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On the lighter side of terror

A nostalgic fright reigns in `Slither,' where kitschy slime trumps savagery every time.

April 02, 2006|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

IN the best way possible, "Slither" has no redeeming social value.

Written and directed by James Gunn, the film can, if one is so inclined, be read as the parable of a bad-match marriage and how the dissolution of such a union can come to infect everyone in its orbit. Really, though, the film is just an excuse to encounter a group of lovable small-town oddballs and see some of them destroyed by body-mangling alien slugs, while the rest gamely fend for themselves. All told, "Slither" is a throwback to the playful, squishy, slightly queasy-making horror films of the 1980s -- the word at the time was "grody."

Unlike more recent horror films, such as "Hostel" or "The Hills Have Eyes," "Slither" is not interested in pushing the sick extremes of movie violence, injecting its goings-on with social commentary or ironically winking at the audience as a release mechanism. Still, the easy tag of "horror comedy" shortchanges the way in which Gunn deftly switches gears between screams of shock and howls of laughter.

The film, which opened Friday, is something of a labor of love for Gunn. He worked as a writer on both of the recent "Scooby-Doo" adaptations and wrote the 2004 remake of "Dawn of the Dead." The second "Scooby-Doo" picture and "Dawn of the Dead" opened on successive weekends and both arrived in the No. 1 spot at the box office.

That one-two punch created a whole new level of opportunity for him.

"There was a moment where I could have been paid millions of dollars for a screenplay, just to write it," said Gunn, 35. "And I decided that I had enough money, I had made choices for money in the past, and what I wanted to do was control my own future by creating the kind of projects I wanted to make.... A lot of those great screenwriters from the '60s and '70s, they do rewrites now. They make a boatload of money, and it has nothing to do with who they are. I decided I'm going to write a movie that's going to be exactly the movie I want to make."

Gunn wrote the script for "Slither" not long after the release of "Dawn of the Dead" and sent it to Eric Newman, a producer on "Dawn." They soon found financing, and the project was on its way. Newman noted that the process of setting up "Slither" was the fastest "from purchase to production" of any he's been involved in.

All the same, Gunn was not originally slated to direct the film because he was attached to direct another project.

"They were going to make ['Slither'] right away," Gunn said. "As I did some rewrites I fell in love with it a little bit more and started to see how the movie has a very unique mix of tones, and if another director made it I had a fear of losing that. I also thought it was in danger of just being awful.

"The structure is really unusual; we switch protagonists throughout the movie. It seems more normal in the movie than it did on paper. On paper it seemed very weird. Once we hired Todd Masters to do the prosthetic effects and I went down to his shop I started getting really excited and said, 'Yeah, I do want to direct this.' "

The poster and trailer for "Slither" prominently feature small creatures that are alternately referred to as "slugs," "worms" and "parasites." Gunn, however, is quick to point out there is more to the film than just the slimy little creations. "In the marketing, the worms have become the central element of the movie, but they're really only one part of this alien disease. To me the fun of the movie, both the making of it and the watching of it, is that there are a lot of different elements to this disease. So it's not just a bunch of worms chasing people around."

"Slither," which follows in the footsteps of such beloved classics of ill repute as "Shivers," "Basket Case" and "Re-Animator," has more than allowed Gunn to fulfill the goals he set for himself when he refused to retread the same creative ground and turned down the money being thrown in his direction.

"I can't think of any other genre that would have allowed me to have that much tonal and emotional freedom," Gunn said of the horror field. "You can't do that in a mainstream comedy. So to be able to do that in a semi-mainstream horror film is pretty cool.

"As a kid I wasn't attracted to horror movies because I liked to be scared. I liked the dark imagination, the dark side of fantasy. They are films about outsiders and monsters and creatures, and I related to those creatures. [David] Cronenberg's early films aren't really scary, they're just creepy, they make you feel creeped out. I was much more interested in creepy than scary."

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