I lamented in my recent review of 'The Thing' on HD DVD that paranoia as a theme has sadly disappeared from today's cinema screens. I could have also said the same thing about genre films that pay homage to the 1950s, a time when scares and comedy intermingled effortlessly and kids seemed to love movies involving mad scientists, mutated monsters and creatures from outer space. Alas, those days would seem to be over, for it seems any movie released in the past twenty years that is in any way nostalgic for the era has died a quick death at the box office. The list of casualties is long and bitter: in addition to 'The Thing' (1982), such throwbacks and remakes as 'Cat People' (1982), 'Invaders from Mars' (1985), 'The Blob' (1988), 'Matinee' (1992) and 'Body Snatchers' (1994) were all greeted with critical and commercial indifference, now residing in the great dustbin of home video called cult fandom.
Now we can add 'Slither' to that list, James ('Scooby-Doo,' 'Dawn of the Dead') Gunn's affectionate, charming and good-humored ode to the slimy, B-movie monster thrills of yesteryear. When it cinemas this past winter, 'Slither' was a critical darling, but a total box office bust. Which is a shame, really, because it's a fun, riotous, and wonderfully gruesome film, and one filled with deft stylistic touches and witty black humor.
Our story begins after a meteorite crashes in a small Midwestern town (seriously). Local handyman Grant (Michael Rooker) stumbles upon the fizzy fossil, and becomes infected by the cosmic lifeforce living inside it. After returning home to his lovely (and considerably younger) wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks), she soon discovers all is not right with her new husband. His growing hunger for raw meat and strange body mutations are only the beginning -- an alien creature has fully invaded Grant, the first host on the way to total infestation of humankind. Enlisting the help of her ex-flame, Deputy Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and the slimy Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), they team up to do battle with the interstellar creature, who is fast turning townsfolk into zombies, as well as hatching a plan to create a new race by mating with Starla.
'Slither' is, of course, totally silly. But it is knowing, smart and well-written, and quite endearing in how slavishly it skews genre cliches and conventions. Gunn knows how to spin lines in just the right way, so that he seems smarter than the material, yet without being condescending. He has also cast his movie very well, attracting a talented ensemble of familiar faces, but no big stars. Nathan Fillion (of 'Serenity' fame) is fast becoming his generation's Bruce Campbell -- a fine actor with great comedic timing who is able to elevate even the most tired genre material with charm and grace. I also liked the underrated Banks, who manages to not only make all the gooey creature stuff believable, but also the fact that someone as young and beautiful as Starla could be in love with Rooker. For his part, Rooker tears into his role as the buggy Grant with such wild abandon that he practically chews the scenery right off the screen. A long way from the darkness of his most famous role, that of the titular serial killer in 'Henry,' Rooker is both comical and intense, perfectly mirroring Gunn's tight-wire act of laughs and scares.
I'm sure there are some who will dismiss 'Slither' sight unseen, just because it looks, well, cheesy. But this is the kind of pure popcorn movie that is the perfect Saturday night entertainment, and really deserves a chance to find an audience on video. So if you like horror movies at all, especially '50s sci-fi/comedy hybrids, give 'Slither' at least a rent. It certainly is one of the most purely enjoyable 96 minutes I've yet spent watching an HD DVD.
'Slither' hits HD DVD in a 1.85:1 widescreen, 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer, as another Universal HD DVD/DVD combo release (this one a HD-15/DVD-9 double-sided disc). It is a good-looking presentation that, though perhaps not the most amazing-looking high-def you'll ever see, accurately reflects the film's B-movie-esque visual aesthetic.
The source material is in solid shape, with no dropouts, blemishes and the like. Blacks and contrast are well-done, with the image occasionally overblown with slight blooming in the whites, but this mirrors the theatrical presentation I saw. Colors are fairly vivid, though the film's first half is a bit blander and washed-out. However, things pick up in the second half when the action plays almost exclusively at night. Here, colors are richer and the image also boasts better depth. Again, detail is not the most incredible I've seen on HD DVD and shadow delineation can be a bit muddled at times, but the picture is often three-dimensional and certainly easy on the eyes. The transfer is also pretty sharp throughout, with compression artifacts and posterization not a problem. All in all, pretty spiffy for a film that only cost a reported $15 million.
'Slither' also gets the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround treatment, though this one is 640kbps (unlike most Universal HD DVD releases, which benefit from a far more healthy 1.5mbps). That caveat aside, the film's sound design isn't that involving anyway, with rear presence a bit lacking and no blockbuster scenes that would really give your audio setup a workout.
Clarity of the soundtrack is sharp, however. Dynamic range is expansive, with clean highs and spacious midrange. Low end is fairly deep if hardly overwhelming. Dialogue is also nicely balanced in the mix, though occasionally I struggled understanding quiet dialogue during scenes with loud sound effects. But my biggest disappointment is that the surround channels never really come alive. Sure, there are noticeable discrete effects at times, such as gunshots, squealing car tires, etc. But horror films -- even comedic ones -- are all about atmosphere, and I longed for some truly inventive sound design. Alas, the mix is pretty front-heavy, if serviceable enough.
'Slither' really shines on disc with its supplements. Though the majority of the extras are only on the SD-DVD flipside of the combo disc (except the audio commentary, which is also on the HD DVD side), it really is a fun package of goodies that any fan should get a kick out of.
The audio commentary with director James Gunn and star Nathan Fillion leads things off, and it is an entertaining listen. Fillion literally phones it in, and he and Gunn obviously have an easy and natural rapport. Though not particularly technical, Gunn is good at filling us in on the development of the story (he also wrote the script), and its obvious and not-so-obvious nods to sci-fi and horror films past. Fillion also provides a few amusing on-set anecdotes, especially involving the film's way over-the-top, latex-soaked finale. Not a completely riotous affair, this commentary is still worth a listen for fans.
Next are six featurettes, totaling nearly an hour in length. Most straightforward is the EPK-like "The Sick Minds and Slimy Days of 'Slither.'" While all of the main cast and crew are interviewed on-set, including Gunn, Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Gregg Henry and Michael Rooker, it is mostly happy-happy, joy-joy stuff, and pretty slim at only ten minutes. More unique are "The King of Cult: Lloyd Kaufman's Video Diary" (nine minutes) and "Slithery Set Tour with Nathan Fillion" (four minutes), which at least get by thanks to the outgoing personalities of Kaufman (aka, founder of Troma films) and Fillion.
The film's effects come into focus with "Bringing 'Slither's Creatures to Life" (18 minutes), "Visual Effects: Step by Step" (five minutes) and "Gorehound Grill: Brewin' the Blood" (four minutes). While "Creatures" is a fun visit to the makeup shop for a look at how they created all of the film's truly crazy latex monsters, "Visual Effects" dissects the film's relatively minor CGI work. But my favorite is "Gorehound Grill," which tells you, step-by-step, how to concoct your own batch of fake blood. Who knew corn syrup had so many practical uses?
More on-set fun includes an eight-minute Gag Reel of the typical pratfalls, missed lines and hysterical laughter you usually get in these kind of outtakes, and "Who is Bill Pardy?", which is five minutes of Fillion cracking up his co-stars.
Rounding out the extras are 18 minutes of Deleted and Extended Scenes -- 14 of 'em in all. Gunn also provides some much-needed context for the deletions, which do include some (but not tons) of excised gore. I'm surprised Universal didn't spring for an unrated version of the film on disc, but I guess the lack of big box office is to blame.
'Slither' is a bit too smart and sharp to truly be called a guilty pleasure. But even if it ain't exactly high brow, it is a totally enjoyable sci-fi creature movie that deserves a better fate than the back shelf of Blockbuster. Universal has put together a solid HD DVD for this one, with a nice transfer and soundtrack that make the most of the film's somewhat limited means. Along with a nice set of extras this is an easy one to recommend, even if the $39.95 list price is a bit on the steep side.