Slither’s official website is still operational and in its original state. Visitors today are immediately exposed to one of those forced introductory flash animation ads that were all the rage in web-design in 2006. Poke around a little and you will discover that the site still allows you to download free promotional Slither icons to use in AOL Instant Messenger. In a way, it’s like a virtual trip to a different era.
That distinctive feeling that it belongs to “some other time” isn’t exclusive to the film’s preserved online marketing. The opening of Slither is its own throwback to an era even further back. Two bored local cops sit in their cruiser, parked underneath a giant sign bearing the name of the evidently small town Wheelsy, a tropey setup that presumes an inevitable statement forthcoming toward the dishonest concept of the idyllic southern or middle America. That, too, feels old now. Not aesthetically, as intended, but the very notion that such a statement would be necessary. Today, exactly ten years after the release of Slither, there seems to be nothing of value to say of that faded concept, and any cinematic essay, textual or subtextual, pointed at these podunk towns would likely feel a little like piling on.
It’s somewhat disorienting to think of the rate at which the past decade has moved, to realize that ten years is enough to render a cultural artifact a thing of a past era, but certain movies from 2006 feel as aged in 2016 as films from 1986 might have felt in 2006. It’s just the way the medium, our culture, and its politics and technology are progressing. And Slither, because of its subject matter, is distinctly a 2000s movie.
Everyone was afraid in the 2000s. We all know why. But after the inciting event, we needed reasons to accommodate the fear, which was too strong to apply to an event that had already happened. Once it was realized the “next time” might involve biological or biochemical attack, we obsessed over that new possibility. There were anthrax scares weekly. Cell phones would give us all terminal cancer, but then they wouldn’t, but wait, they might. The bees were disappearing. Trans fats were killing us all. Birds were falling out of the sky by the hundreds and thousands. Every year, a new pandemic: Bisphenol A, Bird Flu, MRSA, SARS. The red states were over-reacting, our neighbors could be the enemy, and our president was a bumbling spokesperson with questionable motive for occupying the position, intent on using our over-weaponized military as playthings.
Quite a catalog, right? Well, in a somewhat loose sense, this entire laundry list is packed into the onscreen proceedings of Slither. When Grant (Michael Rooker) is infected with an alien parasite, he ends up hiding his grotesquely altered body in the woods. Pets disappear en masse (Grant eats them) and eventually there forms a local posse, comprised of incompetent law officers, trigger happy townspeople, and loose-jawed and simple-minded Major Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) who shares aloud a theory that the town is under biological attack. Most members of the makeshift military continually refer to Grant’s mutated body as “a squid,” code-wording the creature as being of oceanic origin – in other words, an enemy from beyond the borders. See. It’s all in there.
Then, writer/first-time director James Gunn piles atop the metaphorical expression of contemporary real world fears with homages, callbacks, and emulations of multiple horror subgenres. Slither starts as a throwback ‘50s sci-fi picture, and later functions as a monster feature, body horror, an invasion film, a zombie movie, etc. In fact, oddly, the conceit of Slither is so fear-obsessed and its execution so pursuant of horror tropes that it barely has room to actually be scary itself. And I don’t think it wants to be. It’s less a horror movie and more a movie about us being constantly (and voluntarily) horrified.
Sure, it observes some of the general and generic rules of horror films and explores some of the well-worn paths of sexual politic investigation common to the genre, probably trampling harder upon those paths than most films. For instance, there is a scene in which the iconic bathtub sequence from Nightmare on Elm Street is recreated almost note for note, with Freddy’s claw replaced by the parasite in its slithering slug-form, essentially a severed swollen penis. It may be purely conjecture on my part, but this substitution seems so blatant an attempt to highlight the sexuality of the earlier tent pole horror work, that it almost seems as if the goal is to highlight the sexual assault element popular to the genre as a manner of saying, “Here, this is a real fear worthy of our attention and action.” If the purposeful near-plagiarism weren’t obvious enough, the scene continues with the phallic monster assaulting the young girl’s mouth until she uses the Don Lemon-approved defense method of biting and clawing until her attacker pulls back.
But this, too, is a secondary concern. The meat of this story (sorry) is the relationship power struggle between Grant and his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks). There’s a surprising amount to dive into here, with an open opportunity to apply a conservative reading about the poisoning of the domestic structure or a more progressive reading toward the domestic structure’s crumbling at the absence of female agency. In either interpretation, though, the film’s only start-to-finish through line is the couple’s see-saw mindfuck competition, which is already fully engaged before the parasitic invasion has any influence on their life. Even before Grant is infected, there’s a weird battle of consent, willingness, cold shoulders, and blatant infidelity. And post-pandemic chapters see Starla become the aggressor with wholesale manipulation, even before said manipulation is a survival strategy. She tricks her sick husband and, when he tricks her, she tricks herself to keep herself winning. Eventually, her calculations become necessary for the survival of humanity and their “sacred bond” turns out to be nothing more than a merciful charade that saves the species, until the film plays into credits with lyrics from the Yayhoos: Oh, baby, I love you, but leave me the fuck alone. If you focus on just the central conflict, Slither offers a condensed version of Gone Girl meets Cronenberg’s The Fly set to our laugh track.
If nothing else, it is a good comedy.
There were quite a few horror comedies in the 2000s. With the atrocious Scary Movie series set aside, Slither was likely the third-most popular in terms of box office success and critical adoration, but well behind Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland in both metrics. Compared to those more accessible, safer films, Slither is a markedly more biting satire. Not just with its gruesomeness and crass dialogue, but also in thematic attention and the theme’s application upon the audience. It’s harder to laugh at a joke when you stand in as the punchline. But that embarrassment doesn’t discredit the truth of the joke, nor does it paint us as undeserving of the critique. Now, we know we may have been overly afraid in that moment. Slither is a snickering slideshow of all the ways in which Americans pursued fear in the 2000s and earlier, both cinematically and culturally. It’s a PowerPoint presentation of things so powerful in destructive capability that they render our pointed anxiety toward them — they render us — wholly obsolete, particularly when, because of our fear, we were struggling to take care of the things over which we did have control and influence, namely our children, spouses, and communities.
Yet it probably would be dishonest, or at least naïve, to think that Slither would fare better with a modern release and the benefit of being far enough removed for us to understand the width of its satirical target. In this current era of hyper-analysis, horror has finally started to thrive again, in some ways that it never has. Inversely, comedy has not. In the contemporary comedy landscape, for better or worse, we must constantly consider at whom we are pointing our joke, in which direction —up or down— are we punching? Certainly, laughing at our nation’s collective PTSD requires a bit of down-punching that would not go unchecked. Good, functional horror typically allows us to measure the roots and value of our real-life personal or cultural fears. We know already the root of our fear in the 2000s. We know where it came from. But, even as we come to realize that a decade of over-expressing that fear has created insurmountable cracks of philosophical and psychological division in our society, there may never be a fair time to ask what value there was in being so afraid.
Really, it’s funny when you think about it. But, it’s also kind of scary.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures