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Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

slitherDirector: James Gunn

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.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 7: The Toxic Avenger (1984)

toxic-avengerDirectors: Michael Herz & Lloyd Kaufman

Writers: Lloyd Kaufman & Joe Ritter

Cast: Mitch Cohen, Andree Maranda, Jennifer Babtist, Cindy Manion, Robert Prichard, Gary Schneider Dick Martinsen, Pat Ryan Jr., Kenneth Kessler, Patrick Kilpatrick

Plot: Welcome to Tromaville, a small suburb of New York City, and the number one dumping ground for toxic chemicals in America. Melvin Ferd (Mark Torgl) the janitor at a local health club, is constantly tormented by a group of club members, including Bozo (Gary Schneider), Slug (Robert Prichard), Wanda (Jennifer Babtist), and Julie (Cindy Manion). They decide to teach him a lesson, with Julie luring him into a locker room just as a truck full of exposed barrels of toxic waste parks outside. She tricks him into putting on a pink tutu and poka-dotted leotard, and he is humiliated in front of the club’s customers, fleeing through a window and landing in the toxic barrels. People continue to mock him as the chemicals burn through his skin and Melvin, now burning alive, stumbles home and sits in a cold bath, where he transforms into a hulking brute of incredible size and strength.

A group of drug dealers, meanwhile, try to buy off a cop (O’Clancy, played by Dick Martinsen) who refuses to cooperate. Before they can castrate him with his own gun, a huge man (Mitch Cohen, voiced by Kenneth Kessler) appears and savagely kills two of the criminals (well… kind of savagely, the fight itself is actually played mostly for laughs), leaving a mop across their faces. Mayor Peter Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr.) is horrified by the murders… mostly because the dead criminals were some of the best dealers in his employ.

The Monster – a mutated Melvin, of course – shocks his own mother into a dead faint. Despondent, he makes his way to the Tromaville garbage dump and constructs a crude home for himself there. Later, a group of criminals robs a Mexican restaurant, killing a bystander and a seeing-eye dog belonging to a blind woman named Sarah (Andree Maranda). The crooks’s leader, Leroy (Patrick Kilpatrick) is preparing to rape her, when the Monster Hero appears and fights them, ripping an arm off the would-be rapist and sending the customers fleeing in terror. The Monster beats the crooks and finishes them off in the restaurant’s kitchen. He goes to the sobbing Sarah and she begs him to help her home, where they begin to become friends. Given new confidence, Melvin begins a one-man war on crime, battling pimps, drug dealers, and other criminals, and saving lives along the way. The newspapers begin to run stories about the “Monster Hero” of Tromaville. Belgoody sends his men to hunt the monster down.

Melvin and Sarah fall in love, and he takes her back to his junkyard hideout to live. He returns to the health club, attacking Julie in the locker room. Minutes later he finds Bozo and Slug, fresh from beating an old woman to steal her car. He hurls Slug from the car and sends Bozo through a series of crashes, burning him alive but leaving Melvin unharmed.

Things go bad when Melvin kills a little old woman in a dry cleaner’s shop, turning people against the Monster Hero. Ashamed, he goes home and tells Sarah the truth about who he is and what he has done. They decide to leave town, and Belgoody rejoices… until he discovers the old woman was the leader of a slavery ring. Belgoody covers it up and sends the cops out to hunt the Monster. They find him and Sarah in the woods, and the town assembles outside their tent, torn between people who want to protect the monster and Belgoody and his men who want to kill him. The townspeople stand in front of Melvin to protect him, soon joined by O’Clancy and the rest of the cops. Belgoody opens fire, but the bullets bounce off Melvin. He stalks Belgoody to his limo and rips his guts out, literally. The townspeople applaud the vicious murder, Melvin kisses Sarah, and all in Tromaville is well once again.

Thoughts: It would be impossible to get through a month of horror/comedy without touching upon the films of Troma. Lloyd Kaufman’s legendary low-budget B-movie studio has become synonymous with campy sci-fi and monster flicks, and how better to represent them than with this, their flagship property?

Buoyed by the likes of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz built this film (and, for that matter, their entire film studio) on the premise of the “So Bad It’s Good” movie. Whereas older movies – the sci-fi and horror clunkers of the 50s and 60s – made an earnest attempt at making good movies and simply fell short, Kaufman has no such delusions. From the beginning of the movie the acting is terrible, the script laughable, and the special effects and graphics absurdly cheap, even by 1984 standards. Watch the quality of this film compared to Ghostbusters and you’d swear that Toxie’s debut is at least ten years older, instead of both films coming out in the same year.

The film’s absurdity doesn’t just come from the effects and acting, though. Kaufman sets out to be as deliberately offensive as possible. There’s an early scene where one of the punks and his girlfriend recite a litany of racial slurs and other negative stereotypes, ranking them on a point system for running them over with a car, before finally deciding to target a kid on a bicycle (children under 12 being worth maximum points). They hit the kid once, then back over him to crush his head, stop, and take pictures. The sympathies of the audience are swinging wildly at this point. You hate the gang for doing it, which is how you’re supposed to feel, but by the time the girls whip out the Polaroid camera, you’re pretty much ready to hate the filmmakers as well.

toxic-crusaders

Our hero, ladies and gentlemen…

(It is worth noting, at this point, that the Toxic Avenger films eventually spawned a children’s cartoon show. I doubt most of the moms who let their kids sit through it would have been thrilled if they saw this particular sequence.)

Kaufman actually triples the genres he plays with here. His heavy layer of goofy comedy is draped over a plot that draws upon nuclear-mutant themed monster movies and wraps it around the skeleton of a superhero origin story. No superhero has ever been so ridiculous, though – even the drivers of the truck that gives us the “toxic” part of the hero’s name comment on how ridiculous it is for them to drive around with open, sloshing barrels full of chemical sludge. Belgoody is also an extreme stereotype of a villain. It’s hard to believe even the most corrupt politician in a serious film would think he could get away with dumping toxic chemicals literally twenty feet away from the city’s drinking water. Even Belgoody’s gang is comical – it’s a patchwork of stereotypes, containing a street hood, a Capone-style gangster, and representatives of just about every crime stereotype there is. The notion is preposterous enough to remind us that this film takes place in, at best, an exaggerated reality, where all of the elements that make up monster movies and superhero films have been amplified to a ridiculous degree.

At times, the movie starts to outsmart itself. The toxic reservoir scare, for instance, is played up as though it will be a major plot point, perhaps even the Big Evil the hero will battle in the film’s climax. That isn’t what happens, though – it’s mentioned once and then abandoned as Belgoody’s resources are turned exclusively towards seeking out the monster. Most of the villains are portrayed as one-off as well – the theatrical mob Leroy leads is all killed right away, for example. Even the moments where Melvin confronts his tormentors seem like they’re worked in simply to tie off those dangling threads while we’re waiting to get back to the real plot, such as it is.

Kaufman picks up on a lot of sources, with Melvin’s transformation smacking of the Incredible Hulk and his relationship with Sarah echoing both the friendship Frankenstein’s monster shared with the blind (Gene Hackman in the Mel Brooks version) and the longtime romance in the Fantastic Four comics, in which the mutated Thing finds love with blind sculptor Alicia Masters.  He even picks up on a few slasher tropes – Melvin’s fatal confrontation with Julie comes complete with a silhouette shot of the monster approaching her with a pair of menacingly raised scissors. It sends images of Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees across the brain, until you remember that this is your hero.

Sarah takes us to the extremes of broad comedy, knocking over an entire rack of canes and smacking Melvin accidentally, playing up on pretty much every joke you could think of making about the blind. Although not as bad as the scene with the racial slurs, this starts to tread close to the line of being offensive as well. And true to form, Kaufman doesn’t care at all. In a way, it’s almost a liberating thought. When you see so clearly that you’re dealing with somebody who doesn’t give a damn what you think of him, you manage to stop giving a damn and concentrate more on the actual content of what you’re watching.

Is it cheap? Yes. Is it exploitive? Oh yeah. Is it ludicrous? To be kind. But like the makers of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, Lloyd Kaufman and his Troma team have never attempted to take themselves seriously. They know what they are, they know what their audience expects, and they deliver it as effectively (and as cheaply) as they possibly can. It will never make for great cinema, but nobody can deny that this is a film studio that consistently meets its goal, artistically. It’s easy when you set the bar so low.