With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
Worldwide Gross: $12,834,936
Certified Fresh: 86%
What is inside of me and why won’t it come out?
That’s all I can think about as I enter my second hour of sitting on a grey toilet at a Lincoln, Illinois truck stop. It’s 2 a.m. and all I can hear are the sounds of digested onion rings spilling onto damp porcelain, the extended retches of some cross-country driver, his knees slipping across the crack between our stalls.
I wish I’d eaten what he’d eaten. Because what I ate won’t come out.
And, Christ, I need it to come out. Because I can’t sit here much longer.
It’s not food poisoning. I’ve had food poisoning. I know where this came from, and I’d eaten it just 20 minutes before a deep, searing pain lit across my guts, a feeling that didn’t promise diarrhea so much as it did the need to feel safe. Because diarrhea is innocent; whatever is inside me is not.
Besides, food poisoning is a grenade. Something explodes and the resulting carnage spurts from every hole. And while I’ve expelled some waste here at this truck stop, it’s not nearly enough. The culprit remains inside me.
Whatever it was in the double cheeseburger I bought 20 minutes outside of Lincoln, Illinois remains inside of me. And I’m worried it’s going to kill me.
It stays inside its victims, too, the worms that give Slither its name. The horror cult flick is a pearl in the sea of swine that was 2006’s horror landscape. It tells the story of a small, podunk town that’s turned upside down after a meteor crashes in its woods, releasing an alien being that quickly possesses town patriarch Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), an alpha whose overprotectiveness is one-part male aggression, another loving tenderness. After he unleashes an army of alien worms, bidding them to climb into the orifices of the humanfolk and coalesce into a giant hivemind, a doofy sheriff (Nathan Fillion), a sweet schoolteacher (Elizabeth Banks), and a plucky teenage girl (Tania Saulnier) band together to destroy the source of the invasion.
Slither, it should be noted, is also the debut feature of writer and director James Gunn, who would later go on to cement his place in the Hollywood firmament by helming Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel. It’s goddamned insane to think that the guy who wrote Tromeo and Juliet would go on to become one of the most influential voices in Hollywood; it’s less insane, however, to think that guy would make a movie like Slither. Like the work of Lloyd Kaufman’s iconic Troma Entertainment, it’s as disgusting as it is lighthearted, and manipulates its relatively modest budgets to provide memorable set pieces. It’s also unfocused, kinda plodding, and not all that scary. But Christ is it likable, not just for its measured camp and cheeky one-liners, but also for just how clearly Gunn loves horror movies.
Any horror fan will see it as a product of the ‘80s. There’s direct nods to everything from Shivers and Puppet Master to TerrorVision and even Predator. One should also reference 1986’s Night of the Creeps here—the plots are very, very similar—but Gunn bristles at the comparison, claiming he never saw it before working on Slither. There’s no doubt the movies share DNA, but claims that its a direct ripoff are horse shit. Horror borrows and refines; it’s why new horror movies are often categorized by what decade they evoke.
Besides, there are two things that truly distinguish Slither, and neither have to do with the story; rather, both center around Gunn himself. The first is his mastery of tone—early in the film, he offers us a glimpse of a ‘90s-era Goosebumps book—The Girl Who Cried Monster, an apt title considering the book’s titular ghoul loves to suck down bugs—and what’s clear here is that Gunn knows exactly the kind of world he’s trying to create. Sure, Slither isn’t necessarily a movie for kids in the vein of Goosebumps, but the general approach of embracing the absurd to simultaneously revolt and amuse is well on display here. As gruesome as Slither gets, it never allows the horror to render the comic ineffective.
(Ranking: R.L. Stine’s Original Goosebumps Books from Worst to Best)
And much of that has to do with the characters themselves, as well as the actors cast to play them. Fillion has proven time and again (both before and after Slither) that few performers are as well-equipped as he is to maintain a sense of danger while also cracking wise about it at every opportunity. Banks, too, exudes an infectious airiness that here replaces the typical shrieks and wails of female horror protagonists in the face of death. She’s scared, but never helpless. The same goes for Saulnier’s Kylie, a character that’s always interesting despite being drastically undeserved in terms of development.
Couple this with Gunn’s directorial style, which is breathlessly kinetic from top to bottom. Many horror films revel in dread and stillness, the slow build to the inevitable jump scare. Slither operates more like an action film; rarely will you see a frame where the characters aren’t just in motion, but also aggressively present in that moment. Gunn would refine that token spark with his work on both Super and the Guardians movies, though it’s safe to say he’d already mastered his use of just-obscure-enough pop songs by this point (dear god, his use of Air Supply here rivals that of Todd Solandz’s in Happiness).
What’s perhaps most striking visually about Slither is Gunn’s knack for blending practical effects with CGI. To this day, despite all the advances made in the field, CGI horror effects more often than not look like garbage, a step or two away from outright pixelation—even this year’s excellent adaptation of It suffered from chintzy CGI. Gunn’s work here, done 11 years ago mind you, is nearly seamless, never once undercutting the elaborate transformation of Rooker’s Grant from human to humanoid to octopus-thing to all-consuming blob. And while every bubbling, pink inch of Rooker’s makeup here is a delight, it’s his fanged, lopsided grin that resounds. That mouth alone does the heavy lifting in terms of showing us that not only a human still lives inside this thing, but one that still feels.
But it’s Brenda’s slow ballooning into a human/alien egg that stands out as Gunn’s crowning visual achievement here. Funny, sad, disgusting, and cathartic. “Something’s wrong with me,” she tells the cops before exploding into a hail of predatory worms, and there might be no more cruel, hilarious piece of dialogue in horror.
And for the next several minutes we watch worms climb into the mouths of character after character, their tails wiggling as their bloated bodies force themselves down throats, burrow through guts, and eventually infect the brain.
“Something’s wrong with me.”
God, that’s a terrifying sentence.
We’ve all been sick. We all know what being sick feels like. We know what cuts feel like, broken bones, too. It’s normal to be sick. It’s normal to break a bone. We can endure pain while still knowing there’s not something wrong with us. Because when it comes to our bodies, “wrong” isn’t a word we throw around. We save “wrong” for that moment when we can’t recognize what’s happening. We save “wrong” for when we’re convinced that the thing inside of us is unnatural, an abomination. It implies something foundational. Maybe you’ve sprouted a sixth finger on your right hand. That’s not something that happens. That’s wrong.
As I speed down I-94 at three in the morning, desperately searching for a cheap motel in the wastelands of central Illinois, I am convinced that something is wrong with me. I took every Immodium, Zantac, and Pepto pill the rest stop had to offer, and my stomach didn’t budge. A pulsing weight was intensifying in there, throbbing and biting in ways I’d never before felt. When my girlfriend and I land at a Motel 6 about 20 miles down the road, she drifts to sleep as I turn again to the safety of the toilet.
But I know the toilet is not the answer. And while I chuckle while writing that sentence in retrospect, I remember that, at the time, it was just a horrible proposition. Because the toilet is our safe haven in times such as these. I went to a Burger King and we waited for 25 minutes and they apologized for the wait and I ate the food in the darkness of the driver’s seat, too hungry to even taste whatever it was in that wad of meat that was still alive. And any other time this situation would conclude here.
But it won’t this time. Because something is wrong with me.
That Slither evoked the ‘80s in the way it did made it stand out from its contemporaries, a brief perusal of which will prove that 2006 was a pretty shit year for horror (though, before rushing to the comments section, do note that we’re honoring The Descent’s 2005 European release; that will factor in next month). It was a funny year, however—Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and Fido were outwardly so, while Snakes on a Plane and Neil Labute’s notorious Wicker Man remake weren’t quite as self-aware as they’d like to say they were in retrospect. Regardless, none of them were as funny as Slither.
Humor was a necessity, too, and while Borat, Talledega Nights, The Devil Wears Wears Prada, and Idiocracy provided sustainable chuckles that year, horror for the most part remained as sweaty, paranoid, and sepia-toned as it had 9/11’s influence began rippling outward. Turistas inflamed America’s ongoing fear of foreigners via torture porn, while a similar sense of pointless cruelty continued to poison the studios’ usual slate of remakes (The Hills Have Eyes, Pulse, The Omen, Black Christmas) and sequels (Saw III, Final Destination 3, The Grudge 2, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning).
And it’s not as if horror shouldn’t be cruel, but there’s a difference between “nasty” and “mean” horror. Horror exists as a way to reflect behaviors and the general temperature of the country in which it was made, but much of the horror of the early to mid-2000s wasn’t just nasty to its characters, but mean to its audience. Torture was rubbed in our faces, heroism was constantly brought into question, and the lack of celebratory catharsis often resulted in this era of horror feeling almost punishing.
Now, that’s not rare, necessarily. Exploitation horror often served to punish, to wring viewers of their capacity for empathy, outrage, or general decency by submerging them in the depths of depravity. It’s one way to feel alive, I suppose. But it’s telling that the mainstream horror of this era felt so thudding, so devoid of light or even likability. It’s as if the goal was to create characters we wanted to see die.
And, yeah, maybe that was the point. Let’s remember that George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 in one of the most dispiriting elections in our history. And let us also not forget the shame that permeated the country when CBS uncovered the systematic torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Bush eventually acknowledged the secret CIA prisons around the world outside of US legal jurisdiction, and all of this served not only to foster a healthy sense of governmental distrust but also to turn our eyes inward and bore holes into our own oblivious hearts. It wasn’t enough to blame it on Bush or Cheney or Rumsfeld or that female soldier with the cigarette in the photo. We all deserved a spanking. We all deserved to see ourselves humiliated.
Slither occupies a curious place in all of this. No, it’s characters aren’t unlikeable, nor are we rooting for them to bite it. Not even Grant is wholly unlikable; really, he’s just kind of an old-fashioned son of a bitch, emblematic of a tiny town that’s still finding its place in a world that keeps evolving. There’s a warmth in Grant’s crusty heart, just as there is in this crusty, old-fashioned town. Really, the only character we’re meant to hate is the town’s mayor, Jack MacReady, a Republican who looks like a younger G.W. His fate is sealed when he begins willingly feasting on the flesh on his constituents. If you can’t beat ‘em, he seems to reason, join ‘em.
Slither hates government and authority like pretty much every other horror movie from this era, but what’s surprising is that it actually loves people. The film opens with warm, lingering shots of the town’s denizens, and a great deal of time is spent showing them in their general element. They’re happy, kinda dumb, and unabashedly loyal.
In the end, every single one of them dies. If anything in Slither is actually scary, it’s that.
I didn’t die in that Motel 6 that night, though I never purged whatever it was that continued to gobble up my insides. As the sun rose, I felt good enough to venture into the cold dawn, to buy another bottle of Pepto Bismol and continue my four hour journey home. I stopped every 30 minutes or so to sit on another dirty toilet. Nothing came out. The Pepto did nothing.
It just sat there inside me, that weight.
Months passed. I ate, but I ate carefully. Anything remotely spicy brought a sense of unease, as if my stomach would detach from my intestines if I added one more crumb to the mix. I sat down to every meal with a state of anxiety, wondering if this would be the bite that would cause my stomach to rupture, to split open and spill its green, boiling contents over my bones. I went to the doctor and they did tests and they told me nothing was wrong. I went to the doctor and they gave me pills for “abdominal pain.” I went to the doctors and they told me I ate something bad and it “messed things up down there.”
They assured me everything would be fine again someday.
And they were right. Everything is fine now.
But when we’re sick, we’re often given the evidence of its evacuation, whether that be through puke or shit or snot or, fuck, a rotten organ or tooth or testicle. We see the thing and we say, “It was you.”
“You were the one ruining me.”
I never got that.
Everyone in Slither dies except for our three leads. For a film as a funny and gross and silly, you except that the destruction of Grant, the core of this beast, would cause the worms to surge up from the gullets of this world’s residents. They’d blink their eyes, waking from a terrible dream. They’d hug their friends and family. And life, as it has always has in the hamlets of small-town America, would go on as it were.
But Slither, despite being funnier and more fun than nearly every other horror movie of it era, was not immune to the pessimism of its contemporaries. That was the effect of 9/11 on art, after all—a reminder that something has fundamentally changed; a death of what little innocence we had left. A reminder that the monsters are never as simple as they first appear.
Because Slither begins as an alien movie, but the alien possesses like a demon, and yet the demon operates like a zombie. Then there are the bugs. Bugs are scary, too. Everything is scary, and maybe that’s why the early to mid 2000s didn’t have a clear monster. Now, we have phases: zombies, vampires, ghosts. Then, there was just the pervading sense that we should be afraid of anything that felt wrong.
And sometimes it felt like everything felt wrong.
It still feels that way, I guess.