Monday, January 15, 2007

Slither (2006)

One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1986 horror/comedy film Night of the Creeps. Directed by RoboCop 3 helmsman Fred Dekker and starring Tom Atkins (who you may recognize from such films as Escape From New York and Halloween III: Season of the Witch), Night of the Creeps told the story of alien slugs that come to Earth and turn their unfortunate victims into zombies. I absolutely love Night of the Creeps, primarily because I think it is representative of nearly everything I love in silly B-grade horror movies. It doesn't take itself seriously, and it's obvious that everyone involved with the movie's production are having the time of their lives doing it.

That's why I was so excited when Universal Pictures released Slither five months shy of the twentieth anniversary of Night of the Creeps. A comedic blend of '50s alien invasion movies and the "body horror" concept popularized by movies such as David Cronenberg's Shivers, Slither could very much be construed as a spiritual cousin of Night of the Creeps. And it's pretty entertaining to boot.

Our tale of terror centers around the sleepy little town of Wheelsy, South Carolina. Life moves slowly in Wheelsy, to the point that the opening of deer hunting season is worthy of a wild party at the local tavern, and the only source of entertainment for Wheelsy's bored police force is clocking how fast birds fly. And as we all know, sleepy little towns always end up being the location of boatloads of bad things.

When one of the town's wealthiest citizens, Grant Grant (Michael Rooker), contracts what appears to be a bizarre disease, Wheelsy is soon thereafter beset upon by various unusual occurrences. A number of disappearances are reported, starting with family pets before escalating to livestock and culminating with a young woman named Brenda Gutierrez (Brenda James); all of them are somehow connected to Grant.

The disappearances don't really bother Grant's wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) until she begins noticing how much her husband has changed. Beyond his worsening physical condition and the bizarre infection spreading across his chest, Grant has been quite unlike himself. He conducts suspicious, secretive business behind the padlocked basement door, his behavior is erratic, and he has developed a voracious appetite for red meat.

It isn't until local sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion) and deputy Wally Whale (Don Thompson) inform her that someone resembling Grant was seen entering Brenda's house the night she disappeared that Starla decides to put her foot down. She breaks down the basement door and discovers exactly what Grant's been up to: he's been building a nest and populating it with the dead bodies of all the missing pets from the neighborhood. She tries calling Bill to inform him of her discovery only to be interrupted by Grant, who tries strangling her with a left arm that has now become an elongated tentacle. Bill, Wally, and the entire police force arrive just in time, kicking in the door and scaring Grant away.

Three days pass. Grant has left a string of animal thefts and mutilations on farms across the edge of town, and the police are hot on his trail. Bill and his posse, along with Starla and Wheelsy's foul-mouthed mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry), conduct a stakeout at the next farm they believe he'll hit. But when they find him, he's become a hideously deformed monster. They chase him to an abandoned barn in the middle of the woods, only to discover what exactly happened to Brenda Gutierrez. Turns out Grant chained her up in the barn and turned her into something resembling a human hot air balloon.

As Bill tries to calm her down, Brenda begins to violently tremble before she bursts open, pouring out thousands of disgusting slugs. And these icky little buggers aren't to be trifled with, as they're capable of leeching onto all forms of sentient life and turning them into acid-spitting zombies connected to Grant through a hive mind relationship. Bill, Starla, Jack, and another survivor, Kylie Strutemyer (Tania Saulnier), realize that killing Grant will end the alien plague, but to do that, they have to make sure they don't fall victim to either the slugs or the zombies they control.

Slither was less than successful during its theatrical run, pulling in a worldwide gross of right around twelve million dollars. Perhaps that's because horror/comedies are a rather tough sale. A lot of people don't want to laugh while they're being scared, and others don't want to be scared while they're laughing. That's a real shame, because Slither is a damn good movie. It is definitely made with passion, by people who believed in the material and wanted to make the best movie possible. And while the movie is not perfect, I believe that it's definitely heading in the right direction on the path to achieving status as a cult classic.

The movie marks the directorial debut of James Gunn, who has gained some prominence as a screenwriter via a colorful résumé that includes the live-action Scooby-Doo movies, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and legendary low-budget studio Troma Entertainment's Tromeo and Juliet. He stays true to his Troma roots with Slither, presenting us with a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously and is far better for it. Both Gunn's direction and his screenplay have all the wacky over-the-top hallmarks of the greatest Troma movies. The script has some killer dialogue and a number of moments that are humorous and frightening, and for a first-time director, Gunn proves himself quite capable of crafting a movie worth seeing.

Take, for example, the scene in which Grant attacks Brenda with the tentacles growing from his chest. As we see this violent quasi-rape go down, we are also privy to Wheelsy's big party commemorating the beginning of deer hunting season. Gunn makes Grant's attack that much more disturbing by overlaying these scenes of horror with scenes of humor. There's also a rather subtle subtext going on during the scene too. While we see the attack go down, we hear Mayor MacReady at the party making a humorous speech about mankind's dominance over its prey before beginning a countdown to officially start the hunt. While it may have been a start for humans hunting deer, the way it's edited also sets it up as the alien slugs declaring open season on the human race as well. It's a subtext that isn't really dwelled upon, but really emphasizes Slither's horror nature.

Gunn's direction is assisted by the fantastic score composed by Tyler Bates. It appears as if Bates has slowly been developing a reputation as being the "go to" guy for horror movie soundtracks, with his résumé including movies like The Devil's Rejects, See No Evil, and the aforementioned Dawn of the Dead remake. His music for those movies were fantastic, and Slither is no exception. Bates's work here is wonderful, matching both the humor and the terror scene for scene. The score never becomes overbearing or invasive, and it supports the movie well.

But perhaps the most impressive of all is the cast. Despite spending the majority of the movie buried beneath pounds of latex makeup, Michael Rooker turns in a wonderful performance that is both funny and sympathetic. Elizabeth Banks is great as well, even though it seems like her role wasn't a very demanding one. No knock against her or anything, but I just got the feeling that there wasn't a whole lot asked of Banks.

However, the best parts of the entire cast were the thoroughly amusing performances by Nathan Fillion and Gregg Henry. Fillion's deadpan delivery is absolutely hilarious, as is Henry's performance. Henry is obviously having a lot of fun playing the part of a total sleazebag. I point to his rant about not having any of his favorite soft drink after the first appearance of the slugs. Henry's delivery shows an understanding that the movie is a tongue-in-cheek affair, and that makes both his performance and the character much more entertaining.

Slither is of a dying breed, a horror film wearing an irreverent sense of humor on its sleeve. And as I said above, its failure at the box office is disappointing when you consider just how good it is. Though I will admit that Slither will not satisfy everyone, those that appreciate films of this ilk will enjoy it. James Gunn, the cast, and the crew should be proud of themselves for creating an original film in a genre that in recent years has been overrun with sequels and remakes. And because of both its originality and its quality, I'll give Slither a strong four stars and a recommendation to check it out.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

All the way back in 1999, a little film titled The Blair Witch Project entered into the public consciousness. It amassed a sizable cult following even before its release via its website, and thanks to the vast word-of-mouth that it garnered, The Blair Witch Project became one of the highest grossing — and most parodied — movies of the year. Seven years later, New Line Cinema attempted to duplicate that success with their high concept movie Snakes on a Plane.

And oh boy, did Snakes on a Plane take off. Even before the movie was released, its title alone brought the movie all kinds of recognition online, from websites selling T-shirts and other trinkets bearing the movie's name, to dozens of blogs following the production's progress, to homemade parodies and music videos on YouTube. If you were online at any point during 2006, you'd probably heard of Snakes on a Plane. The movie's strong online following even convinced the filmmakers to do a week's worth of reshoots to earn the movie an R-rating and incorporate material from the more popular parodies. The movie had all the makings of a modern cult classic before it was even released, but was it worth it? Let's find out.

After he witnesses powerful mobster Eddie Kim (Byron Lawson) brutally murder a prosecutor, Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) is convinced by FBI agents Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson) and John Sanders (Mark Houghton) to testify against Kim at his trial in Los Angeles. The three take a red eye flight from Honolulu to Los Angeles, taking over the entire first class section for extra security, much to the chagrin of the various passengers that are bumped down to coach to accommodate them.

But despite all precautions, Kim has managed to get time-released crates loaded with venomous snakes into the plane's cargo hold. And just to make sure that the snakes are going to be extra vicious, the leis given to the passengers during boarding have been secretly sprayed with pheromones to make them more aggressive. The crate opens up 30,000 feet in the air, and those not killed by the snakes are forced to band together to survive and get to their destination safely.

Snakes on a Plane is one of those movies that are absolutely critic-proof. It doesn't really matter what Roger Ebert or Leonard Maltin or any other reviewer thinks about this movie, since the title alone is enough to form one's opinion of it before you plunk down the money to watch it. Just read the title. Come on, read it. "Snakes on a Plane." Just reading that alone, you're either going to believe that this is a laughably ludicrous concept and skip it, or something that you're going to want to watch and have a fun time doing so. The movie is an unabashed attempt at making a mainstream B-movie, and it never once hides the fact that it is what it is. Most movies try to be profound or heartwarming or some other kind of artsy-fartsy crap, but Snakes on a Plane remembers that a movie should be first and foremost entertaining. And I believe it succeeds.

With Final Destination 2 on his résumé, director David R. Ellis is no stranger to this kind of outrageous mayhem. And while I don't believe his work here will win any awards, it's certainly competent and effective on more than one occasion. Ellis, teaming with cinematographer Adam Greenberg, does what he can to make the movie look as exciting as possible in spite of the cramped sets. While the editing perhaps isn't as tight as it could have been, there's great camera angles and movements, and I liked the fun "SnakeVision" point-of-view shots. Ellis thankfully does not overuse the SnakeVision gimmick, but their appearances do flow perfectly with the tone the movie sets. Ellis's direction is enhanced by Trevor Rabin's score, which is never distracting, but suits the movie perfectly.

And then there's the script. Penned by John Heffernan and Sebastian Gutierrez, the script hits pretty much every action movie standard it possibly can while still managing to be extremely entertaining. It is amazing how much Heffernan and Gutierrez's screenplay accomplishes with so little. I mean, that's possibly the shortest plot synopsis I've ever written. If you expected a longer one, you've misunderstood the simplicity of the movie.

Really, the title is all you need to know. There are snakes on a plane. In fact, that synopsis is probably longer than it could have been. It could have been just one sentence. Maybe something like, "Sam Jackson fights snakes on a plane." That sums up the whole thing, doesn't it? With that in mind, it doesn't really matter that the movie is full of clichés and silly dialogue, or that the characters are generic stock characters, because the script takes those potential problems and makes them fun to watch.

Last but not least, there's the cast. None of them take it all that seriously, which makes the movie that much better. And I'm going to come right out and say it: the only member of the cast that matters is Samuel L. Jackson. Really, he's the only one worth talking about. While Nathan Phillips and Julianna Marguiles are acceptable, and Kenan Thompson and Rick Koechner are extremely funny, none of them are as awesome as Jackson. You can look at him and tell he's having the absolute time of his life. He's readily admitted in the past that he only agreed to do the movie because he liked the title, and even threatened to quit if they changed it. But Jackson takes the material and runs with it. Jackson is a total bad-ass here, dropping F-bombs and zapping snakes with a stun gun like he was king of the world. Anyone in need of proof regarding just how awesome Samuel L. Jackson only needs to rent Snakes on a Plane. He is this movie.

This combination of aviophobia and opidiophobia — or as one online reviewer succinctly put it, this blend of Anaconda and Passenger 57 — makes for a movie that has to be one of the most entertaining films of 2006. Snakes on a Plane might not have been the biggest hit it could have been, especially with all the hype. But I do think that the movie's target audience will turn it into a bona fide cult classic with time. With a name like that, it's inevitable. The cast and crew obviously had fun making the movie, and as long as you're not deathly afraid of CGI snakes, I think you'll have fun watching it. Snakes on a Plane gets three and a half stars, leaning towards four. Now it's time to bring on more "animals on transportation" movies.

Final Rating: ***½