Hodder, the man who played Jason Voorhees more times than any other. Other things, smaller things, litter the background of the film, all of them there to make you laugh if you know where to look.
There are nice tricks on the technical side of the movie as well. Whenever we see one of Leslie’s “attacks,” we switch from the videotaped “mockumentary” style to a more traditional film stock, complete with a musical score, coverage, and all of the other techniques common to movies that don’t fit into the “found footage” subgenre. The “real” scenes grow progressively longer, until the finale, when the movie drops the comedy and the commentary and turns into a straight-up horror movie, with Leslie hunting down Taylor, the true survivor girl.
Towards the end of the film, things begin spiraling through a litany of emotions. Jamie reveals that she was once Eugene’s Survivor Girl, which makes you ask a dozen questions about how the hell she ended up married to him. Taylor and Leslie have a soft, somewhat disturbing conversation as he puts on his makeup and prepares for the evening, and the way he begins sobbing, claiming to be happy at the sudden culmination of his life’s work… it’s eerie. Even now, though, even though we’ve already seen him kill one person for real and watched his plans to kill a dozen more, there’s an unnerving humanity to him that feels somehow honest and wrong at the same time.
I’m also a fan of the visuals of the movie. The “real” segments are high-quality and well-shot, and I love the design of Leslie’s costume and mask. He’s the sort of character that kids should be dressing up as for Halloween every year – creepy mask, shredded clothes, an easy prop weapon to lug around with him… Well, maybe if the sequel ever gets made.
Sadly, the Kickstarter campaign to fund the already-scripted prequel/sequel didn’t succeed, and plans are currently in limbo. The filmmakers and cast – including Robert Englund – are all willing to return to the world of Leslie Vernon, and so is the small but dedicated fan base. So perhaps you’ll allow me to play advocate for a moment. If you’ve read this far into Lunatics and Laughter, I’m willing to bet this is exactly the kind of movie you’d be into. Unfortunately, you also probably never saw it. Do yourself a favor and hunt down the DVD or call it down from NetFlix. It’s a great movie that has everything you love about horror in a unique, incredibly entertaining package. Join us in Leslie’s legion, and help us bring Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon to life.